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.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

WNBA All-Star Report: Rookie Schimmel Leads East to Wild 125-124 Overtime Victory

By Mel Greenberg

Appropriately, in the Arizona desert the WNBA All-Stars brought some intense heat Saturday afternoon to the annual summer classic, resulting in a wild shootout that ended in a East squad 125-124 victory that took a first-ever overtime period to complete.

It might have been the most explosive afternoon in this state since the frontier days of the Old West in Tombstone near the Mexican border when the Earp brothers and members of the Cowboys such as the Clanton brothers went at on Fremont Street near the O.K. Corral.

As the torch begins to get passed again to a newer group, Saturday was especially a time for league youngsters.

The youth movement was highlighted by former Louisville star Shoni Schimmel, who became the first to gain MVP honors as a rookie.

Schimmel, the first Native American to play in the league, scored a record 29 points, including seven 3-pointers by the Atlanta Dream reserve point guard playing for the East.

On the other bench second-year pro Skylar Diggins of the Tulsa Shock in her first All-Star encounter also broke the previous scoring mark as the former Notre Dame all-American collected 27 points playing for the West.

But in the end, golden oldie Tamika Catchings, the former Tennessee great with the Indiana Fever, decided the issue by grabbing a missed shot by second-year pro Nneka Ogwumike of the Los Angeles Sparks out of Stanford and going length of court to score the winning layup with 6.9 seconds left in the extra period.

"I looked up and in the course of the moment it's like -- 'Okay, you got two decisions, either pass or take it all the way.'

"The coach (Atlanta's Michael Cooper) said during the timeout that whoever got the rebound, to just go with it and keep playing. I got the ball and was able to go coast-to-coast with a free lane to the basket."

Diggins then lost the ball on the ensuing possession and Catchings took possession to preserve the East triumph.

"Our roookie class, we were made for this," Schimmel, with the nickname 'Showtime', said of the way so many recent newcomers have quickly adjusted to the pro game. "We're a solid rookie class and it's not just one, two or three of us, it's our whole class.

"...You go out there and strive to be the best and play against the best and you got to go out there and beat the best."

Atlanta teammate Angel McCoughtry, who also starred at Louisville and scored 13 points Saturday for the East, talked about Schimmel.

"I already knew she was a great shooter," McCoughtry said. "I was just waiting for it to come out and it did. It was just amazing to watch.

"Hopefully, tonight, we took the women' game to a whole new level. So that means that Atlanta needs more ESPN games."

It was the most exciting All-Star game by the league in all 12 that have been held and the five minutes more of additional time needed to determine a winner was a special treat for the nearly building-filled crowd of 14,685 in the USAir Arena.

All of them, most of whose Phoenix Mercury have been enjoying one of the WNBA charter franchise's best seasons and are currently on top of the standings in the West, were on their feet down the stretch as if the WNBA title was about to be decided.

Three Mercury stars were on the West squad with second-year pro Brittney Griner, who missed last year's game as a rookie due to injuries, scoring 17 points and additionally she became the third All-Star to throw down a dunk in the game.

However, unlike the previous two that came in sort of set-up plays, the throw-down by the former Baylor All-American and two-time national player of the year came in the flow of the action.

Lisa Leslie, whose WNBA career was spent all in Los Angeles, scored the first dunk in an All-Star game -- she also had the first WNBA regular season dunk -- nine seasons ago while the Chicago Sky's Sylvia Fowles had the other in 2009.

"That's big," Griner said of her slam. "When they clear the court and let you dunk, that's cool, too, but being able to do it in the midst of the game just shows, you know, the progress of the league.

"Before, you know we had to set things up. Now, you just tell 'em 'Hey, we should try to get a dunk,' and we know we can do it now."

Former Temple star Candice Dupree of the Mercury scored 12 points off the bench to complete all the points in double figures by West players but Phoenix's Diana Taurasi, another former UConn star who is one of the world's top players, added four points to the West attack.

Dupree talked afterwards of Griner's improvement after a rookie season in which she had been hampered by injuries.

"She's gotten a lot better. I was curious in the offseason, coming back to see how much she had developed while playing overseas," Dupree said.

"She looks good. She's a lot more poised on the block. She's got moves with her back to the basket. She's playing really well."

All-Star records fell during the 45 minutes of action like a midafternoon cloudburst in these parts.

