Guru's WNBA All-Star Musings: Weekend Was a One-Stop Shop in Women's Pro Hoops
By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru
Also for Blue Star Media
UNCASVILLE, Conn. – The WNBA All-Star weekend was basically your one-stop shop for everything in women’s professional basketball in the United States and then some.
In terms of a show and talent there was plenty to go around for the second straight year where this time it was the West on Saturday coming out in another high-scoring fireworks attack from both sides, this one 117-112 in regulation by the West.
A year ago it was the East out-gunning the West 125-124 in overtime in Phoenix.
And being in the sport’s capital of America in terms of the ongoing NCAA champion University of Connecticut Huskies and the local WNBA franchise Connecticut Sun, the populace here was rewarded by a nice 23-point effort on the East from third-year pro Alex Bentley, a former Penn State standout who is in her second season here after spending her rookie debut summer with the Atlanta Dream.
“Man, I’ve been dreaming for days like this all my life,” Bentley, a native of Indiana, said afterwards. “I’ve been wanting to play basketball since I was 5 or 6 years old. I used to go to Indiana Fever games and want to be in their shoes. Wanted to be in Tamika Catchings’ shoes.
“It’s pretty surreal for me today to be able to play with the greats, the greats of the game. Just like (NY Liberty center and former UConn great) Tina (Charles) said, you get to see a different side of the players.,
“So it’s an incredible experience, and I’m just very blessed. Like God is really good to me and I’m just happy to be here.”
But if Bentley’s basketball genes are a composite of a lot of places, the masses got one of their own in terms of the Minnesota Lynx’s Maya Moore, the former UConn two-time national player of the year, reigning WNBA player of the year, who set an All-Star 30-point scoring record to also earn MVP game status after eclipsing the 29-point explosion from then-Atlanta rookie Shoni Schimmel set last year on the East.
Moore virtually took care of business herself in the last quarter with an 8-0 run to help the West pull away.
When one wants to think of the gold standard in terms of all-around excellence in the last three decades, then all-timer Lisa Leslie, who is Naismith Hall of Fame bound in September after gaining the Women’s Hall last month, is the name to be uttered.
It’s important to know that because soon after the postgame interviews ended, the a league spokesman informed that Moore, with a WNBA finals MVP on the Lynx, the 2014 season MVP and now the All-Star MVP matched an achievement by one other individual in WNBA history – Leslie, who played for the Los Angeles Sparks.
The only difference was Leslie did it all in 2001.
“It’s going to be a toss between Minnesota fans and these fans, both near and dear to my heart,” Moore said about her performance. “If I was going to do it in front of any other fans that weren’t Minnesota, I would want it to be here in Connecticut.
“So had a blast doing it. They also got a great performance from one of their own players with Alex, so I think they double dipped. Is that allowed? Look it up.”
Asked more about Bentley’s game, Moore noted, “Yeah, she played great. She just played aggressive. She’s such an All-Star player. That’s when she shines. She’s one of those players that gets a rhythm, gets the crowd involved.”
Another Leslie All-Star record was dispensed with the veteran Catchings scoring eight points to bring her summer classic total to 108, moving past Leslie’s 102 to the top of the all-time list in that category.
Catchings, of whom we will have more to say in a bit, also topped former WNBA great Tina Thompson with her 10th all-time selection and ninth game participation, having missed the 2006 AlL-Stars with an injury.
The former Tennessee All-American, whose father Harvey played for the Philadelphia 76ers, is also ahead in a slew of other All-Star categories, in what was her last appearance due to her previous announced retirement after next season in which the game is set aside on the league agenda because of the summer Olympics.
There was the Phoenix Mercury’s Brittney Griner, who finished with 21 points and beforehand predicting a dunk, blocked shot and three-pointer from her dominant game and then delivering all three in a short span in the third quarter.
“When I’m on the court, I’m not really thinking about it like that, but I’m thinking about it now because everybody mentions it to me,” the former Baylor star and 2013 overall No. 1 draft pick who helped lead Phoenix to last season’s WNBA title, said.
