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.

Friday, September 30, 2016

WNBA Feature: Kiah Stokes Has Become the Defensive Glue of the New York Liberty

Guru note: Longtime freelance colleague Andy Lipton out of Queens has offered this article to the blog 

 By Andy Lipton

New York -- It’s time to drop some ink (or its the digital equivalentover center Kiah Stokes.  

During her college days at the University of Connecticut (UConn) and her professional career with the WNBA’s New York Liberty, the headlines have usually been reserved for Stokes' longer acclaimed teammates.  

In the world of basketball, headlines tend to go to scorers and point guards.  Once in a while a defender or rebounder gets the press.  Dennis Rodman comes to mind.  But that was probably due more to his oversized personality.  

Back in her collegiate days at UConn, which concluded in 2015, Breanna Stewart, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, Moriah Jefferson, and Bria Hartley got most of the ink.

During her two years with the Liberty, it’s been Tina Charles, Epiphanny Prince, and Swin Cash.

Yet Stokes has been an integral part of the Liberty’s resurgence the lastwo years with her defense, including shot blocking, and defensive and offensive rebounding.

This season she led the team in blocks (and sixth best in the league in blocks per game) and was second on her team in rebounding at 7.4 a game (and seventh in the league). 

And despite not taking many shots at 4.3 per game seven teammates topped her - Stokes averaged 6.9 points a game in this year’s regular season, the fourth most on her team, and led her team by far in shooting percentage at 64%.

Stokes doesn’t look fast, but somehow, whether through timing, anticipation, agility, or quickness, or a combination of those – not really sure which – Stokes gets to the ball to block shots and rebound, and stays with the player she is defending.

The WNBA coaches recognized her contributions and abilities last year during her rookie season putting her on the WNBA All-Defensive Second Team and the All-RookieTeam.  

The Liberty picked her in the first round in the 2015 draft, eleventh overall, and it was quite the pick.  

Especially since Stokes started only four games in her senior year and three games her other three years at UConn.  

It reminds me of center Swen Nater, who backed up Bill Walton at UCLA in the 1970s. Nater never started a game at UCLA but became a first round draft pick in the NBA draft.

Stokes can block shots with either hand and the blocks are deft deflections.

She has also brought a winning pedigree to the Liberty and its unquantifiable intangibles.

  Stokes won a state championship during her junior year in high school and won three NCAA championships at UConn

 The Liberty had excellent seasons her two years with them, with regular season records of 23-11 (the best in franchise history) and 21-13 and made the playoffs those two years after missing the postseason the preceding two years.

In high school, Stokes was a scorer.  

In her junior year she averaged 19.9 points per game and in her senior year, 25.  

Although the Liberty encourages her to shoot more when she is open, the offense is not geared to her.  The shot has to find her.  The offense does not allow her, to any significant extent, to find her shot as the offense is geared for Tina Charles and the guards.

The one and only Red Auerbach the legendary Boston Celtics coach, when asked why the Sixth Man, John Havlicek, wasn’t starting, said it didn’t matter who started the game, what mattered was who finished the game.

Stokes didn’t start a game this past season for the Liberty, but in close games she was usually in the game at the end and for most of the fourth quarter. She played 24 minutes a game on average, third highest on the team.

Coach Bill Laimbeer has consistently praised her play in his postgame press conferences.

The Liberty’s 21-13 record was third best in the league and tied for third-best in wins in franchise history, despite having finished their last 8 games at 3-5.  

Stokes missed the last seven games of the regular season due to a hip injury.  Stokes was cleared to start playing a day before the Liberty’s single elimination playoff game against the Phoenix Mercury this past Saturday, after not playing for about a month.

But the Liberty suffered a one-and-done under the new WNBA format when the eighth-seeded Mercury upset the New Yorkers in Madison Square Garden.

The Mercury, the WNBA chamons two years ago, had a 16-18 regular season record and won a single elimination game against the Indiana Fever to advance to play the Liberty.  The Liberty had a 2-1 record against the Mercury during the regular season and the loss was in overtime.

The aging veteran Mercury team had time to recover after their win against Indiana on the preceding Wednesday night before facing the Liberty.

And as the aging Mercury proved, after Wednesday's upset win at Indiana in the opener last Wednesday, they are a very savvy and skilled team, with players who have played together for a number of years, and that on any one night, they can win.  

A longer series in a compressed time frame might have worn them down.

