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, December 28, 2014

Guru's Year in Review: Off-Court Events Dominated the News More Than the Competition

By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru

For all the glory on the court in 2014, glory by the way that had a definitive University of Connecticut accent in the NCAA championship, the WNBA finals, and the FIBA World Championship, the major stories in women’s basketball in the United States all involved sideline events though the court competitiveness is still part of the narrative.

While the normal thing to do when compiling a year in review, in this instance as we approach the last of 365 days that all carry the stamp of 2014, is to rank the big stories.

This particular year, however, with all that happened where the hardwood was more co-star than main attraction, it would be better to rank categories and then recall all that happened within those boundaries, rather than singular items, though some will be one and the same.

And so with that in mind, let’s go to the top category.

1. Mortality This is the one area that, despite what the Guru just wrote in the preceding paragraphs, the one item that would be singularly listed in the other format as the top story of the year, also resides in this group and it is more about the fight to extend mortality, achieve a goal, and all in one breath also teach about courage, desire, and love of the game.

Somewhere in mid-October, local reporting out of Cincinnati that made its way through social media nationally brought attention to the story of 19-year-old Lauren Hill, a newly-enrolled freshman at Division III Mount. St. Joseph’s University.

A year earlier, Hill, then a senior at nearby Lawrenceburg High in neighboring northern Kentucky, had learned not long after declaring the Lions as the college program of her choice, that she had a rare inoperable pediatric brain tumor and was given at best two years to live.

Hill continued her high school season while taking treatments but last September after arriving at Mount. St. Joseph’s, she learned the tumor was growing faster and doctors said, at best, she would probably pass away sometime in December.

At this hour of writing this, very early Sunday, Dec. 28, defying the medical forecasts she is still with us, though she is now at home and taking hospice care.

Her family has been posting information on facebook and they have made it clear that although hospice is usually an occurrence to help a patient in their dwindling hours, in this instance the addition of hospice right now is like adding a team player to make things easier and help give doctors information.

Upon hearing the news in September, Hill had two goals, one was to make it to her first collegiate game and score a basket and the second was to fundraise $1 million by the end of this month toward research as she battled to raise awareness of this pediatric cancer and perhaps in the process sometime in the future others who get stricken might be able to get cured.

The fund is called the Lauren Hill Tribute Fund at The Cure Starts Now and so far according to one report $730,000 has been raised to date..

The season opener was originally supposed to be played Nov. 15 at Hiram College, but the school accepted coach Dan Benjamin’s request to move the game to Mount St. Joseph’s.

Then he made one other request and the NCAA in an unprecedented move allowed the opener to be moved up two weeks to Nov. 2.

Meanwhile, schools across the country in all three NCAA Divisions began sending their No. 22 (Lauren’s number) jerseys to be autographed by her for fundraising activity at the game.

Chicago Sky and former Delaware star Elena Delle Donne galvanized WNBA players into activities, including video tributes offering to dedicate their seasons to her cause.

Xavier University stepped in and offered their 10,000 Cintras Center for the game as opposed to the Lions’ facility of several hundred seats and when tickets were put on sale they were gone within an hour.

FOX Sports, originally, planned to televise the game on their Ohio outlet but by game day the event was carried on every platform not involved with NFL coverage and those markets later carried the game on delayed tape.

It was also streamed on the internet.

Players from other major league sports became involved such as the local NFL Cincinnati Bengals and Major League Baseball Cincinnati Reds.

In a first, the United States Basketball Writers Association moved up its Pat Summitt Most Courageous Award given at the Men’s and Women’s Final Fours – the name of the Tennessee coach Emeritus is on the women’s award – and presented it at halftime.

Summitt, who stepped down at the end of the 2012 seasons because of her own fight against Early Onset Dementia, Alzheimer Type, made a special visit to the game to help hand out the award.

The Hall of Famer’s continuing battle against the disease has been an ongoing part of the yearly narrative.

Another Summitt, also made news in 2014, which will be addressed in another category down below.

Meanwhile, for those in the arena for Hill’s game from all walks of life, it was an experience of a lifetime filled with emotion, especially since Hill scored a layup in the opening minute of play.

Other tributes have continued to pour in and recently the (Jimmy) V Foundation presented a check for $100,000 to the fundraising efforts.

She also scored at the end of the game, got in for a few minutes at a tournament in Cleveland and scored, and then got in a game and scored again at her true home opener.

Following the last game, she announced her retirement and became an assistant coach with the Lions.

Hill’s story continues and likely to also be part of the 2015 year in review narrative 12 months from now.

