Guru's WNBA Report: New York Eclipses Connecticut to Stay in Playoff Hunt And Further Dim Sun's Hopes
UNCASVILLE, Conn. --- Coming out of a loss to the Eastern-leading Chicago Sky two nights ago in suburban Rosemont, Ill., this was a game the fifth-place New York Liberty needed Sunday against the sixth-place Connecticut Sun to stay close in the postseason chase.
Yes, the banged--up Sun needed it also but considering that the Liberty (11-16) are just outside the playoff fence, now 1.5 games behind the third-place and idle Washington Mystics (13-15) and one behind the defending WNBA champion and also idle Indiana Fever (12-15) with seven games remaining, the New York pulse could beat a little more livelier with a win.
And that is what New York achieved heading into Tuesday night's visit from the Western-leading Minnesota Lynx (20-7) by beating its traditional nearby geographical rival 74-66 at the Mohegan Sun Arena in front of a crowd of 7,004 still trying to keep the faith.
Missing key players all over the place Connnecticut (7-19) fell to the most losses ever dating back to the franchise's existence prior to 2003 as the Orlando Miracle and is now 4.5 games behind Indiana and five behind Washington with just eight games left in the regular season.
That portion of the slate begins on the road this week with stops at the Los Angeles Sparks (18-8 prior to Sunday's late game with the Tulsa Shock) Tuesday, the Seattle Storm (13-14) Thursday, and Phoenix Mercury (14-13) Saturday meaning just as in real life but in terms of the playoffs the Sun may set in the West as far as their postseason hopes go for 2013.
Of course, it is a fate that has doomed first-year coach Anne Donovan for several months with the compilation of injuries that began before the WNBA opening tip in May when veteran Asjha Jones and Danielle McCray were unable to play this season.
Since then various players have missed major time such as Renee Montgomery, Tan White, and Kara Lawson and continuing through this past week when Allison Hightower along with rookie and former UConn star Kelly Faris, a first-round pick, had to be shut down for the remaininder of the season.
Connecticut made several thrusts during the game from the opening tip but could never get ahead and faded down the stretch as New York avoided some of the major meltdowns in quarters that have plagued the Liberty throughout the season.
"We talked about it and it was imperative on this road trip that we get one of these two games," New York first-year coach Bill Laimbeer said afterwards.
"We didn't play well in Chicago but we kept our composure (here) throughout the game. We feel good about ourselves even though we stiil have some things to do and we learned some things from Minnesota, even though we got blown out there. Our defense was solid tonight and that's what carried us."
Plenette Pierson. who played for Laimbeer when he coached the three-time champion former Detroit Shock, had another big game for New York, this time scoring a team-high 18 points.
Veteran and All-Star Cappie Pondexter, the former Rutgers standout who is recovered from a bruised left heel, scored 14, while another big factor was veteran Katie Smith, who also played for Laimbeer in Detroit, scoring 13 points.
"Katie has played very well lately," Laimbeer said. "She struggled early in the season but right now she's found her shot -- she's looking for her shot and it's tough to leave her open, she's going to make shots right now."
Smith, the former Ohio State star and Olympian, is retiring after the season but said the countdown to the end of her pro career isn't that much of a factor in her improved play.
She was 6-for-11 from the field against Connecticut and 1-for-3 on three-point attempts.
"It's good, it's fun," Smith said of the close of her career. "Part of it is sad but another part is, `Whew.' You're going to miss some of the little stuff and going to miss the people, but I'm enjoying it and we're going to battle and say where the cards land.
"This was huge. I think if we lose this game, our playoff hopes would be against all odds -- considering we're in the casino. It was a really, really big game for us to stay in the mix and also give us confidence and a big boost with Minnesota coming to our place and Indiana's coming (Friday) so we needed it. It doesn't get any easier."
New York was able to get help off the bench, such as rookie Kelsey Bone's seven points and six from Alex Montgomery to help outscore the Connecticut reserves 24-4.
"It was a good win," Pondexter said. "Chicago's one of the best in the league, obviously, but (Sunday) we competed and were able to win in a tough environment.
"Tonight was a team effort. I'm getting back in the rhythm of things. I don't want to force anything. I just want to let it come to me and make everyone else around me better."
New York's key is head-to-head matchups with Indiana and Washington if the other two struggle to make one of the three the odd team out and into the draft lottery quartet of four teams, two of which are likely to be the Tulsa Shock and San Antonio Silver Stars from the West, besides Connecticut likely to be at least one of the likely Eastern lotto hopefuls.
