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, August 27, 2012

Guru's WNBA Report: Chicago Sky Eclipse Connecticut Sun To Stay Alive In Playoff Hunt

By Mel Greenberg

UNCASVILLE, Conn. --
In a sense, the Mohegan Sun Arena adjoining the vast casino-entertain complex here was an appropriate place for the down-on-their-luck WNBA Chicago Sky to be on Sunday night facing the Eastern Conference-leading Connecticut Sun.

For all the ineptitude of six previous failed attempts to make the postseason since Chicago joined the league as an expansion team and began play in 2006, non had been more grueling than what had been occurring to the Windy City bunch since the middle of June.

Following a winter of wheeling and dealing that saw the arrival of such veterans as former UConn star Swin Cash and former Auburn star Le'coe Willingham from the Seattle Storm, along with former Notre Dame star Ruth Riley, and former Old Dominion star Ticha Penincheiro to complement a lineup headed by Olympian and all-league sensation Sylvia Fowles and former Rutgers star Epiphanny Prince, season No. 7 was going to be the lucky number.

Never mind dreaming about another draft lottery that will be the best yet next April with the prospect of gaining either Baylor star Brittney Griner, Delaware standout Elena Delle Donne, or Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins, who added another USA Basketball gold medal to her collection Sunday with a triumph in the 3x3 tournament.

The promised land had arrived and sure enough Chicago started out living up to the hype in contending with the Eastern frontunners while the New York Liberty and Washington Mystics were quite behind in the Sky's rear-view mirror.

Then Prince, the WNBA's scoring leader at the time, suffered a foot injury and Chicago went into a pre-Olympic suspension tailspin that had continued even with Prince's return following the resumption of play earlier this month.

The slide drew reminders by oldtimers of the infamous 10-game plunge of baseball's Philadelphia Phillies in 1964, when competition was more simplified and the World Series was just a short grasp away as the October Classic came into view on the calendar.

When the weekend started, Chicago suffered perhaps one of the more excruciating setbacks when the Sky had al but wrapped up a road win over the woeful Tulsa Shock, only to squander the advantage and fall in overtime.

That made it nine straight, including a similar fall at Washington a week earlier, and a 1-13 overall mark since the dive began and now Chicago was back in a place that had been all-too familiar while the Liberty were suddenly inside the loop, not as much for any great rally by New York but because of the self-inflicted wounds of a team whose major league sports neighbors include baseball's Chicago Cubs.

More of the same was expected when Chicago arrived here from Oklahoma joining the missing-player game of checkers occuring throughout the WNBA with the absences of Tamera Young, said to be away because of a death in the family, and Fowles, which was characterized as for personal reasons, though a team source had noted health issues before the game.

Connecticut also had a missing player in Asjha Jones, being rested as a precaution due to her nicked-up situation in what has become a new theme: The Curse of the London Gold Medalists.

Chicago coach Pokey Chatman had joked before the game about hoping to keep the score close and then maybe taking it from there down the stretch.

Well, that became the formula for Chicago (9-14) to join the winning patrons elsewhere here who hit jackpots on the slots or walked away as gleeful winners because of their success at the tables, including a fortuitous roll of the dice.

Instead of Connecticut (17-6) joining three Western Conference teams as official members of the postseason lineup for next month's playoffs, the Sun will have to wait a bit longer.

Meanwhile, on the Chicago side, hope sprang anew with a come-from-behind 82-70 victory that flipped the Sky back into fourth place a half game ahead of New York (9-15).

Several hours after the action ended here, the Liberty lost their second straight weekend encounter on a Western swing, this one to the Seattle Storm 84-66 that moved coach Brian Agler's troops (11-13) another step closer to gaining another return to the postseason.

Trailing by seven points in the third quarter and seemingly on the way to more of the same, Chicago exploded on a 17-4 run and then dominated the final 10 minutes 21-13.

Four Sky starters scored in double figures with former Boston College star Carolyn Swords, dressed up in uniform costume as the center replacement for Fowles, had a career-high 14 points while having to defend the Sun's Tina Charles, another Olympics stalwart for USA.

Prince, looking more like the player who was leading the league in scoring before her injury, had 15 points, including three 3-pointers that put her ahead of former Sun player Erin Thorn into second place for career marksmanship from beyond the arc with 113.

Cash added 14 points, while Shay Murphy scored 10, though Penicheiro, the fifth starter, was scoreless in limited action while being plagued with the effects of a previous Achilles injury.

However, Serbian Sonja Petrovic came off the bench to score 10 points and second-year pro Courtney Vandersloot, the former Gozaga sensation, dealt 11 assists.

Furthermore, Chicago, though minus key pieces of the roster, owned the backboards with a 38-26 advantage, and also had the edge in points off transition, 22-13.

