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, July 21, 2014

Rob Knox's WNBA Notebook: Washington Poised to Make Headway in the East

By Rob Knox @knoxrob1

When the dust cleared from their season-high five-game road trip, the Washington Mystics headed home across country smiling and full of swagger.

The Mystics finished an impressive and winning journey in style by edging the Los Angeles Sparks, 79-75, last Thursday night. In ending the Sparks’ three-game winning streak, Washington also completed a season sweep of L.A, which may have been too much for Sparks general manager Peny Toler to handle.

Three days later she fired coach Carol Ross and decided to guide the team herself from the bench despite not having any coaching experience.

Additionally, assistant coach Gail Goestenkors chose not to remain.

"i'm loyal," Goestenkors explained Monday afternoon on a teleconference held by the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame, located in Knoxville, Tenn.

The former longtime coach of Duke along with Sparks legend Lisa Leslie were announced over the weekend as part of the six -member 2015 induction class for June13.

Additionally the coaching carousel took a partial swing Monday when the Atlanta Dream announced Michael Cooper would miss several weeks from the sidelines to be treated for tongue cancer.

More on these items below.

Meanwhile, the trick now for the Mystics, who begin a crucial three-game homestand Wednesday morning against Connecticut at 11:30 a.m., is to build off of the momentum created from a 3-2 trip.

Sitting in third place in the Eastern Conference as the second half of the season starts, Washington has won three of its last four games. Poised to do some damage, the Mystics are a game behind Indiana in the race for the No. 2 seed and the all-important home-court edge in a possible playoff matchup.

Of course, the Mystics lead Connecticut by a half-game and New York by a game.

"We've all got 13 losses," New York coach Bill Laimbeer said Wednesday after the Liberty beat Atlanta before the break for the All-Stars. "Now the trick is we have to go out and win a couple of games."

The Liberty will have their hands full this week with a three-game Western swing.

As for the Mystics, six of Washington’s final 11 contests are against Connecticut and New York. They play each team three times beginning with a morning game Wednesday game against Connecticut at 11:30 a.m. at the Verizon Center. This will be Washington’s first home game since July 2. The Mystics were away so long; they may have forgotten what the building looks like.

Washington has already defeated the Sun twice and split a pair of games with the Liberty. After facing the Sun, the Mystics' remaining games during the home stand offer a treat for fans as they host Skylar Diggins and Tulsa Friday night (7 p.m). and All-Star Game MVP Schoni Schimmel and East leading Atlanta Sunday afternoon (4 p.m.).

Schimmel scored an All-Star Game record 29 points in the East’s 125-124 overtime win over Diggins and the West last Saturday. Diggins had 27 points and would have been the MVP had her team won.

Let’s get back to the Mystics.

“We just have to be consistent,” Mystic All-Star guard Ivory Latta said. “We all have to concentrate on the little things, go out there and play hard while playing the way we know we can play.”

The Mystics have been winning with balanced scoring as nine players average between 4.4 and 11.3 points, tough defense and believing in each other. The talented youngsters are starting to blossom and play with more consistency. As noted in last week’s column, it seems like somebody different has come through lately for the Mystics.

The win over the Sparks was no different as Tierra Ruffin-Pratt scored a career-high 18 points. The second-year guard from North Carolina made 7-of-8 shots for the Mystics. For Ruffin-Pratt, it was second game this season finishing with double figures as she scored 15 points against San Antonio.

Monique Currie added 16 points. Currie averaged 11.9 points during the five-game road trip. Latta scored 15 points and Kia Vaughn came through with 14 points for Washington, which is 10-13 overall.

Latta has been cool as a scoop of ice cream lately for Washington by reaching double figures in seven of its last eight games with the lone exception being a nine-point performance in the Mystics first win of this season-long excursion against the Chicago Sky on July 9. Latta leads the Mystics in scoring with an 11.3 point per game average and rookie Bria Hartley is second on the team in scoring (10.1)

“They're definitely a great team,” Latta said of the Sparks. “What we can take from this is the way we played against them is how we have to play in our own conference. We can't let up. The way we guard (Parker) is how we've got to guard the Cappie Pondexters, the Tina Charles, Angel McCoughty’s.”

Even in its 12-point loss to Phoenix on Tuesday, Wednesday made the Mercury sweat as Washington was within eight points early in the fourth quarter.

The second half of the season offers an opportunity for the Mystics to do some great things and surpass last season’s win total of 17. There are also rumblings that last year’s fourth overall pick Tayler Hill out of Ohio State could play before the season is done. Hill has not played this season as she recently gave birth to a son.

For fans envisioning a backcourt rotation of Hill, Bria Hartley, Latta, Ruffin-Pratt, and Kara Lawson, it’s as close to Christmas as you can possibly get during the summer.