A longer series would also have benefitted Stokes, giving her an opportunity to get in better condition.  She only played 10 minutes in the game against Phoenix.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

WNBA Playoffs: Phoenix in Glass Slippers Kicks New York Out of the Postseason

By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru

NEW YORK – Look who’s dressing up as Cinderella with October approaching and Halloween four weeks away.

That would be the WNBA Phoenix Mercury, a team that many would categorize as a group of mean stepsisters in recent years in terms who exists among the dominant powers in the annual fight for the league’s holy grail.

But thanks to the new playoff structure and a struggle in the pre-Olympics break part of the schedule, Phoenix, carrying the bottom eighth seed designation, survived the one-and-done portion of the early rounds with a second road win Saturday night, holding off the third-seeded New York Liberty 101-94.

Playing twice on the road in the last week, Phoenix managed to extend the career of its legendary player Penny Taylor of Australia, who’s heading for retirement, by sending two other WNBA stars likewise on the same path a bit earlier than they desired.

First it was the sensational Tamika Catchings whose sterling career was concluded Wednesday night when Phoenix dispatched the Indiana Fever. The loss also sent coach Stephanie White on the way to her new job in the collegiate world handling Vanderbilt.

Then in a game that pulsated in front of a vocal home crowd of 10,227 in Madison Square Garden, Phoenix choked New York’s final rally attempt with a 10-2 run after the Liberty gained a 74-74 tie with 7 minutes, 23 seconds left in regulation. 

The final score put former University Connecticut great Swin Cash on the way to undetermined duties with New York’s front office, per franchise officials comments during her recent retirement celebration.

Unlike the collegiate arrangement where NCAA tournament seeds are determined by a committee using several criteria, the best eight records determines playoff teams and seeds in the WNBA. 

“That game had everything, didn’t it?” Phoenix coach Sandy Brondello said after the Mercury advanced to the new best-of-five semifinal round facing the top-seeded and defending champion Minnesota Lynx, who, along with the second-seeded Los Angeles Sparks have yet to play a minute in the postseason this time as a result of two-round byes in the new format.

The Sparks will host the winner of Sunday night’s game between the host Chicago Sky, playing without superstar and Delaware grad Elena Delle Donne (thumb surgery), and Atlanta Dream, which finished off the Seattle Storm and the sterling rookie season of UConn great Breanna Stewart.

“I was a little critical of the knockout games,” Brondello said. “But I kind of like it right now. I don’t want to go to war again with New York. It was a hard, competitive game.

“We just, we could hold on. We have the poise, we have a veteran team.”
Brondello then paraphrased the boast Hall of Fame UConn and Olympic coach Geno Auriemma used to utter in the early part of the last decade.

“Obviously, Diana Taurasi, it is always good to have her on your team. But we have had contributions from all our players tonight. I am very happy with that, so we will get some rest, and head back to Phoenix and get ready for Minnesota.”

Taurasi, one of the key stars of the gold-medal winning USA Olympic team in Brazil last month, had a game-high 30 points, hitting key shots when it mattered to continuously frustrate the Liberty and their fans. She nailed 4-of-8 three-point attempts and was 8-for-8 on free throw attempts.

“That’s why I say she is the best player in the world,” Brondello said. “She is such an unselfish player but she’s a player that her determination to win in those big moments exceeds anyone else.

“I have been in this game for a long, long time, so she’s special,” said Brondello, an Australian who also played in the WNBA. “She wants to take those shots, we want her to take those shots, and she makes those shots.”

Making shots was a way of life for the Mercury in the Garden, where they rallied to win a regular season game earlier in overtime in June. They hit on 51.5 percent from the field, connecting on 34-of-66 attempts from the field, sizzled from the line with a perfect 24-for-24, and hit on 9-of 20 three-pointers at 45 percent.

Taurasi shrugged off tense situation of these early round games, saying during the pre-game availability that it was silly to play scared. Besides, she had experience in college winning three straight NCAA titles with the Huskies.

And had she not had a terrible second half her rookie season in the national semifinals against Notre Dame, Taurasi might have won four straight, a historic feat later achieved by the newest minted UConn legend in Breanna Stewart, who proclaimed she was going after four straight after winning the first NCAA crown as a freshman.

Britney Griner, another USA Olympian, had 22 points and 10 rebounds, while Taylor had 20 points, Former Temple star Candice Dupree, who had to bypass halftime induction festivities into the latest Owls Hall of Fame class at her alma mater’s football win against Charlotte in Philadelphia, fortified the attack in the fourth quarter and finished with 14 points.