One of them won't appear in the books but the first do-over balloting for a potential recount of votes cast by a panel of selected media representatives who were to choose the Most Valuable Player had to be held when in the final three minutes of the fourth quarter the West erased an 11-point deficit with a 13-2 run to tie the game on Diggins' layup with 26.3 seconds left.

The re-count may have been unecessary.

The votes seemed to be heading in Schimmel's direction when the East had the big lead and if she was about to land a trophy in regulation, her six points in the overtime preserved her latest hardware acquisition.

At the end of regulation with the teams tied 112-112, Diggins had already edged the previous scoring mark of 23 points set a year ago by MVP Candace Parker of Los Angeles out of Tennessee playing in her first game after missing several previous All-Star clashes due to injuries.

Schimmel, who has the top-selling jersey in the league, had matched that former scoring mark of Parker's in regulation, but with the game's five-minute extension, former UConn great Maya Moore of the defending champion Minnesota Lynx also topped the mark with 24 points.

Moore was the overall vote recipient in the fan tabulations to select starters.

One spectacular play involving Schimmel, who had 24 of her points after halftime, saw her make a circus shot over Griner.

It was Schimmel's Louisville squad that short-circuited Griner's collegiate career in 2013 with an upset in the NCAA Sweet 16 that denied Baylor a repeat NCAA title.

Schimmel Saturday also set new marks for made treys with the seven scored and attempts with 16 from beyond the arc.

She also set records for made field goals with 11 and attempts with 24.

"That's the reason we drafted her because she was a three-point threat," said Atlanta's Cooper, who made Schimmel the eighth overall pick in the first round in April.

Schmimmel, who had her whole family here to watch her play, was the third WNBA reserve to start as an All-Star, the Associated Press cited STATS, and she was also the third overall vote-getter.

There were 11 other team records set or tied and one of them included fewest fouls in which the West tied the 2009 East mark of five. In fact, the East on Saturday was a meager 1-for-1 from the charity stripe for the entire game and did not get to make an attempt in the first half.

Parker talked about Schimmel erasing her All-Star mark that lasted just one year.

"Man, she showed out. She played on my overeas team when she was younger and she was amazing then," Parker recalled. "So I wish she would have went to Tennessee."

In terms of the performances by the rookies both on the All-Star squads and elsewhere throughout the league, Parker noted, "I thought everybody did a great job, just coming out and showing how the game's changing. We got a dunk for the fans, we were able to get some nice moves. Obviously, Shoni played well. It's good for the future of our game."

In WNBA president Laurel J. Richie's pre-game press conference, she noted 28 rookies made WNBA rosters -- the team size was increased by one slot to 12 in the new CBA agreement made in the offseason -- and that seven had started in at least one game.

Richie also said among other things that the New York Liberty's return to Madison Square Garden after three summers of across the Hudson River in the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., because of renovations, has resulted in an increase of revenues at 26 percent for the franchise housed in the WNBA's largest market.

Meanwhile, during the 13-2 run, Moore and Diggins, who were collegiate and national rivals for two seasons in the Notre Dame-UConn series in the former Big East configuration, accounted for all the points with Diggins scoring eight and Moore collecting five.

"We're competitive, that's what happened," Diggins said. "Ir turned into a real game and not an All-Star Game and we played defense, finally.

"But we're all competitors and we knew we were going to turn up the heat," Diggins continued.

"When you got players like (Griner) and Nneka out there you can make things happen quickly, and you can score in bunches.

"We had Sue out there with the young legs tonight," she said of Seattle Storm veteran Sue Bird, another UConn great, who was picked by league president Laurel Richie as a replacement when reserve Seimone Augustus of the Lynx was unable to play because of an injury that has had her sidelined in recent weeks.

"I thought we did a great job of making the comeback and tying it up, making it go into overtime and that was a show," Diggins said. "That was a show for the fans and they got extra. Everybody got their moneysworth tonight and it was fun to be a part of."

The West would not yield its momentum at the start of the overtime and when Moore hit a trey for a 124-117 lead with 1 minute, 59 seconds left in the extra session, it seemed the West would rule again.

"Well, I'm glad we were the ones coming from behind, so it was a great push," Moore said. "We scored ... points in a couple of minutes and had a lot of momentum going into OT. But it was a fun game. I'm sure everyone enjoyed it."

The East, who had erased a 12-point deficit in the second quarter for a 57-53 lead at the half, was not done, just as the West had not hung it up at the close of regulation.