“I’m just trying to bring something exciting to the game, get more people involved, get more people watching and just have fun, honestly. I just love to do it. My teammates feed off of it, so I can get my teammates going. I’ll keep doing it.”
Griner’s coach Sandy Brondello guided the West as a result of getting to the league finals while for the same reason the East was led by the Chicago Sky’s Pokey Chatman.
“It’s like Christmas,” Chatman said about being able to coach some of league’s plentiful and top talent, many of whom will be on the same side next summer headed by UConn’s Geno Auriemma, who will be going for his unprecedented, as a coach, second Olympic gold medal in Brazil.
His staff includes the Minnesota Lynx’s Cheryl Reeve, the South Jersey native who played at La Salle and has won two WNBA crowns; and local Philly legend Dawn Staley, currently the coach if South Carolina who on Sunday led the USA U-19 team to a Gold medal in Russia.
DePaul’s Doug Bruno rounds out the Auriemma’s formal staff but his UConn assistant Chris Dailey and Hartford coach and former UConn star Jen Rizzotti are part of the overall support group helping to handle scouting and video work.
Meanwhile, Chicago’s Elena Delle Donne out of Delaware in her third year in the league, finally got to play after missing the first two opportunities because of injuries.
“Yeah, I kind of have been in a bubble the last couple days,” she jested at Friday’s practice sessions in terms of avoiding any freak occurrences that would cause another miss.
Delle Donne, who despite a recurrence of Lyme disease and back pain last summer lead Chicago to a rally to the finals, was the overall No. 1 fan vote in her rookie 2013 season when she was the overall No. 2 draft pick, and gained that honor this time again.
If you wanted to speak in terms of baseball and media attention coming and going out of here, Delle Donne, off her league-leading scoring exploits and other stats, arrived in Connecticut with the acclaim of the leading Cy Young pitching candidate and by postgame in the wake of all the other storylines that broke out fell into the role of a heady eighth-inning reliever.
That speaks more to the talent wealth of the league and how fast things can change but Delle Donne certainly was one of the East’s top producers with her 16 points behind Bentley was the second best output, her eight rebounds was two behind Catchings, she hit two of the combined teams array of 81 attempted trays, 42-East, 39-West, which was an All-Star record , and an assist.
“It was awesome,” Delle Donne said of the experience. “It was so much fun playing alongside these awesome players and I feel like we put on a great show. Obviously, we would have liked to win but I had a really good time.”
She also addressed the competitive nature this event has had compared to All-Star events in other sports, especially in the final minutes.
“Yeah, definitely like in the last four minutes I feel like it got real serious. That’s how we are. We’re competitive and that’s in our nature. I knew it was going to get serious if the game was close towards the end.”
Delle Done was the Page One USA Today feature setting up this weekend’s game, another example of the attention being paid to women’s sports in America in the wake of the USA soccer World Cup gold medal and Serena Williams’ exploits in Tennis.
“This is a great time for women’s sports, seeing women’s soccer, Serena Williams. It’s kind of a different time right now. It’s just a great time for the WNBA as well. Being on the front page of USA Today is huge for visibility.”
Connecticut fans got more of their own to embrace in veteran Sue Bird of the Seasttle Storm, a starter in place of the injured Skylar Diggins of the lame-diuck Tulsa Shock (heading to Dallas), who was the overall No. 3 pick in the fabled 2013 draft behind Griner and Delle Donne.
Minnesota’s Seimone August, another voted starter, and Lindsay Whelan, were also sidelined and Phoenix’s DeWanna Bonner was another replacement for the tip.
Connecticut also got to cheer for former UConn great Tina Charles, a former Sun star now with the revived New York Liberty who had 13 points for the East, and reserve Stefanie Dolson, a second-year pro with the Washington Mystics who brought her usual bubbling personality to the weekend’s events.
Kelsey Bone of the Sun was a reserve matched Delle Donne’s eight rebounds for second-best in that cagtegory.
