Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Guru's WNBA Playoffs: Minnesota Tops Atlanta In Finals Opener

(Guru’s note: Material and quotes for post drawn from team, league, and wire reports).

By Mel Greenberg

When 6-foot-5 center Erika de Souza took a temporary leave of absence a little over a week ago from the Atlanta Dream to play for her country on the Brazilian national team in an Olympic qualifying tournament in Colombia, coach Marynell Meadors’ squad was trailing 1-0 in the best-of-three WNBA Eastern Conference playoffs after being badly beaten by the Indiana Fever in the opener.

But Atlanta adjusted, going for speed over size by inserting another Brazilian in the starting lineup in Iziane Castro Marques and the Dream rallied to dispatch the Fever with consecutive wins at home and then in Indianapolis to advance to the best-of-five WNBA finals for the second straight season.

If the Dream survived after de Souza’s short exit, they may be thankful she is about to return for Wednesday’s second game to attempt to do likewise against the Western champion Minnesota Lynx at the Target Center in Minneapolis.

Size and physical strength mattered Sunday night, along with fluidity, as the Lynx overwhelmed the Dream on the boards 40-28 and rode from a 62-62 tie after three quarters to an 88-74 win in the opener.

“Look at the rebounds,” former Duke star and Atlanta starting point guard Lindsey Harding said afterwards looking towards de Souza’s return. “We needed her.

"Erika -- that's a huge comfort level we have down low," Harding continued. "Angel's been playing out of position, starting at the 4 (power forward spot). That's a little challenging for her.”

The Brazilians, incidentally, won the FIBA Americas Championship For Women tournament Saturday.

The scoring in the paint was even more lopsided with Minnesota holding a 52-30 advantage and the Lynx, in their first finals, set a championship series record with 11 blocked shots.

"They were very aggressive, they were very physical," Meadors said. "And we didn't hit our shots. And maybe that will change Wednesday in the second game.”

Former Georgetown star Rebekkah Brunson was a force for the Lynx with 26 points and 11 rebounds, including five on the offensive end.

“Rebekkah Brunson was about as key as you could get," Lynx second-year coach Cheryl Reeve, a former La Salle star in Philadelphia in the late 1980s, said.

"You have games like this, you need X factors. And I thought Brunson was able to get some easy stuff. Game 2 will look a lot different with de Souza back in there, and we'll have to go back to the drawing board and look at some things there."

When Minnesota swept Atlanta 2-0 on a mid-June weekend in the cross-conference home-and-home series, though the Dream were still struggling with their 3-9 start, de Souza was in the lineup.

Brunson, by the way, was recruited to Georgetown by Pat Knapp, who also coached Penn several years ago. In 2001 she beat out UConn freshman and current WNBA Phoenix Mercury star Diana Taurasi for Big East rookie of the year.

Former LSU star Seimone Augustus added 22 points to the Minnesota attack, veteran All-Star point guard Lindsay Whalen, who grew up near the Twin Cities, scored 15 points, and Maya Moore, the rookie of the year and overall No. 1 draft pick out of UConn, scored 11.

Moore also made a crowd-pleasing reverse layup, which was a scoop shot that started on other side of the basket.

Veteran Taj McWilliams-Franklin, the oldest player in the league at 41, had eight points and 10 rebounds while fighting a stomach illness. She came to the Lynx this season from the New York Liberty in a free-agent signing deal.

Atlanta’s Angel McCoughtry continued her onslaught on the basket in the playoffs with 33 points and 12 rebounds and Harding scored 20. But Castro Marques, who had had two big scoring games filling in for de Souza, was held to 10 points.

McCoughtry, the overall No. 1 pick of the 2009 pick out of Louisville, was not dismayed over the way Atlanta lost to the Lynx.

"Have you guys ever heard the expression, 'This ain't football?” she said at the postgame press conference. "We're going to come back and have another game. We don't have to wait a week.

"We'll adjust, we'll watch film, and we're going to get better," McCoughtry said. "We don't have to be down; it's just one game. It's a long series."

Augustus spoke of the challenge McCoughtry presents in trying to defend the Baltimore native.

"She's extremely aggressive," Augustus explained. "When you think you've got her stopped, she's going to make the extra move, get that extra contact to get to the foul line and get free throws. You know she can score from all over.

"You have to expect that she's going to get 20, 25 points in a game. It's about containing everybody else and making it difficult for them."

Minnesota during the regular season had one of the league’s all-time success with an overall record of 27-7 in running away from the rest of the West field in reaching the playoffs for the third time overall and first since 2004.

The Lynx were quickly eliminated in the first round in both previous playoff appearances.

In a city whose other pro teams have hit the doldrums, the Lynx this season began to catch the fancy of the local Minneapolis-St. Paul populous resulting in a white pom-pom waving crowd Sunday night for the series opener at 15,258 fans.

Baseball’s Twins and the NBA Timberwolves were in last place while the NFL Vikings are 0-4 after Sunday’s loss.

"It was amazing just to run out and see the white pom poms waving in the air and the seats actually filled all the way to the upper deck," Augustus said. "It's amazing to see how the community has embraced us and how they're coming out to support us. From the opening tip to the last horn, it was loud."

The attendance at the Target Center was the second largest in the Lynx’s 12-year history, exceeded only by a date in 2004 when Whalen, then a rookie with the Connecticut Sun who starred at the University of Minnesota, made her first homecoming appearance.

Prior to last season Whalen was dealt by the Sun to the Lynx for the rights to the 2010 overall No. 1 draft pick, which became UConn star Tina Charles, and another former UConn star in 2009 Huskies graduate Renee Montgomery.

“It was an amazing game to play in,” Moore said on the NBA-TV postgame report. “The crowd, how loud they were. It reminded me of playing at Stanford, or playing for Connecticut at Gampel, or at North Carolina. It was just one of those gym-rocking crowds.”

Besides crashing the boards, Minnesota showed great ball movement in dishing 22 assists on 35 baskets while Atlanta dealt just 11 assists.

Minnesota, which outscored Atlanta 26-12 in the fourth quarter, was able to outshoot the Dream from the field in connecting with a 46.1 percent effort to just 37.3 percent by the opposition.

Still, Atlanta, which is in its fourth year of existence, looked early on like it might get its first finals win after losing three straight by narrow margins a year ago to the Seattle Storm, which had gone 28-6 during the season.

The Dream took a 12-point lead midway through the second quarter but Minnesota narrowed the differential to three-points at 39-36 at the half.

"Once we got into our groove, you could see the difference," Augustus said. "We started to make the right cuts, we started to set great screens, we started to get the ball where it needed to go. Early on, there was just a lot of emotion and energy that was being used in the wrong way."

-- Mel

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