Katie Douglas of the Connecticut Sun hit a trey, then Catchings grabbed Diggins' miss and then Schimmel nailed another 3-pointer to cut the deficit to one before Catchings' heroics put the East in possession of the trophy.

Neither team topped the one-squad mark set by the West in 2009 in a 130-118 win at the Mohegan Sun Arena, home of the Connecticut squad.

But with the overtime, the combined 249-point total is also a record in that category.

Catchings, who finished with 14 points but is also one of the defensive stars of the league, was one short of a game-record on the rebounding end with her 13 falling just behind the 14 achieved by Los Angeles' Leslie in 2002 and Yolanda Griffith of the former Sacramento Monarchs in 2005.

Leslie was here as part of the weekend events and during the game the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame released word that she will be part of the next six-member induction class to be enshrined June 13 of next year.

A separate Guru post on the announcement is just under this report.

Griffith was one of the six inductees who entered the Women's Hall a month ago and is also currently an assistant coach with Lafayette of the Patriot League.

Threes were easy to come by for many players though the overall combined team mark of 29 was just missed by one 3-pointer as Douglas connected on five from beyond the arc, Briann January of Indiana who starred at nearby Arizona State over in Tempe, connected on three; and New York Liberty star Tina Charles, another former UConn great, hit one trey for the East as part of the combined 28 total.

Charles also scored in double figures with 19 points, Douglas finished with 15, and McCoughtry, as previously mentioned, scored 13.

"You can tell (the West) had the home court and everybody thought the West was going to blow us out," Douglas said of the game in which for a time she was reunited with Catchings with whom she had played in Indiana in recent seasons prior to this summer.

"I'm happy for the East," Douglas said. "We had a lot of first-timers and it was a lot of fun."

Three-pointers were also made on the West by Moore with four, Parker and Griner with one each -- "it'a an All-Star game, why not?" Griner said of her make -- and former UConn star Bird of Seattle, here as an injury replacement for Minnesota's Seimone Augustus, also hit a trey.

Jessica Breland, a cancer survivor who is with the Chicago Sky, grabbed 12 rebounds for the East and Ogwumike was the West's top rebounder with 11.

Her younger sister Chiney of Connecticut, who also played for Stanford, represented the East and scored eight points as did Nneka.

"When you play with 'Showtime Shoni' it's so much fun, Chiney said. "Honestly, as rookies, we feel really blessed to be here.

"We were like, 'let's make the most of it, and honestly we're like, 'Shoni, your job today is to shoot the ball everytime you get it.'

"You cannot guard her when she is in the open court. She's a perfect player for an All-Star game. So just to have her on my side as rookies together, in the East, getting the win, ideal for an All-Star game -- we're lucky."

It was a first to have two sisters in the game and they met for the first time a week ago when Los Angeles visited Connecticut and will meet again when Chiney and the Sun go West to play the return game.

"Before, after, halftime, during, we're always talking," Chiney said of being on opposite sides from Nneka after two seasons together at Stanford before Nneka's graduation in 2012.

Both of them were the first sisters to also become the top overall draft picks as Los Angeles picked Nneka in 2012 before Connecticut took Chiney in April.

"We were just having a lot of fun. We just played a week ago or so in Connecticut and that was really serious. So this time it was just a lot of fun being on the same court in this atmosphere," Chiney smiled.

"It's one of those things when we're old ladies, we're going to talk about -- 'well, this was really cool,' you know? But we had a lot of fun and she was definitely the first one to start talking trash.'"

Former Delaware star Elena Delle Donne of the Chicago Sky, the second best overall vote-getter this time around and tops in the East, was not here and is back home dealing with a recurrence of Lyme Disease that sidelined her for a portion of her collegiate career with the Blue Hens.

She also missed last year's classic in a season in which she was rookie of the year and top overall All-Star vote-getter but suffered a concussion in a game just before the event at the Mohegan Sun.

A year ago the focus was off the "Three to See," promotion focusing on Griner, Delle Donne, and Diggins, who arrived as the overall 1-2-3 picks in the draft, but the hype, according to Chiney, became motivation for the next group of seniors who are this year's WNBA rookies.

"I don't know if we took it personal, but our class was like we all put it on our own selves to come in and do well," Cbiney explained.

"I think it's amazing. We have Shoni here at the All-Star game. We have (former Baylor star) Odyssey Sims doing great things, Natasha Howard, Kayla (McBride) in San Antonio, so we're all spread out but I think we all have this competitive spirit that you saw today from Shoni.