Diggins might have been missing but Notre Dame fans from wherever they were observing got to cheer another of their own in replacement Kyla McBride, a second-year pro with the San Antonio Silver Stars who led the first West comeback, nailed four treys and finished with 18 points.
Jantel Lavender, the former Ohio State star with the Los Angeles Sparks, was another injured replacement and she grabbed 12 rebounds for the West while reserve Nneka Ogwumike, whose sister Chiney, a second-year pro and reigning rookie of the year sidelined this season rehabbing an injury, is on the Sun, scored 10.
Both Oguwmike sisters starred at Stanford with Nneka the overall No. 1 draft pick in 2012.
The other replacement was Tulsa’s Riquana Williams, a fourth-year pro out of Miami.
Shoni Schimmel, the star of last year’s game, finished with 13 for the East playing as a starter alongside her Atlanta Dream teammate Angel McCoughtry, the top pick of the 2009 draft when Atlanta was making its debut as an expansion team.
And in terms of finding all the elements as described in the one-stop shop at the top of this was a full dose of nostalgia in terms of Catchings, the Indiana Fever East starter, who had eight points and 10 rebounds.
While next year is her victory lap through the league, the mention of this being the last All-Star started the theme months ahead of when the story of her farewell hits full steam.
So postgame was a time for reflection about coming along in back of the then founding players such as Dawn Staley, Lisa Leslie, and the Sheryl Swoopes, taking the keys to the joint from them and now passing them to the new generation of stars.
By the way, after all the preseason coverage of angst over Phoenix’s Diana Taurasi and Los Angeles’ Candice Parker deciding to take time off to rest little was made of the duo not being in their usual place among West starters.
Parker recently announced she is returning to action this week while Taurasi is being paid by her Russian winter team a large amount of money to rest her body.
Catchings sounded the mantra of leadership in her first response in the postgame presser.
“One thing I told one of our All-Stars is it doesn’t matter whether you get voted in by the fans, you get voted in by the coaches (six reserves each team no votes for own squad), you get voted in through injury, once you’re an All-Star, you’re an All-Star.”
On how the action played out, Catchings related, “One thing I always tell them is, look, when we come out here we play hard, both sides.
“We need to make sure that our product and what we put on the court is something that people no matter, if they’ve watched us before or never watched us, they’re excited to come back and see the WNBA and the players that played today.”
Besides the trio mentioned in terms of torch passing, Catchings noted that next came Katie Smith (now a Liberty assistant) and Tina Thomspon, then her group with Rutgers grad and Chicago star Cappie Pondexter at the end, and then Parker, Delle Donne, Diggins and Moore as the next recipients.
“We’ve come a long way from the beginning,” she said. “…today is an example of hwo good the WNBA will continue to be, and these players are aspiring.
“There are a lot of players and lots of girls here today that are aspiring to play in the WNBA. This is the reason why, to have an opportunity to play in the WNBA, to have an opportunity to be an All-Star, to have an opportunity to represent your country.”
Catchings got a bit misty-eyed when asked about her thoughts watching the ’96 Olympic team as a young girl.
“I remember, like, oh, my gosh, this would be – what an amazing opportunity if I could play and represent my country, and that was besides the WNBA,” Catchings recalled.
“Then the WNBA comes around and you guys know my story. I wanted to be in the NBA from 7th grade on. I was going to be in the the NBA, and I was determined, and I was going to play with the guys and nobody could tell me no,” she continued.
“When the W came, my goals switched and I wanted to be in the WNBA.
“…Everybody talked about these players. You saw Dawn and you saw Cheryl, and you saw Rebecca Lobo. You saw them everywhere and I just remember saying I want to be like that one day. I want to be where they are.
“I want to be remembered like they’ll be remembered. And so you fast forward and I will be.
“A lot of people doubted the WNBA and how long it would last, and we’ll be celebrating 20 years next year. That’s a heck of a thing to say.I’m just blessed to have been part of it.”
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