The Liberty have a home-and-home with Indiana and finish up the final day of the regular season at Washington. But New York after Minnesota's visit must also travel to Tulsa (9-18 prior to Sunday's L.A. game) and host the Atlanta Dream (14-11), currently in second place, and Phoenix from out West.
Connecticut continued to struggle but one of the bright lights Sunday was former Nebraska star Kelsey Griffin, who had 22 points and 10 rebounds, while All-Star and reigning WNBA MVP Tina Charles, the former UConn great, had 18 points and nine rebounds.
The 22 points surpassed Griffin's previous high of 17 while she she also set a pair of career marks in shooting 3-for-3 from beyond the arc.
“You see the fight all over Kelsey," Donovan said. "It’s hard to take her out of the game because she impacts every play at both ends.
"She’s somebody who has worked hard every day and that’s why she’s still playing this well at the end of the season. She hasn’t given up, not one bit,” Donovan said of Griffin's play.
Griffin related her motivation even in this time of despair after Connecticut won the regular-season East a year ago and came within a game of advancing to the finals for the third time in franchise history before former coach Mike Thibault was replaced by Donovan in the offseason and signed with Washington, where he has revitalized the Mystics into a playoff contender.
“You can’t take any game you’re given for granted," Griffin said.
" There are a lot of players that want to be playing in this league, and can’t, and aren’t, and I feel very privileged to be in this league and I go out and try to play every night with that respect for the game, and it was no different tonight. I’m trying to carry that through until the end of the season.”
Rene Montgomery, another former UConn All-American, had 14 points for the Sun.
Donovan has not been pleased with her team's defensive effort the last two nights, including Thursday's loss here to Minnesota.
"The last two games here in this building, defensively, we have been non-existent, not bothering anybody at all," Donovan said. "It’s a great question that that locker room needs to answer.
“At this point, you approach every game, regardless of postseason or not and you have an element of pride to your game," Donovan continued. "Especially in this arena.
" People don’t just come in here and score at will. And tonight, we did a marginal job on Cappie – to walk out of here with 14 points, that’s pretty good when you can hold Cappie to 14 – and to have their bench just have a field day against us…it’s about pride. I don’t even entertain talk of postseason or not postseason. This is about pride…Defensively, we’re better than that.”
Donovan said if the remainder of the season evolves without the playoffs still a possibility that everyone is still going to be evaluated in terms of fixing things for 2014.
She noted how Charles, one of the Connecticut captains, recently made a speech to the team about playing better defense.
“You know, we’re missing our defensive sparks at times, not having All, not having Kelly Faris, she’s coming into her own, that’s a huge loss for us but we have others players that can play defense and are capable of stepping up and just being consistent,” Charles said.
As for missing the playoffs, if that happens, for the second time in her career and first since she was rookie of the year in 2010 when she was the number one overall pick by the Sun, Charles said:
“Like I said, you want to go out there and play for your teammates respect, for your coaches respect, just how you carry yourself off the court, how you carry yourself on the court. As long as I’m playing, I’m still going to do what I do and hold myself accountable, that’s all I can do.”
Guru's Predictions on East Race Mixed After Week One of Stretch
Next stop for the Guru is probably Tuesday at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., for the Liberty-Lynx game.
In terms of picking East team games the rest of the way that began with Tuesday's games, the Guru went 5-4 on the week with Atlanta being involved in three of the wrong guesses.
The Dream rallied to beat Minnesota, lost at Washington (though the Guru should have gone with his gut) and then lost at home to Chicago, whom the Guru thought would be dragging emotionally from clinching the Sky's first postseason playoff berth in eight tries the previous night at home with the win over New York.
But just like at Delaware back in college in the Colonial Athletic Association races, the Guru should have known better that Chicago roookie sensation Elena Delle Donne knows how to keep her team's focus on greater prizes than the first achievement.
The Sky have a great chance right now to win the East No. 1 seed and maybe even the overall No. 1 playoff seed.
The other bad pick was here at Mohegan where he thought New York might be dragging out of the Chicago game and Connecticut would rise to the rivalry situation.
Of course, it also seemed when the picks were made that Pondexter might be missing more time with her injury or be more limited.
You can see the blog on picking East games several posts below this one.
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