If anything, the Olympics steamroller attack by the USA squad gave Taurasi and Griner extra energy to build upon when they returned to Phoenix for resumption and conclusion of the regular season.

“Before the Olympics I wasn’t playing my best basketball, and after the Olympics I really got into a grove,” Griner said. “I was glad I was able to keep it going. The Olympics gave us both a boost.”

Taurasi said during the international wars in Rio she and Griner discussed returning to the desert and continue the same vibe with the Mercury.

She also compared the Mercury’s woeful start and eventually righting of the ship which said to a WNBA crown in 2014.

“We have just been in a such a weird situation all year with the bad record,” Taurasi said. “We lost a lot of bad games, a lot of close games, but I feel like this is a game we should have won. On the road with this team that had been there before.

“So it was kind of a happy moment but there is more.”

Not so for New York that in one hand benefitted from the new format, getting a week off while being what is now the mythical East regular season champion. Under the old divisional instead of combined format, the Liberty might have been able to outlast their Eastern rivals into the finals.

And one-and-done has its perils as Griner observed, “.. We had to kick it up a notch. There is no series. There is no if we let this one slip away, we’ll get the next one. We can’t let them slip away so this really made us gel together. We see the prize. It’s right there. We just have to go and get it.”

But signs in the final weeks indicated Saturday night’s upset was possible with Phoenix playing well after the break while New York, with the third seed well in hand, dropped a bunch of games down the stretch.

During that period, Laimbeer was asked if he foresaw a switch to a best-of-three in an early round if one of the higher seeds fell.

He answered in the negative, saying that TV was a factor, though there is room to accommodate a further postseason expansion because the league will get back the month off they lost on the real calendar during the Olympics.

“I told the players after the game, which is the toughest part, coming off a lost that ends the series in the playoffs, ‘they work all year to give themselves an opportunity and tonight it just didn’t get done,’” said Laimbeer, who was limited down the stretch by a slew of injuries, including Kiah Stokes, a top defensive player who did return to the lineup Saturday.

“I give Phoenix a lot of credit, they play very, very well,” Laimbeer said. “We didn’t play badly. We played solid basketball. Little things got us like second chance points. We’re not a second chance team. We had a lot of blown assignments on defense.

“They made all their free throws and we didn’t (15-20). All those little things add up to a loss in a game and that’s what happened.

“They made the plays and we didn’t make the plays,” he said of the final minutes.

Former UConn star Tina Charles, another USA Olympian, had her usual solid game scoring 19 points, grabbing nine rebounds, and dealing five assists.

Veteran and former Penn State star Tanisha Wright fueled several Liberty rallies, matching her playoff career high with 21 points. Carolyn Swords had her best postseason performance with 14 points, former Rutgers star Epiphanny Prince, who missed the front part of the season rehabbing, had 12 points, Sugar Rodgers had 11, and Shavonte Zellous scored 10.

The 101 points by Phoenix were the most ever in the playoffs allowed by New York but the Liberty’s 94 points were two short of their all-time playoff high.

New York had 21 wins in the regular season and had 20 a year ago and were on the cusp of getting to the finals until blowing a big lead against Indiana in Indanapolis, and then falling at home in game three to the Fever, Laimbeer saying later the team ran out of gas.

The Cash exit to retirement ends a long hot and cold relationship with Laimbeer, who upon taking the coaching job of the former Detroit Shock early in her rookie season, built the team around her and next year the Shock produced a dramatic worst-to-first turnaround, upending the defending Los Angeles Sparks 2-1 in the finals.

“I told Swin in front of the team I appreciate all the effort she put forth in New York.  Especially all the years we’ve been together, the ups and downs we’ve gone through,” Laimbeer continued.

In the latest action involving protest actions during the national anthem at games in different sports around the country, New York players and the coaches stood, but locked arms in this one.

Laimbeer said the players informed him of their move ahead of the anthem and he said “I joined them and so did the coaching staff. We wanted to support them. I still stand for the national anthem. It’s the right thing to do.”

The Liberty has a roster on the youth size.

Charles won peak performance awards as the top scorer and rebounder in the league, which may be a first. She also led the WNBA in double doubles.

“You know, when I play to me success isn’t deemed by the rewards you receive, it’s the impact you have on people,” Charles said. “I had an impact on this organization and the teammates around me, so to me there was success.