Two Coaching Staff Members of Richmond (Va.) Perish in a Balloon Accident

The women’s basketball community gasped on May 9 when Richmond associate head coach Ginny Doyle and operations director Natalie Lewis were killed with the pilot near Richmond when the balloon they were riding struck a power line and exploded while coming in for a landing at the Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival.

Lewis, a star swimmer, was not as known nationally since she had not been on Michael Shafer’s staff that long, but Doyle, who grew up in Philadelphia, was known everywhere from coaches who were with her on the recruiting circuit and from her Richmond days as a player in which she set an NCAA record for consecutive foul shots at 66 that stood a long time.

Other Notables

Meanwhile, the first week of the new year brought the news of the death of longtime Penn State women’s basketball sports information staffer Mary Jo Haverbeck after a short illness after she learned in late November she had an inoperable brain tumor.

Haverbeck, who was retired but wrote for a local Penn State publication, was a pioneer for women in the profession and a mentor to many who came along years after she was one of the very few of her gender in the business.

In April the USBWA announced a new Mary Jo Haverbeck Award to someone in the profession who has been of great assistance to members of the media, similar to the Katha Quinn Award given at the men’s final four.

The first recipient, to be determined, will be presented with the Mary Jo Haverbeck Award at the Women’s Final Four in April in Tampa, Fla.

On February 10, longtime Women’s Basketball Coaches Executive Betty F. Jaynes, the founding officer of the organization and former James Madison coach, died after a long illness.

Jaynes was also a mentor many and her passion for the game touched many who got into the coaching profession after their playing days had ended.

2. Dunking for a Cause Yes, that’s right, fun was actually part of the 2014 narrative but it wasn’t the dunking done slamming a ball through a rim.

Starting as a small initiative that was originally figured to be a regional event housed in the Pac-12, Arizona coach Niya Butts, who played at Tennessee, and assistant Wildcats coach Calamity McEntire conceived of #Chillin4Charity for the benefit of the Kay Yow Cancer Fund.

The idea was that after getting a bucket of ice water dumped on her head, Butts then issued a challenge to other conference colleagues to do likewise, and if so, she would donate $50, but if they didn’t, they would have to donate $250.

However, soon those coaches began issuing challenges well beyond the conference to colleagues and others across the nation and within a few days video shots were flooding the internet with coaches, administrators, players, referees, and media notables all involved.

Even the entire NCAA women’s basketball committee, who were at their summer meeting, got soaked.

And, yes, yours truly got chilled from a challenge from the Temple coaches in Philadelphia.

Yow foundation executive Sue Donohoe’s head was spinning trying to keep track of everything that from one bucket of water became a tidal wave of participation.

3. Student Issues and NCAA Upheaval

Both genders were involved through aspects of the lawsuits against the NCAA but two particular transfer situations on the women’s side became major issues in the media, dominating a normal otherwise quiet offseason, ice bucket challenge aside.

Leticia Romero, a Spaniard who was one of the nation’s top freshmen at Kansas State, sought to change schools after the Wildcats’ coach was let go.

However, to survive financially and receive an athletic scholarship during her year in which she would be redshirted under NCAA eligibility rules, Romero needed a release from Kansas State.

Officials, however, refused making one false claim after another as to Romero’s intentions but as they did such persons as ESPN’s Jay Bilas, a noted critic of the NCAA rules, and Michelle Voepel were out in public daily making the case for Romero.

Eventually, Kansas State reversed itself and Romero moved to Florida State, where in the last few days a “nothing-to-lose” request made by Florida State to the NCAA for a waiver to play immediately was granted and she will debut Monday night against Jacksonville.

Meanwhile, as the Romero case was dying down another one sprung up at Alabama where Daisha Simmons, who previously was a Rutgers player, was transferring to Seton Hall because the Tide did not have a graduate program she needed and also to be near her family, who had health issues.

Alabama refused to give her a waiver to play immediately, which as a graduate student she would be able to do, but after another media firestorm, Tide officials relented and she has become a key player for the Pirates’ revival under second year coach Tony Bozzella.

It was also old faces in new places as the conference shakeup in the wake of the change driven by football went into effect.

The once powerful Big East was now the surviving seven Catholic schools with a few additions while the parts of the old coalition that did not go elsewhere became The American, led by UConn, with Louisville and Rutgers hanging around for one year before heading to the Atlantic Coast Conference and Big Ten.

Notre Dame began life in the ACC and went unbeaten in the conference all the way to the NCAA title game until it the Irish had to face UConn (see below).

