Guru's WNBA Report: Liberty Rally Fells The Sky
By Mel Greenberg
NEWARK, N.J. – Outside on the walls of the Prudential Center here are affixed a pair of the Rock of Gibraltar insignias that serve as the well-known insurance company’s trademark.
For three quarters and early into the fourth Tuesday night inside those arena walls the WNBA New York Liberty, one of the building’s primary summer tenants, exhibited a performance that was exceedingly less solid than The Rock.
Then, just as occurred here in a 59-49 win earlier this month against the same Chicago Sky, coach John Whisenant’s group rallied, this time from a 14-point deficit in the final period, to emerge with a 71-67 triumph that altered both teams’ situations in the drive for the playoffs and enabled the Indiana Fever (19-10) and Connecticut Sun (18-12) to back into two of the four postseason berths available in the Eastern Conference race.
New York (17-13) is more than likely playoff bound as a result of the rally over the Sky (14-16) and so are the defending conference playoff Atlanta Dream (16-13), which took down Indiana in Georgia, 92-90, for the second win in two days over the Fever and stayed perfect in the season series at 3-0 with one game remaining between the two.
Connecticut, in second place, had a chance to move closer to Indiana heading into Friday night’s showdown at home in Uncasville but instead remained 1.5 games back after losing on the road Tuesday night to the San Antonio Silver Stars 78-66.
Chicago’s loss put both Indiana and Connecticut into the playoffs, which for the Sun will be their first postseason appearance since 2008.
“It doesn’t feel real good,” Connecticut coach Mike Thibault said of backing in after two straight losses following Friday’s home win over Phoenix. “You’d rather win to get in. I don’t like backing in. We knew we were going to get in eventually, but it’s not a fun way to have it happen.”
San Antonio’s win, highlighted by veteran All-Star Becky Hammon’s 16 points, including her 5,000th career point, stopped a six-game losing streak and kept the Texans’ hopes alive for a playoff spot in the West as they maintained a 1.5 lead over fifth-place Los Angeles (13-17).
The Sparks stayed in the hunt by avenging Sunday night’s narrow loss to the defending WNBA champion Seattle Storm (17-13) on the road by winning at home in the Staples Center 68-62.
The Seattle loss stopped a chance for the moment to clinch a playoff spot and the Storm fell into third place a half-game behind the Phoenix Mercury (17-12), whose 96-74 win on the road over Tulsa (3-26) stopped the Shock’s brief two-game win streak that had come after setting a WNBA record with 20 straight losses.
Phoenix and Seattle each need a win to clinch a playoff spot in the West.
Minnesota (24-6), which has clinched its first Western title and No. 1 playoff seed in the conference, moved closer Tuesday night to wrapping up the best overall record, ensuring home-court advantage in the best-of-five WNBA finals if the Lynx are still alive.
They continued to roll Tuesday, winning at home in Minneapolis against Washington 73-56 needing just one more win or Indiana loss to gain the overall seed. The Mystics (5-24) lost their ninth straight.
Chicago, which had been in control of the outcome most of the way Tuesday night on the heels of Sunday’s 74-73 win over New York in the Midwest, is most likely to make it 0-for-6 in terms of getting to the playoffs since joining the league in 2006.
The Sky’s last four games are a home contest with Indiana and then a swing through the West at Minnesota, Los Angeles and Seattle.
They trail fourth-place Atlanta by 2.5 games with the four remaining and now have lost both the series with the Dream 3-1 and now the Liberty 3-2, whom they trail by three games.
Because of the toughness of the Chicago and New York schedules, the Liberty might have backed into the playoffs even if they lost Tuesday night and finished with a six-game losing streak because of the underdog status of the Sky in remaining games.
New York has its hands full with a road-and-home set with Minnesota Friday and Sunday before hosting Indiana next week
and traveling to Connecticut to wrap up the regular season.
The win over the Sky kept New York a half-game in front of Atlanta in third place but also moved the Liberty within a game of Connecticut and 2.5 games away from Indiana.