“We did get better, we fought through adversity, and we didn’t make excuses for ourselves so aside from what happened tonight, I can’t cry. I’m going to hold my head up and try to set the example for there's around me. “           

Friday, September 09, 2016

Sheryl Swoopes' John Hancock On a WNBA Contract Opened a New Nation for Pro Women's Basketball

Guru's note: This is the Guru's bio piece on Sheryl Swoopes appearing in Friday night's Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame induction ceremony printed program.

 By Mel Greenberg

When Sheryl Swoopes put her John Hancock on her WNBA contract two decades ago, the native of Brownfield, Texas, literally became the equivalent of  the American founding father  who was the first signee of the Declaration of Independence.

Just like Hancock’s easy to distinguish signature, Swoopes was already larger than life out of Texas Tech as the first women’s basketball sensation to join the brand new women’s professional basketball league birthed by the NBA.

Ironically, the future member of the WNBA Houston Comets was herself a shooting star out of nowhere in terms of national attention when she torched the NCAA Women’s Final Four in 1993, setting records with 177 points for the five games she appeared, and in the championship game against Ohio State, when she lit the nets for 47 points and connected for 16 field goals.

Her two-game Women’s Final Four record of 78 points is also a record still standing following last season’s tournament.

  “My experience in the '93 championship game is one I will never forget!,” Swoopes recalls.  “The thrill, joy and excitement of getting an opportunity to play in the Final Four and represent so many people was like a dream come true.

“I was nervous, anxious, and excited about just being in that moment.  One that not many people are fortunate enough to be a part of,” she continued. “A small town girl from Brownfield, Texas was playing on the big stage in front of thousands of people getting a chance to show them what West Texas ball was all about!”

The Associated Press made Swoopes the female athlete of the year in 2003 and  she also won several Division I women’s basketball individual  honors that season.

 “I think we had a good nucleus and a good foundation of kids that we were going to be a good basketball team but obviously she took them to a whole different level,” said former Texas Tech coach Marsha Sharp, a Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame inductee.

 “As they normally say when something like that happens, the rest is history and that was certainly true for us and the things she did here were unequalled.

“People still to this day talk about that season and what it did for Texas Tech and still the only national team championship this university has – she’s a folk hero here and she was just an amazing addition to what we wanted to be about and took us where we wanted to be.”

Former Stanford star Jennifer Azzi, who now coaches San Francisco in Division I NCAA, was a teammate of Swoopes on the 1996 USA Olympic team that barnstormed the country unbeaten for a year before sweeping its way to a gold medal at the Atlanta games, finishing the entire slate at 60-0.

“When I first saw her play in the tournament, I was like, `Who is this person, she is good’,” Azzi recalls of the women’s member of this weekend’s 2016 Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame inductee class here in Springfield, Mass.

 “She is one of the most talented players I played with. What I liked about playing with her is how well she knows the game. She knows when to shoot, when to pass, what to do, she just has a feel for the game, and their run in Houston was pretty unbelievable in the WNBA and she is just a tremendous teammate, too.”

Swoopes, who became the first women’s player to have a shoe, Air Swoopes, designed in her name by Nike, was part of Houston’s early domination, grabbing the first four WNBA titles.

“Once you’ve been blessed by Michael Jordan, you’re like The Chosen One,” quipped Carla McGhee, a former Tennessee star who also was part of the ’96 Olympians.

“In all truthfulness, Sheryl is a true competitor, she played at one speed – hard. She was fierce.

 She was a force to be reckoned with and as a teammate I knew I could always count on her to bring her ‘A’ game.

“It was exciting to watch how kids and adults flocked to her and how she was gracious with them, signing autographs, taking pictures, and rightfully so it’s her time to be enshrined into what is the epitome of the best of the best.

“We’ve had great moments, and also playing against each other in the WNBA and overseas,  and the one thing that was consistent is that every time she stepped on the court you knew if you were her opponent, you had to have your ‘A’ game, because she was bringing her ‘A plus.’”

Known as the Big Three, the WNBA force  in Texas included Naismith Hall of Fame inductee  Cynthia Cooper-Dyke, Tina Thompson, who was a rookie out of Southern Cal at the outset of the league, and Swoopes.

However, Swoopes missed the front part of the inaugural season, having become pregnant with her future son Jordan Eric Jackson. 