Though to date most of the latest transients have been playing non-conference action, Maryland, formerly an ACC power, and Rutgers are about to splash into the Big Ten pool, while likewise for Louisville in the ACC.

Meanwhile, the coming of allowing the so-called Power Five (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC) to play more or less by their own sub-regulations is expected to impact many mid-major groups as their coaches seek to not run into obstacles such as financial aid on the recruiting trails.

While the NCAA was dealing with internal and external matters, the WBCA made a change when top executive Beth Bass resigned and a search for a replacement resulted in Danielle Donohew, the WBB head of The American getting the job.

Barb Jacobs, who had ben in charge of referees for the Big East and American, left over from her previous unified Big East position, replaced Donohew and she was replaced by Debbie Williamson, who had a similar job over everyone in the NCAA.

Retired referee June Courteau replaced Williamson at the national level.

4. The “Mo’ne Phenomenon Hits Women’s Basketball

It was enough of an attention getter involving female athletes when Mo’ne Davis and the Taney Dragons out of Philadelphia reached the Little League World Series and she threw a shutout in the opener.

But it turns out the eighth-grader (as of this winter) also played basketball and during all the media coverage when asked about her future aspirations she emphatically said she’d like to play for UConn and Geno Auriemma.

Several days later Auriemma, after checking with UConn’s new appliance director who apparently made a mistake granting approval, called the Series to leave a message of good luck.

Davis happened to be in the room and took the call.

Predictably, a few days later it became known that a complaint was filed by a conference with the NCAA, which ruled that Auriemma had made a secondary violation, though athletic director Ward Emanuel disagreed with the finding.

Davis went on to appearing nationwide on TV shows and at major league ball parks and even was cleared to do a commercial for Chevrolet.

Back home when the season just begun at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy in suburban Philadelphia, Davis was moved from the junior varsity to the varsity because coaches said her skill set was more appropriate at that level.

5. One Big Step for the NBA One Larger One for Women’s Coaches

We’re making this a stand-alone event because of the notoriety and attention, but close to the end of the WNBA season in which All-Star Becky Hammon was heading for retirement from the San Antonio Silver Stars, the NBA defending champion and big brother San Antonio Spurs brought cheers from the women’s world in announcing that Hammon would join Greg Popovich’s staff as an assistant coach.

ESPN named Hammon their Impact Woman of the Year topping a list of 25 women in sports.

Since it’s basketball, it is notable that Michele Lee, an attorney, became the first female head of the NBA players association and also is over the WNBA players, whose union is about to undergo a sub-leadership shakeup in their labor unit.

6. Coaching Shuffle Yields a Fabled Name and Controversy

The changes in the offseason were much fewer than in the previous ones but two notable hires raised eyebrows at Arkansas and Louisiana Tech.

The Razorbacks hired Jimmie Dykes, an alumnus and ESPN broadcaster, who had not coached men or women, bringing an outcry from several quarters about not hiring a qualified women.

Of course, it is not known who were the finalists and Dykes at the outset had Arkansas playing well enough to make a brief appearance in the AP poll for the first time in several years.

Louisiana Tech, once the top national rival of Tennessee, went for the legendary coach’s son, hiring Tyler Summitt, who previously had been a women’s assistant at Marquette for his first coaching gig.

At the moment, the young Summitt was holding his own record-wise and his staff does include former Lady Vols assistant Mickie DeMoss, who had been an assistant in the WNBA.

7. UConn DNA Accents the Competition

We’re lumping this all together without regard to a sub-ranking but the UConn influence stood up big as mentioned above in all three major women’s competitions in the NCAA, WNBA and Internationally.

There was no surprise at the outcome but history was made when two unbeaten teams reached the NCAA title game where Connecticut defended its previous crown, romping over Notre Dame to give Geno Auriemma his ninth NCAA title, breaking the one-year tie he held for most championships with Tennessee’s Pat Summitt.

One more and he catches the late and legendary UCLA men’s coach John Wooden, who had 10 rings.

On Saturday, a win over SMU to start conference play made Auriemma the top women’s coach winner by percentage, snapping a tie with former Louisiana Tech coach Leon Barmore.

Of course, since Auriemma is still active he will have to keep winning to avoid slipping behind Barmore.

UConn’s Breanna Stewart, then a sophomore, repeated as the Most Valuable Player and though the Huskies won’t be unbeaten again this time around after Stanford snapped a 47-game win streak last month, they remain the favorites to win the NCAA again.

Stewie was the consensus national player of the year while the freshman consensus was North Carolina’s Diamond DeShields, who then transferred to Tennessee in the offseason to sit out this one and play next fall.