“That was a hard win. Thank goodness for our defense at the end,” Whisenant said after New York outscored Chicago 30-15 in the fourth quarter highlighted by a 22-2 run. On the Sky’s previous visit New York defensed Chicago into a WNBA record for ineptness in a quarter when the Liberty outscored the Sky 16-1 in rthe fourth quarter.
“We got 15 steals,” Whisenant continued. “We caused them to make 22 turnovers. And we ultimately outrebounded them so those are three important factors. So obviously we struggled shooting.
“We were tight,” he added. “Our team knows we are on the bubble for the playoffs and we’ve got four games left with the three top-record teams in the league. It’s hard to tell the top team from the bottom team in the league. At least to us, they all seem to be difficult.”
The Rutgers alumni presence on the Liberty again came up big with All-Star Cappie Pondexter scoring 19 points and shaking off an ankle sprain during the game; Kia Vaughn scoring 15, and Essence Carson, another All-Star, scoring 14 points. Additionally, Plenette Pierson had 17 points.
Carson had 12 points and Pondexter 10 in the fourth quarter.
Sylvia Fowles scored 22 points for the Sky and Epiphanny Prince, another former Rutgers star, had 15.
Chicago outscored New York 32-31 in the first half, though the Liberty stayed competitive with a huge advantage on the foul line, shooting 15-for-21 versus a perfect 8-for-8 by Chicago.
Overall, New York was 27-for-35, while Chicago was 15-for-18.
“Thirty-five free throws is tough,” Chicago first-year coach-general manager Pokey Chatman said. We don’t normally foul that much, but when you’re not playing well, I can’t get on the officials when you turn it over 20 times. We had a 14-point lead with 7 minutes left.
“Thirty points by a team in the fourth quarter by a team you held to 30 in the first half,” Chatman bemoaned her players letting this one slip away. “I thought you saw some women taking it to us and we reacted like little girls.
“That’s the honest to God truth. You saw some players take it to us and we crumbled. Have some poise. When you leave the huddle, remember what we called. I could go on and on. Four turnovers in the last six minutes. It’s extremely disappointing.
Though the Sky are barely alive mathematically going into the final 12 days of the regular season, Chatman said there’s still room to work on things.
“I want them to learn poise, passion. Play together. Stay together. Fight. Have fun. Enjoy it. Sometimes we look constipated out there. Relax. Have fun. They work hard for me but I think sometimes in a situation they get tight, looking for someone else to get it done.
“You don’t get a shot clock violation if you’re in an attack mode. You got the ball in your hands you can at least put your head down and make something happen. I recall on three different occasions we had the ball for a second and we tried to make a pass.
“You have to finish out. We’re not good enough to not close out games or not stay true to the scheme or not play with poise or not scrap and be blue-collar. That’s what it takes for us and it takes for 40 minutes, not 32.
“Regardless of the mathematics, you go home, you go to work, you try to eliminate mistakes, and be ready for yourself in terms of correcting things and be ready for the next opponent.”
Whisenant thought his team was tight at the outset and also cited the Liberty’s affect by Hurricane Irene, having left town before the weekend a day early to play Chicago so they wouldn’t be stranded.
“We were tight as a drum. I could see it in my players eyes and face,” he said. “It was a hard fought win but I thought that group that was in at the end played tremendous defense to stop Chicago and give us a chance to win.
“Because of the storm we had to leave a day early. So we were on the road two days instead of one. We were hanging in the hotel, so that’s tiring. We struggled to get back here. We couldn’t get to practice facility Monday (in Westchester County, N.Y.).
"We got up this morning and watched film and then we drove here and had a shoot-around.
“So all those things – that’s a lot of fatiguing stuff. It’s probably mentally fatiguing to get ready but that’s the life of a pro basketball player and these players have to adjust to that. We’re trying to rest them as much as we can and still prepare them for their next opponent.”