But she returned in time to still be a viable contributor to Houston’s first title in 1997 and the next three on the way to a stay extending through 2007 before playing one season in Seattle with the Storm.

 “My years with the Comets were very special,” Swoopes remembers. “Being able to win four championships in a row and to be considered a part of the first WNBA dynasty still reigns at the top of my list as far as accomplishments. 

“We had a very special team that competed everyday and anything less than a championship was considered a failure.  What made the first championship special to me was the fact that I gave birth to my son and was able to come back and be a part of the team and share in the first ever WNBA title.”

Her Houston years saw her collect career marks of over 2,000  points ,500  rebounds, 300  assists, and 200  steals. A two-way threat, Swoopes earned accolades as the first three-time MVP in the league in 2000, 2002, and 2005, and she also gained a first trifecta with defensive player of the year honors in 200, 2002, and 2003.

She was twice the league’s scoring champion while she and Naismith Hall of Fame Lisa Leslie have been both All-Star and regular-season MVPs in the same summers they earned their dual honors.

 “Until she played at the Olympic and WNBA level,” Texas Tech’s Sharp observed,  “It was sort of her signature to really just pass everyone on the floor with her speed going the other direction.” 

 Following Swoopes’ one year in Seattle, she went unsigned the next two seasons until 2011 when she signed with the former Tulsa Shock for a season at the age of 40.  In August of that summer she hit a buzzer-beater that ended the team’s WNBA-record league losing streak of 20 games.

Swoopes has been voted to both the all-time top 15 and top 20 players in the WNBA and was a six-time All-Star.

“She’s one of the most amazing athletic specimens I’ve ever been around,” recalls Boston U. Coach Katy Steding, another former Stanford star who was part of the ’96 Gold Medalists.

“ She can do everything. Just when you think you had her figured out, she’s pulled another trick out of her bags,” Steding said. “Having to defend her every day was a real chore but it was something I’ll remember.

“ She was always there for you, she always had a smile on her face, she was always excited about the opportunity to compete again so she was a great teammate.”

Former WNBA New York Liberty star Teresa Weatherspoon out of Louisiana Tech, who is now a member of the coaching staff, says of Swoopes: “She was an amazing player, quite fast, played at a high level, in college when she was on the floor, she was just unconscious.

“On the floor, she could do what she wanted, almost like a Steph Curry these days, she just took over the game. She made me better because I had to defend her in practice. She made me a better defender.”

Being raised by her mother, Louise, she learned to play hoops with her three older brothers and when she reached seven years old, she played for the Little Dribblers, a children’s league in Brownfield before moving on to that town’s high school team when she became of age.

 “I really enjoyed the excitement of doing something that I only saw the majority of boys doing and the competitiveness that came with trying to be better than most of the guys I played with,” Swoopes said of her formative years. “My biggest memory is being much quicker and/or faster than most of the girls I played with and not being able to get enough of playing basketball.”

Texas might have continued its run as a top team out of the 1980s had Swoopes not enrolled in Austin but left without ever putting on a uniform. She spent two years at South Plains College where she would become the Junior College player of the year just before making the move to Texas Tech.

 In that  1993 NCAA championship season, she averaged 28.1 points per game, which ranked second nationally, and 9.2 rebounds. Her two-year Division I career performances produced 1,645 points and at that rate had she played all four years she most likely would be among at least the top 10 if not lower all time scorers in the NCAA’s  most prominent division.

 As a Lady Raider, Swoopes set 30 different women’s basketball records, including four Final Four records, three NCAA tournament records, four NCAA championship game records and eight Texas Tech school records, including the single-game school record for points (53), which still stands. Her No. 22 was retired on Feb. 19, 1994, one of only three women’s players in the program to achieve that honor.

 “Brownfield is only 30 miles outside of Lubbock, so we recruited her out of high school, of course,” Sharp recalled.

“As much as she could impact the game on the offense end, I think she more definitely impacted it defensively,” Sharp continued. “The first time I saw her she was on the front of a press and she intercepted the ball, about four or five times and scored before the other team got it inbounded.

“A couple of other times she would take it the length of the court and score. She was a sophomore in high school the first time I watched her play a complete game. 

“When we got her from the junior college, the second time we were able to convince her to stay home, we knew there was a chance she would be a program-changing decision for us and certainly it proved to be just that.”