You gotta have a lot of confidence whether you are playing a young or old team,” Latta said. “That's the great thing about our team. You know we're very strong in different areas whether we're young or old. We have a lot. We just have to go out and play hard.”

SCHIMMEL’S SHINING MOMENT: The WNBA is basking in the glow of a terrifically played All-Star Game that was decided in overtime by Indiana’s Tamika Catchings’ layup with six seconds remaining. It was fitting that in a game in which first timers Schimmel and Diggins combined for 56 points and put on a super show, that Catchings, playing in her record-tying ninth All-Star Game made the difference in the end.

The performances of Diggins and Schimmel were simply sick. At one point, they should have cleared the court and let the two scoring machines go one-on-one.

During the broadcast, ESPN commentator Rebecca Lebo accurately mentioned Schimmel was built for an All-Star Game. Raining jumpers like Jimmy Chitwood in “Hoosiers”, Schimmel delivered a treat for the fans, who selected her to the starting lineup. There was some immediate backlash about her being named a starter, but Schimmel more than made that selection look great.

Who knows where this will lead for Schimmel, who averages 7.1 points and has started twice for the Dream this season. Schimmel’s effort will definitely go down as one of the memorable moments in the WNBA’s 18-year history. She scored 24 of her 29 points after intermission. Thanks to her huge native American following, Schimmel leads the WNBA in jersey sales.

“Being Native American, it's a huge accomplishment to go out there and be in the WNBA,” Schimmel said. “To have the fans look up to me and to be a role model not only for my siblings but also the Native American fans, the Native American people. It's huge. I take on my shoulders because I enjoy it.”

COMMISH SPEAKS: WNBA Commissioner Laurel Richie provided her annual state of the WNBA address prior to Saturday’s All-Star Game in Phoenix. Here are some of her comments about viewership, the rookie class and potential expansion. Perhaps she knew that Schimmel and other young players would play spectacular on Saturday. She said during her address, “I think we are going to have a great game.”

On Schimmel: “Shoni Schimmel is with us. For those of you who haven't heard already, she was No. 3 in votes and she's also the proud recipient, I guess would be the word, of the most jersey sales of any WNBA player. So we are thrilled to have her with us today and with us in the league.”

On viewership: “In some ways this All‑Star reflects what I think has been a terrific season. Our viewership on ESPN2 is pacing ahead of year‑end last year by about 16 percent. Fans have been signing up in record numbers for Live Access – bringing in both more subscribers and more revenue for the league, so that is terrific, particularly as we look to bring the game to those who don’t live in WNBA cities.”

On the rookies: “We had 28 rookies make a WNBA team and seven rookies start in at least one game. So I think that really speaks well and bodes well for the future of the league. We have four rookies who are averaging 10 points per game; that's Tulsa’s Odyssey Sims, Hartley, San Antonio’s Kayla McBride, and Connecticut’s Chiney Oguwmike. So I'm very, very excited about where we are today.” I think we are going to have a great game.

On potential expansion: “I very much look forward to the day that we do expand, and based on what I have seen from those conversations, (Golden State/Oakland) would be very much in the top rung on the list. And the nice thing was during that process, there were others who expressed interest as well. So again, I don't have a time frame for it, but very excited about that as a possibility.”

COOPER TO TAKE LEAVE OF ABSENCE: Atlanta head coach Michael Cooper, who guided the East in Phoenix, has been diagnosed with early stage tongue cancer, and will take a temporary leave of absence the team announced Monday.

Cooper will undergo a surgical procedure this week at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University in Atlanta. Typical recovery time for the procedure is two weeks. A full recovery is anticipated following the surgical procedure. During Cooper’s absence from the team, assistant coach Karleen Thompson will assume head coaching duties.

“The doctors and staff at Emory have been tremendous, and I know I’m in good hands,” said Cooper. “I’m fortunate that my condition was diagnosed early, and this episode illustrates the importance of screening and early detection. I know the team will be in good hands with coach Thompson at the helm during my absence, and I look forward to returning to the court soon.”

Best wishes for a speedy recovery to Cooper, who has led the Dream to a 15-6 record and a first-place standing in the Eastern Conference in his first season leading the Dream. The two-time WNBA Champion head coach has the Dream in contention for its first Eastern Conference regular-season title in team history, as the team holds a five-game lead with 13 games remaining. He coached the East to a 125-124 overtime victory at the WNBA All-Star game on Saturday.

HOME NOT SO SWEET: Half of the league’s 12 teams have winning records at home (Atlanta 10-2, Phoenix 10-1, Minnesota 10-1, Connecticut 7-5, New York 7-5 and Seattle 5-4). Los Angeles is 3-7 at the Staples Center and has not won at home since June 24. Tulsa, which is 5-7 at home, recently lost all four games during a four-game homestand. Amazingly, despite losing records at home, Indiana (6-4), Washington (6-6), Los Angeles (7-6) and San Antonio (7-5) all sport winning records on the road.