Connnecticut youngster Allison Hightower, a prime candidate for most improved player and a former recruit to LSU when Chatman patrolled the Tigers' coaching box, scored 17 points while Kara Lawson scored 16 and Charles finished with 15 points.

Former UConn star Renee Montgomery added 10 points off the bench.

"We had a little adversity trouble early with foul trouble," Chatman said afterwards of her team's unlikely triumph. "I thought in the middle, they made that run and they went up on us and then late we had three or five possessions against the zone and we stumbled, but we didn't let it effect us on the offensive end.

"We were plus 12 on the boards, took care of the ball and got good looks and it was nice to see everyone step up and we needed every single player since we were shorthanded.

"Yes, it was a good win against the best win in the East and that should give us some pause when we go back to the drawing board, rest a little bit tonight," Chatman continued while acknowleding the toughness of the Sky schedule the rest of the way.

"We don't have much time to enjoy this," she said with an eye to Tuesday's quick rematch in the Midwest between the two teams. "They're a great team and they'll make more adjustments Tuesday."

As for playing shorthanded, Chatman noted, "I've been on the other side of that when some players went down, but when you have those players that are positive energy and they're always ready for their opportunity. I talked to the team, 'I need you in three-minute spurts,' because that's what some of those role players will do.

"I need three minutes and then I'll get someone else in there to shorten the game. But the bottom line is, we played against a team that does a really good job of scouting, so we had to make some adjustments and move some people around so it was nice to see us execute down the stretch."

Chatman talked about the play of Swords, whose alma mater was a former Big East rival of UConn before the Eagles jumped to the Atlantic Coast Conference before her arrival in Beantown.

"We see her do that every day in practice," Chatman explained. "She goes against Sylvia every day, so there is no intimidation factor. She uses her size well and she is going to be in the right spot, she is going to get an illegal screen, which I don't mind, and she is going to put the hurt on someone, keep the ball high, screen for shooters, she makes the second cut and she connects the dots in basketball.

"It's not about how high or how fast, it's thinking and changing the game. No one here is surprised, they are just excited. I am proud of Carolyn, she was huge."

Still, it had to be tough from a mental and emotion standpoint to get Chicago ready for Connecticut in the short amount of time after the potential win against Tulsa, tied for the worst record in the league, was squandered.

"I think, this is where the veteran leadership, it doesn't show itself in the final stats sheet that you guys bring to me, it shows itself in an airport, in a hotel, at shootaround, in a locker room, and talking people through it," Chatman said of her elder stateswomen.

"They talk to the youngsters and don't let them put their head down and that type of stuff is infectious and, yeah, obviously it manifests itself on the court. But once you get over that initial hump and you saw the level that came with the big lineup, the small lineup, transition and halfcourt and so in."

Cash and Willingham scored 15 points in the big run.

"You guys don't see it, but before I come to every huddle, Swin is taking to them, 'Coe is talking to them, Ticha is talking to them. And sometmes having a nice voice besides mine, that is a little loud and crazy, a teammate that you give respect, gives them a little breathing room."

Cash, who won a pair of NCAA titles at Connecticut, three WNBA titles -- two with the former Detroit Shock and the 2010 triumph in Seattle -- to go with two gold medals including the recent triumph in London, talked about surviving the dive.

It's not the first plunge because her rookie season, Detroit lost its first 13 before Bill Laimbeer became coach and began turning things around in the Motown.

"After the loss we had in Tulsa, it just sucks the air out of you and we didn't want to come in here in Connecticut with it still be lingering and everyone was just talking, from the time we lost through the next morning in the airports and when we got here, shootaround, all those things," Cash related.

"We just kept talking, talking, and keeping everyone positive and we had a really good feeling coming into this game," Cash continued.

"I did draw a little bit on how it started in Detroit," she said. "I was talking to Ruth, who was also a teammate with the Shock. "I said, 'I don't remember this ever happening in my career.'

"And then I said, 'No, wait. I remember my rookie year and that was hell on earth.' It's definitely a different dynamic here. I feel we have what it takes in our locker room. It's just pulling the pieces together. This was a huge win for us and all we can do is build from here.

"It's going to be a battle to the wire. We're chasing all these teams. We're going to just have to keep scraping and pulling out games like this one."

Cash grabbed her 2000th career rebound and now has 2,002 overall after totalling six against Connecticut.

Prince was glad to see a game go the way things had been prior to her injury, though Chatman noted before the game that some of that was a misread because the Sky had a few narrow escapes, masking some flaws she was trying to get corrected.

"It's big because it's a win and it gives us a chance," Prince smiled. "We still want to make the playoffs and we needed a win," she said and also addressed the roster absentees, saying it was a situation already experienced.

"I know in the beginning of the season, it was just a scrimmage, but I know we played without Swin and Syl and we knew what plays to run and today it was kind of similar," Prince said.

"We reminded ourselves we did it back in the beginning of the season when we weren't used to each other as much."