Notre Dame’s Muffet McGraw won most of the coach of the year honors.

At the WNBA pro level, former UConn great Diana Taurasi was the key player as the Phoenix Mercury replaced the conference rival Minnesota Lynx as WNBA champions with one of the more dominating runs in the league’s history.

Brittany Griner, who was the top overall draft pick the previous season, was on the squad.

Phoenix beat Chicago in three straight though the Sky getting to the title round was in itself an achievement.

Sky super second year player Elena Delle Donne missed a large chunk of the season when the Lyme Disease that had sidelined her during her Delaware career reappeared.

Before back problems sat her down again, Delle Donne helped the Sky make a dramatic rally to oust the Atlanta Dream in the first round of the East and then oust Indiana in the conference final.

Elsewhere, on the sidelines, the L.A. Sparks surprised by ousting Carol Ross early in the season with GM Penny Toler taking the job coaching for the rest of the summer. A permanent replacement has not been named yet, though in the WNBA these hires are often not announced till January.

Likewise, the good news for the New York Liberty is after three summers across the Hudson Rver at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., they were back home in completely renovated Madison Square Garden.

The bad news is the Liberty did not make the playoffs but still surprisingly Bill Laimbeer was let go and New York has yet to decide to replace him with one person or give the GM job to someone else.

A smother transition occurred in Indiana with Lin Dunn announcing this would be her last with the Fever leading to retirement and assistant Stephanie White would be her successor.

Seattle missed the playoffs for the first time in a long while but did land the top pick off the lottery for next April’s draft.

UConn alum Maya Moore of the Minnesota Lynx was named the MVP of the WNBA regular season and Stanford grad Chiney Ogwumike of the Connecticut Sun was named rookie of the year.

Internationally, with another cluster of former UConn greats, the United States, coached by UConn’s Auriemma and assisted by the Minnesota Lynx’s Cheryl Reeve and South Carolina’s Dawn Staley, both Philadelphians as is Auriemma; and DePaul’s Doug Bruno, beat Spain for the FIBA World Championship.

Thus, the U.S. won’t have to play a qualifying tournament in 2015 in the run-up for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.

8.The Philadelphia Story

A lot of it was woven into the national recap above but still there were local items of note, beginning with the Immaculata Championship Era of 1972-74 as a team being inducted into the both the Naismith Basketball and Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fames with the Mighty Macs also to be featured this June on induction weekend as an honoree to the Trailblazers of the Game exhibit at the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Tenn.

Next Sunday today’s Mighty Macs, a Division III program, will meet Queens College in the first game of the Maggie Dixon Classic in New York at Madison Square Garden to mark the 40th anniversary of the first women’s game in the arena which involved the same two teams.

With Notre Dame and McGraw, a Saint Joseph’s grad, and Auriemma and UConn against each other in the NCAA title game and with the current AP poll 1. South Carolina, 2. UConn., 4. Notre Dame, that’s three Philly-bred coaches.

Delaware had a sellout crowd watch former superstar Elena Delle Donne come home to the Bob Carpenter Center with her WNBA Chicago Sky for a preseason game against the Washington Mystics in Newark.

At the end of the summer, though Delle Donne was unavailable because Chicago was in the finals, nevertheless a large crowd showed up at Delaware again for an intra-squad USA game on the way to the World Championships.

In a dramatic final day on the Ivy schedule, Penn and Princeton were tied for first and the Quakers had to play on the four-time defending league champion’s court in Jadwin Gym where after being trounced by the Tigers in January at The Palestra at the start of the league schedule, Penn won its third Ivy crown and went to the NCAA losing to Texas in the first round after leading at the half.

Princeton lasted two rounds in the WNIT but this season is off to a record 13-0 hot start.

Rutgers didn’t make the NCAA but winning some nailbiters along the way they captured the WNIT succeeding Drexel. The Scarlet Knights in the opener beat Delaware, which finished second in the Colonial Athletic Association.

Saint Joseph’s had one of the top RPIs and schedules in the nation and that was good enough to get an at-large bid to the NCAA where the Hawks beat Georgia at Connecticut before falling to the eventual champion Huskies.

Villanova also got to the WNIT.

Penn State won the regular season Big Ten title and made it to the Sweet 16 before being eliminated. Star Maggie Lucas of Narberth was drafted by Phoenix then traded on draft day to Indiana and was one of the top WNBA rookies of the summer.

That’s the story from here. Time to finish up the last week of 2014. Surely feel free to chime in if you feel something was omitted.

-- Mel










- Posted using BlogPress from the Guru's iPad

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