"We just love to play -- love to uplift each other. We've known each other for a long time. A lot of people don't know that we started off in Nike skills camps like when we were 12 or 13 years old and that sort of set the foundation for us to play against the older women," Chiney said.

"Today was an opportunity for us to get our feet wet in this scenario and obviously, Shoni, MVP, she's a real MVP for all reasons so I just think we're blessed and fortunate to be here as rookies but at the same time we're very hungry.

"Our whole class is hungry."

Atlanta's Cooper became the first to coach winners as well as East and West teams in general in both divisions after previously coaching the West in 2002 and 2003 after the former NBA Lakers star had guided Los Angeles to its two titles the previous summers.

Fred Williams was gone from the Dream after last season's East title and is now head coach of ther Tulsa Shock in the West.

So with Cooper's Dream leading the East in the regular season at the cutoff point to select the All-Star coach in the division, he got the job.

"Boy, what a wonderful basketball game," Cooper said. "This was so wonderful to be a part of -- this is what the WNBA is about.

"Spectacular moments, spectacular games. But for our game to put 249 points on the board between two teams really showed we can put the ball in the basket and hopefully this attracted a lot of people who questioned whether they liked the WNBA as far as watching it or attending it -- I think they can come out and be a part of it.

"But it was fantastic. I told our team to just go out and wow the crowd and have fun and boy they did that."

Minnesota's Cheryl Reeve, who coached the West after three straight West Division playoff titles and two of them translating into WNBA crowns in 2011, Moore's rookie season, and 2013, talked about the almost tennis-like back-and-forth by play between Schimmel and Diggins.

"It was fun. Shoni, once she got going, everytime it left her hand, it had a really good chance of going in, even when she was off balance, kicking her leg a little bit, but she was feeling it, the All-Star game, no question, is right in her wheelhouse.

"That's her game, her style, and I was really happy her college coach Jeff (Walz) could be here.

Obviously, Michael Cooper, he's got big decisions to make. He's got the MVP of the All-Star game so I suspect when we see him (against Atlanta) on Tuesday (when the regular season resumes) that Shoni might be in the starting lineup. I don't know."

Reeve was asked about the uniqueness in the WNBA All-Star event where unlike similar games in other sports both sides really start engaging as if the game was more than a display of the league's best talent.

"Fourth quarter, we're trying to win the game," Reeve said. "Our players just took it upon themselves to try to get back into the game. I thought Skylar was terrific in that stretch.

"Playing off our defense in that stretch. I told Sue Bird, she had the legs of a 22-year-old out there. Maya started making some shots Nneka was getting rebounds.

"It's that fine line All-Star game. The fans want to see a show. Obviously we don't want to give 100 percent where they're going crazy but I thought our balance was really good of just playing really good basketball, playing hard for the most part but not playing hectic where everybody's getting hurt.

"I thought the officials did a good job, don't think I've ever said that before," Reeve quipped. "But the vibe of the game, a lot had to do with the fans were engaged in the game, we just kind of fed off their energy.

"I think you have certain players, they're All-Stars for a reason and they've got that competitive fire in them and it gets to the point where you're trying to get separation to win a game and that's what you see."

Reeve is also an assistant to UConn coach Geno Auriemma, in charge of the USA Senior National Women's Team, for this September's FIBA World Championship in Turkey.

All-time great Dawn Staley, currently coaching South Carolina since leaving Temple in 2008, is also on the staff, making three Philly people because Auriemma grew up in Norristown after arriving as a baby with his parents from Italy.

The other assistant is DePaul's Doug Bruno in Chicago.

The USA squad will train in Annapolis, Md., in early September with one game to be played on the way overseas in Bridgeport, Conn., against Canada in a friendly on Sept. 15.

Not announced yet, but after leaving the training site, another game is expected to be played prior to Bridgeport in Delaware's Bob Carpenter Center where a sellout crowd in May saw Delle Donne's Chicago squad beat the Washington Mystics in a preseason game.

Of the 23 Americans, counting the replacements and stars with injuries, on the combined rosters here -- Atlanta's Erika de Souza is a Brazilian -- 10 have played on Olympic gold medalists squads for USA and most besides a few others here are likely to be at training camp when the final members of the FIBA tournament squad are being determined.

And that is everything.

-- Mel

- Posted using BlogPress from the Guru's iPad


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