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.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Guru's WNBA Report: Washington's Sunny Outlook has a Philly-Area Accent

By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru

WASHINGTON – If the WNBA Washington Mystics really get it going this season as the roster overhaul might suggest, a strong dose of Philadelphia area connections will be part of the formula.

Assistant coach Marianne Stanley, the former Immaculata star, national championship coach at Old Dominion, and a few previous WNBA coaching stops, has been a mainstay who was retained when Mike Thibault took over the team after having had a decade of winning with the Connecticut Sun.

In recent seasons former Cardinal O’Hara and Saint Joseph’s star Natasha Cloud has been one of the younger additions after Thibault became enamored of her game with the Hawks and drafted her in the second round.

Now, of course, comes former Delaware great Elena Delle Donne, quickly established as a league superstar with Chicago when drafted second in 2013, who was part of one of the mega-deals pulled by the Mystics.

Cloud was spending the offseason playing in Australia, where she’s been for several years, when word began to seep that Delle Donne might be headed to the nation’s capital, within two hours at worst of her home in Wilmington, Del.

 “I knew a little bit early,” Cloud said Monday night after the Mystics fell to the WNBA runnerup Minnesota Lynx, 74-59, at the Verizon Center in their only home preview and second and last overall preseason contest.

Washington will open its 20th anniversary season Sunday afternoon here against the San Antonio Silver Stars, who have overall first-round pick Kelsey Plum, the NCAA scoring record breaker out of the University of Washington.

The Texans will also be in New York Saturday to help the Liberty open their 21st season, the same as the WNBA, at Madison Square Garden at 3 p.m., the same start time as the game here in Washington.

“It’s our job to keep it low key,” Cloud said of the early rumbles that Delle Donne might be headed East.  “You never know what’s going to happen. Things could not work out. Situations can happen.

“But when (Thibault) told us his master plan of what was going on, it’s exciting. I played against her in high school (Ursuline Academy). Elena is one of the top players in this league. She’s just so versatile. There’s so much she can do.

“For us to have the power we have now on offense, it’s going to be a fun season.”

Monday night was supposed to be Delle Donne’s local preview after the team won its other game at Indiana against the Fever.

But she didn’t play, the boxscore saying groin as a reason for not playing. Had the game counted, Thibault indicated she likely would have been on the court.

Delle Donne is also on the Delaware search committee for her former coach Tina Martin’s replacement but said she hadn’t met anyone yet who is in the mix to follow the longtime mentor, who the school recently announced her retirement.

However, Martin said in the Wilmington News Journal at the time of the news that she was retiring from Delaware but not necessarily from coaching.

The Mystics were missing several key part of their roster with Emma Meesseman still playing overseas as well as new arrival and former Maryland star Kristi Toliver, who had player for the WNBA champion Los Angeles Sparks.

In the Washington do-over an interesting note has occurred. The 2013 draft was billed as the three-to-see with overall number one pick Brittney Griner going to the Phoenix Mercury, Delle Donne to Chicago, and Skylar Diggins-Smith to the then Tulsa Shock, which became the Dallas Wings last season.

The Mystics, which had the worst overall record the previous season, lost out, though with the fourth pick landed former Ohio State star Tayler Hill, who has been a significant contributor.

“As it now turns out,” Thibault noted before Monday’s game, “four of our starters could be people who were part of that 2013 draft.”

Thibault had a busy weekend, spent in North Carolina where his daughter Carly, an assistant coach with NCAA runnerup Mississippi State, got married. His son Eric is an assistant on the Mystics.

“The good news is I get my checkbook back,” Thibault quipped about the weekend.

Working the family and league situations the same time, Thibault said the original planning got disrupted because, “the league wasn’t supposed to start his early until they told us it was starting this early, even though it’s not an Olympic year.”

Cloud started against Minnesota and has started for most of her brief WNBA career.

Incidentally, former Vice President Joe Biden of Delaware, who went to see Delle Donne play at their alma mater, the Blue Hens, is likely to see a few games this season and also plans to talk to the Mystics squad at some point, Thibault related.

He recently was at the NBA-brother Wizards’ game here and got a big ovation when introduced.
In Monday’s game, Tianna Hawkins scored 14 points for the home team and Cloud scored 11, while rookie Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, another former Maryland product on the local roster, was scoreless in 16 minutes, 14 seconds of playing time.

On the other end, while change is a theme in the WNBA, the Lynx, with three championships in the last six seasons, and a near fourth that died on a last second shot by Los Angeles in Minneapolis in the fifth and final deciding game, is still a force with its core in place.

Former Connecticut star and Olympian Maya Moore, who was part of last summer’s USA gold medalists with Delle Donne and Lynx teammates Sylvia Fowles, Seimone Augustus, and Lindsay Whalen, did not play because of a similar groin injury as Delle Donne’s.

But former Georgetown star Rebekkah Brunson had 14 points, Fowles 11, Natasha Howard off the bench with 11, while Whalen had six points and matched Fowles with 19 on the plus/minus category.
Also on the roster trying to make the team is former Harvard star Temi Fagbenle, who would be the third Ivy Leaguer to make a WNBA roster and second Crimson member after former All-Star Allison Feaster.
“I think we’re in a good space as a group,” said Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve, a former La Salle star from South Jersey near Philadelphia. “We’ve been fortunate that we’ve had fairly decent health. Got a glimpse of them tonight.

“I think they’re ready, ready to play. Obviously Maya wasn’t out there but it’s a group that I think had a great training camp. They were all there on time and we got a lot of work done.”

Over the years Washington and Minnesota had very competitive games playing out of the Western Conference and Eastern Conference. Last season those designations became moot since the top eight teams regardless of conference affiliation made the playoffs.

“That’s what I like about coming here in the preseason,” Reeve said. “We know we’re going to be challenged in every way. It’s just a tremendous learning experience playing against these guys.

"Obviously they’re well coached and have a ton of talent.

“I think it’s going to be an exciting summer in D.C.”

It was noted to Reeve how every time the Lynx failed to repeat after winning the previous season, they came right back to reclaim the crown the next.

“That’s been the one constant. They’re very, very resilient. Very, vey prideful. We respond very well to adversity. And hopefully this season will be no different to the response of how our season ended.”
Whalen agreed about her team’s long-running stability.

“You know, we still feel good,” Whalen said. “We’ve had some stuff we’ve worked on but for this time of the year, it was good to play against a good team like Washington. They always make it tough on us. My thought is we were able to make some good plays tonight.”

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