LIBERTY ROAD: It’s essentially now or never for the New York Liberty, 1-8 from the friendly confines of Madison Square Garden. New York starts the second half of the season by playing six of its first seven games on the road. The Liberty have a pair of three-game road trips (Los Angeles, Seattle, Phoenix; Wednesday-Saturday) and (Chicago, Atlanta, and Washington; July 31-Aug. 5) sandwiched around a July 29 home date against the Mystics. So even in the congested East where everybody is alive, these next seven games will go a long way to determining if the Liberty’s three-game home stand in August (Connecticut, Indiana and Phoenix) will be meaningful.

FLYING SKYLAR: During a dizzying 24-hour sequence, Diggins was literally all over the map, flying close to 4,478 miles. On Wednesday, she scored 19 points in Minnesota against the Lynx before flying three hours to Los Angeles for the ESPY’s and participate in the Drake skit, which ended with her kissing the rapper on the forehead causing sparks to fly literally.

She returned to Tulsa for Thursday afternoon’s game against San Antonio and had 19 points and eight assists in a victory just before flying to the All-Star game. The only person busier than Diggins, the league’s second leading scorer, during that stretch was her travel agent. While her 27 points in the All-Star Game were noteworthy and exciting, many people wanted to know her reaction to all the attention she received from Drake leading up to the ESPYs via social media.

“It was just a way to clear the air and just have fun with everything,” Diggins told The Associated Press. “Just be light about it. He’s (Drake) a cool guy, and I thought it was a fun moment to lighten the mood. I was happy to be there, and I thought it went over well with everybody. We got great feedback from it.”

BENTLEY BALLING: Former Penn State standout Alex Bentley had a week to remember, averaging 21 points to help the Connecticut Sun split a pair of games.

She scored 22 points against Seattle in a surprisingly easy, 86-63 road win. Two days later in a 101-85 loss to Phoenix, Bentley scored 20 points. The former Penn State standout shot 51 percent in the two games (17-for-33). She will try to score 20 or more points in three straight games for the second time this season when the Sun visits Washington Wednesday morning at 11:30 a.m.

Between June 7-13, during the Sun’s six-game winning streak, Bentley scored 21 points against Indiana (June 7), 22 against Phoenix (June 12) and a season-high 24 against New York (June 13). For the season, Bentley is averaging 11.8 points and 3.5 assists per game. She has scored in double digits 15 times this season. Despite, dropping eight of its last 10 games, Connecticut enters the second half of the season in fourth place in the Eastern Conference.

MAGNIFICENT MAYA: Maya Moore finished with 32 points on 10-for-18 shooting in Minnesota’s 93-82 victory over the Shock Wednesday afternoon. It was the ninth-time this season, Moore has scored 30 or more points in a single game. The Lynx host Atlanta Tuesday in a WNBA Finals rematch. The Dream won the first meeting, 85-82, in Atlanta on June 13.

MERCURY UPDATE: Phoenix (18-3 overall) begins the second half of the season with a 12-game winning streak, three shy of the all-time WNBA winning streak of 15 established by the Houston Comets. Essentially, Phoenix can clinch a playoff spot if it beats Seattle Tuesday night on ESPN2. The Mercury are one win, or a Seattle loss, away from clinching a playoff spot, with a month left in the season.

COACHING CHANGE IN L.A.: The Los Angeles Sparks have relieved Carol Ross as head coach and named Sparks executive vice president and general manager Penny Toler as the team’s head coach for the remainder of the season. Ross joined the Sparks as head coach in 2012, amassing a 61-36 career record in two and a half seasons, including two playoff appearances (2012, 2013).

“I’d like to thank Carol for her contributions to the Sparks organization, team and Los Angeles community,” said Toler. “Carol is a tremendous coach, but we felt it was time to bring in a different energy to this team. Decisions like this are never easy, and we wish Carol the best.”

Toler has spent her entire WNBA career in Los Angeles, amassing 17 years as a player, general manager and executive vice president with the Sparks. The longest tenured general manager in the WNBA, Toler took over the reigns as general manager just prior to the 2000 season and compiled back-to-back WNBA Championship teams two seasons into her tenure, bringing Los Angeles titles in 2001 and 2002.

In her 14 seasons as general manager, Toler has guided the team to the WNBA playoffs 12 times (2000-06 and 2008-10, 2012-13), three conference championships (2001-2003) and two WNBA titles. As a player, she scored the first basket in WNBA history on June 21, 1997 vs. the New York Liberty, and finished the inaugural season as the Sparks’ second leading scorer with 13.1 points per game.

The Guru contributed to the Knox WNBA notebook

- Posted using BlogPress from the Guru's iPad

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