Whisenant was honored before the game for his recent 100th victory in the WNBA, including his time coaching the former Sacramento Monarchs, who he guided to the 2005 WNBA title.
At halftime Kym Hampton, who is now fan development leader for the Liberty, became the fifth and final former player to be named to this season’s inaugural Ring of Honor. The other four were Vickie Johnson, now an assistant coach in San Antonio;
Teresa Weatherspoon, now coaching at her alma mater at Louisiana Tech; former Rutgers star Sue Wicks; and Rebecca Lobo, the ESPN broadcaster and former UConn star, who, unlike the other four, was chosen by a fan vote instead of a special committee.
The Liberty are also sending a special plaque with all their signatures to support Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, the Hall of Fame legend who announced last week that she had been diagnosed with early dementia but will continue to coach the Lady Vols.
Minnesota Campaign Trail
While a former governor and current congresswoman out of Minnesota have been prominent in the Republican presidential nomination campaign trail for 2012, the Lynx continue to can campaign for everything they can get out of this WNBA season.
Though a first playoff appearance and the No. 1 West seed has been attained, there’s still the best overall record to be claimed as well as promoting Lynx stars for the postseason awards.
Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve went on the stump for veteran point guard Lindsay Whalen in the MVP race in the league after Whalen scored 21 points in the Lynx 73-56 win over the Washington Mystics in the Target Center.
Whalen had 17 in the first half when Washington was still trying to stay competitive.
“She was my MVP,” Reeve said. “I think some people are writing about that. I think she definitely supported those writers that are saying that. She was my one starter that I thought was just balling out. We needed it.”
Maya Moore, the overall No. 1 pick out of UConn in April’s draft, who will be at the Prudential Center here for Sunday’s 4 p.m. game between the Lynx and Liberty, had nine points.
Crystal Langhorne, the former Maryland star from suburban Philadelphia, had 13 points for the Mystics and former Rutgers star Matee Ajavon had 10.
The next Minnesota win – the Lynx host New York Friday night – or Indiana loss – the Fever will be at Connecticut the same night – gives the Lynx overall home court in the finals if they advance.
“We just went on a drought,” Langhorne said on the game enabling the Lynx to take a 2-0 sweep in the East-West matchup.
“We couldn’t score the ball and we had some turnovers, and against a team like Minnesota who is so talented offensively, we can’t let them get transition baskets and things like that.”
Washington will host Atlanta Thursday night. San Antonio will hosted Phoenix in the only other game scheduled.
Minnesota, incidentally, is holding Washington’s draft pick, which will be a lottery number to be determined. The Lynx acquired the pick for former Tennessee star Nicky Anosike.
Silver Stars Eclipse Sun
The San Antonio win over the Connecticut Sun made the Silver Stars 2-0 in the East=West matchup in Texas that saw Becky Hammon, a former Liberty player, become the seventh WNBA star to score 5,000 points.
The win, which stopped a six-game slide, kept the Silver Stars 1.5 games in front of the Los Angeles Sparks.
Besides Hammon’s 16 for the game, former Baylor star Sophia Young and Jia Perks each scored 15 points for San Antonio.
Former UConn star Tina Charles had 16 points and Asjha Jones, another former UConn star, had 15 points and 10 rebounds for the Sun.
“I think what she’s achieving utterly amazes me,” San Antonio coach Dan Hughes said of Hammon. “People don’t understand how hard Becky Hammon had worked at the game since she came into the league.
San Antonio hosts a Phoenix team Thursday night fighting Seattle for the No. 2 seed behind Minnesota in the West and home court advantage in the best-of-three series that will be part of the playoff first round.
Mercury Stop Shock
Phoenix, coming off Sunday’s visit to Washington, stopped as hot Tulsa team on the road as former Auburn star DeWanna Bonner tied her career high with 25 points.
“I came out a little more focused,” said Bonner contrasting the meager two shot attempts Sunday in Washington. “I was looking for my shot, being a little more aggressive. I guess it worked out.”