On the other side, it was a dismal loss for Connecticut, though the playoffs are almost a certainty, while the battle for first place and homecourt advantage in the two rounds of the Eastern Conference was reduced to 2.5 games over the Indiana Fever.

"Obviously, it's a disappointing loss for a lot of reasons," Sun coach Mike Thibault said, though he did not tongue-in-cheek lecture the media this time for making assumptions as he had after Tuesday's home escape over Tulsa.

"We had a chance, with a little help, to clinch a playoff spot and we didn't do it," Thibault said. "We just got outplayed in a lot of areas; outrebounded, our turnovers led to points. We shot the ball poorly for a stretch, particularly in the second half. They out-hustled us for loose balls."

Thibault discussed the roster subtractions on both sides Sunday night.

"I told (his team) afterwards, you can't sit here waiting for Asjha to come save you," he said of Jones, who joined Charles on the Olympic team. "They played without Tamera Young (a former James Madison star) and Sylvia Fowles.

"Today, it felt like we were waiting for something to happen, you have to make those things happen. We have our work cut out for us. This is a very difficult road trip and we're down. You have to find a way to overcome it, if you want to consider yourself an elite team."

Lawson echoed the disappointment.

"It's very disappointing, especially because it was our home game," the former Tennessee star and former Olympian said. "We're getting ready to start our longest road trip of the season and we certainly would have liked to be going on the trip with some momentum, but we're not.

"Hopefully, we can learn from it. The good thing about it, is we get to go right back out and play them again on Tuesday in Chicago, and we get another opportunity to get a win against them."

That would add to the huge pile of conference triumphs to date, which could come in handy if Connecticut is tied for first at the end of the season with Indiana, as they were a year ago but were related to the second seed because of losing the series with the Fever.

Storm Douse Liberty

Meanwhile, New York coach John Whisenant, following the loss to Seattle, was bemoaning the current road schedule, which the Liberty ended before starting a long homestand Thursday night hosting Indiana at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.

"I've heard NBA counterparts say that the schedule at times just makes it an impossible chance for you," Whisenant commented. "Without taking anything away from Seattle, the league ought to take some of our loss.

"It was a terrible schedule. We've gone from New York to Connecticut to Phoenix to L.A. to Seattle and back to New York in nine days and we've played six games," he noted. "When you add in that we're not traveling in lears (private jets) like the NBA guys ... we're going through airport checks and getting there an hour and a half early. It's really hard."

Competition-wise, New York still has a big advantage over Chicago, including one remaining game against the Sky, the rest of the way.

Whisenant did have time to praise the Storm.

"With that said, I have picked Seattle to be a contender for the Western Conference championship," he observed. "That's knowing (defending champion) Minnesota has a whole bunch back, and L.A., with their rookie (former Stanford star Nneka Ogwumike) and the addition of Alana Beard and San Antonio has been a surprise and has played very, very well.

"The West is loaded with those four teams, but I think Seattle, now that they've got Lauren (Jackson) back -- and when she gets back in rhythm like I know she can -- I can see them getting into the playoffs and winning the whole thing."

New York beat Seattle at home last month prior to the Olympics when Jackson missed the front part of the season training with the Australian squad.

Whisenant used to compete in the West when he coached the former Sacramento Monarchs.

"I told the coaches out here that and wished them good luck. I like this bunch. This is a good franchise. Lauren is one of the best women's basketball players in the world and Sue (Bird) is arguably the best point guard and when you get that combination with two other leading scorers of all time there in Katie (Smith) and Tina (Thompson) -- they're a good crew and they'll be right in the thick of it. The fans should jump all over it and enjoy it.

"But we've got our own issues," he said of the Liberty. "We have some limitations that we try to overcome and we've played pretty well ... to be 3-and-3 with the schedule we've had, five of them on the road. I was most proud of my team because we could have lost by 30, but they never gave up. They were still trying even though legs were dead. I was pleased with my team in that respect."

The Storm snapped a three-game losing streak and Bird posted her first double double of the season and 20th of her career while it was also the fourth points-assists double double in the WNBA.

She had 20 points and dished 10 assists. Rookie Shekinna Stricklen out of Tennessee scored 12 points and was the second overall pick in the draft via the trade with Chicago that sent Cash and Willingham to the Sky.

New York's Cappie Pondexter, another former Rutgers all-time great, had 23 points, the only Liberty to score in double figures. It was also the 14th time this season and fifth in six games since the Olympic break that she has reached or passed the 20-point plateau.

"We've got to keep getting better -- that's the big thing," Pondexter said. "I'm just trying to make sure this team gets to the playoffs. For us, we've got to keep moving forward."

The Guru will return in 24 hours with the weekly look-ahead in the WNBA, barring breaking news, though most of the day will be spent driving back home.

Team reports contributed quotes to this story.

--Mel






- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

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