From Brownfield to Lubbock to Houton, from Atlanta to Sydney to Athens, Sheryl Swoopes now findsherself in the city where the game was invented.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

WNBA Report: Another Minnesota-Los Angeles Showdown Just Ahead But Certainly Not The Last

By Rob Knox (@knoxrob1)

No hype is needed as the significance of Tuesday’s showdown between the Minnesota Lynx and Los Angeles Sparks in Southern California at the Staples Center isn’t lost on Seimone Augustus.

 “It’s a clash of the titans,” the Lynx guard and three-time United States gold medalist said during last week’s WNBA conference call previewing the matchup that tips at 10 p.m. on ESPN2. “Both teams understand what we’re trying to do and where we want to go.”

 To accomplish that, they’ll have to get through each other. 

 Both the Lynx and Sparks enter the eagerly anticipated confrontation with sterling 24-5 records. The Sparks-Lynx contest is also the second-best combined winning percentage (.828) in league history for two teams having played at least 29 games each, falling just short of a 2014 game between the 25-4 Mercury and 24-6 Lynx (.831 winning percentage). 

 The Lynx have been a consistent rock of excellence as evidenced by the three championships in the last five years. 

Minnesota has equaled its best 29-game start in franchise history (also 2012) and is now one victory shy of recording its fifth 25-win campaign in the last six years. As far as regular season games go, this is one of the biggest in the WNBA’s 20-year history, rivaling the old Hoston Comets-Sparks wars during the league's early era.

 The Lynx and Sparks split a pair of meetings in mid-June with each winning on the road. The Lynx won 72-69 on Renee Montgomery’s late three-point shot in a game in which each team entered undefeated. Three days later, the Sparks got even with a decisive 94-76 victory.

 The winner of this final regular season contest between each other will win the season series and own the tiebreaker for homecourt advantage should each squad finish with the same record.

 By the way, unlike previous years, this could also be a sneak peek of the WNBA Finals thanks to the league’s new playoff format, in which the top eight teams, regardless of conference qualify for the postseason and get seeded accordingly at the outset. 

The Sparks, Lynx and New York Liberty have clinched playoff spots. The Lynx and Sparks are close to securing a double-bye into the semifinals.

 “We’re always hunting the No.1 seed and we have never settled for No. 2,” Augustus said. “Now we have an opportunity to be in the position we expected once the season started. 

"We want home court throughout the playoffs because we understand how big that is. That’s what we’re focused on because if we get the No. 1 seed, we know the Target Center will be rocking," she continued.

 "We enjoy playing at home. The atmosphere the fans created (during last year’s decisive fifth game of the WNBA Finals) willed us to victory when we were all exhausted.”

 The Lynx and Sparks have mirrored each other all season. 

It’s only fitting that they find themselves tied with the best record in the league. 

Fueled by MVP candidates Nneka Oguwmike (Sparks) and Maya Moore (Lynx), each team sprinted to league record 13-0 starts, handed each other their first loss of the season and earned wins No. 23 last Friday & No. 24 Sunday. 

 Minnesota is currently tied for the league lead with an average of 85.7 points per game while Los Angeles is fourth with an 84.3-point per game average. The Sparks feature the WNBA’s top scoring defense, grudgingly yielding 75.5 points per game this season. The Lynx rank second in that category, allowing 76.1 points per game. 

 After an amazing 20-1 start to the season, the Sparks wobbled before and after the Olympic break with losses in four of five games. However, with three consecutive victories, it looks like they have found their groove.

Second in the WNBA with 14 double-doubles, Oguwmike has been a beast this season, connecting at an insane 69.6 percent from the field. 

Since June 7 against New York, Ogwumike has shot 180-for-251 from the field, good for an incredible 71.7% mark. 

No player with an average of at least eight shot attempts per game has ever performed that well over a 21-game stretch in league history. She has shot 50.0% or better in 27 of 29 games this season.

 While the dynamic duo of Oguwmike and Candace Parker have paced Los Angeles’ offense, Alana Beard has fueled the Sparks’ tenacious defense.

 “She’s everything to their defense,” ESPN commentator LaChina Robinson said. “She has a high level of intensity from the jump. I’ve seen teams run their offense away from her. The Lynx had Maya bring the ball up earlier this season because of Alana’s pressure. She gets steals and creates offense from defense.”

 Enjoy and get your popcorn ready as these two heavyweights collide in what promises to be a memorable and fun contest. Two teams at the peak of its powers performing with plenty at stake. This is as good as it gets in professional sports.