Diana Taurasi had 23 points for the Mercury and former Temple star Candice Dupree scored 14.
“I think DB was shaving points last game,” Dupree joked about Bonner’s effort compared to Washington. “She had to make up for it tonight. If we can get her to play like that every game, we’ll be hard to beat.”
Tulsa rookie Liz Cambage, the second overall pick in April’s draft behind Lynx pick Maya Moore, had 16 points for Tulsa, while Ivory Latta had 15 points and Amber Holt scored 11.
Phoenix coach Corey Gaines won his 71st game to become the coach with the most wins in Mercury history.
“That’s great for Corey,” Taurasi said. He and I came up through the ranks together. So, really cool for Corey.”
Tulsa interim coach Teresa Edwards, inducted to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame earlier this month, thinks the slew of games over the last 16 days is affecting the Shock.
I think we’re really tired. I think, in our minds, we wanted to play hard. We wanted to go out and do well again. But we just couldn’t do it. I kind of recognized that early in the game.”
Parker Keeps Los Angeles In The Hunt
Former Tennessee sensation Candace Parker had het best game since returning from a knee injury that had her sidelined since late June and scored 27 points.
“If we take care of business, it will be hard for us not to make it,” she said after the Sparks at home dropped Seattle from second in the West till third.
“She is our go-to person,” WNBA veteran Tina Thompson, who scored 12 points, said of her teammate Parker. “We are going to go to her so she can make those plays.”
UConn all-time great Sue Bird had 15 for Seattle, which jettisoned a four-game win streak fueled by Lauren Jackson, a three-time MVP, who returned from a hip injury that had her out virtually as long as Parker was sidelined.
Seattle has been in seven straight playoffs, traling Los Angeles’ current run of seven.
“We’ve still got four games left,” Bird said of the race for second behind Minnesota, which has a 6.5 games lead over Phoenix and seven over Seattle.
“We have a shot at second place, which would give us home-court advantage (over Phoenix).”
Bird hit two foul shots Sunday with 1.6 seconds left to give Seattle a home win over Los Angeles.
“To play as hard as we did and to have it come down to the final second is tough,” Ebony Hoffman said. “Tonight, we just came out with fire.”
Los Angeles goes to Phoenix Saturday and finish three at home, including one against San Antonio.
“If we want to make a push to be in the playoffs,” Thompson said, “We have to win these games.”
Dream Nightmares Over
Atlanta, struggling with injuries and other problems, started the season 3-9, making it seem like it was back to the draft lottery and not the postseason where the Dream surged from the fourth seed in the East to battling Seattle in three straight losses in the championship series.
But slowly Atlanta healed and now the Dream are feeling good after staying perfect against Indiana at 3-0 with a win on the road Saturday and Tuesday’s 92-90 win at home to move to 2.5 games ahead of Chicago in fourth place with five remaining, including another with Indiana.
The Fever, despite the loss, backed into the playoffs when the Sun rallied over Chicago and are three games behind the Fever and just 0.5 behind New York.
Sancho Lyttle, who missed a bunch of games early in the season to play for Spain in an Olympic qualifying tournament and then was sidelined for several more with back problems, hit a shot with 0.9 seconds remaining to give the Dream the win.
Angel McCoughtry scored 28 for Atlanta.
“We have amazing spirit with this team,” Atlanta coach Marynell Meadors said. “I’m very proud of them. There were so many times when they could have folded up.”
Lyttle had 14 points and 11 rebounds.
Erika DeSouza left the game midway through the third quarter with an anke sprain.
Erin Phillips, the former Australian guard with the Connecticut Sun, had 21 points for Indiana and Tamika Catchings scored 20 for Indiana.
“We had way too many turnovers,” Indiana coach Lin Dunn said of 19 turnovers, including one at the finish.
“This team has a lot of heart,” McCoughtry said of Atlanta. “We showed that again tonight and we’ve shown it all season. When you have struggles in the beginning, it makes winning so much better.”