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, May 14, 2017

Washington Takes WNBA Opener As Delle Donne Scores 24 in Mystics' Debut

By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru

WASHINGTON -- Other than the chance that the current occupants over nearby 1600 Pennsylvania Ave might take umbrage, the WNBA Washington Mystics these days could be excused for throwing caution to the wind and start blaring that old Democratic campaign theme song “Happy Days Are Here Again” over loudspeakers from the rooftop of their headquarters here at the Verizon Center.

Actually, there haven’t been many happy moments over the years the since the creation of the Mystics, who are celebrating their two decades of existence this season.

But it was all joy and elation Sunday afternoon following Washington‘s season and home opening 89-74 win over the depleted San Antonio Silver Stars as the Mystics’ new star Elena Delle Donne, the former Delaware great, was bordering on breaking out in a downright giddy persona not seen a lot publicly throughout her notable career.

Delle Donne, who became an instant star and rookie of the year in 2013 when she was picked overall No. 2 by the Chicago Sky, arrived here this past winter in a three-team mega deal involving the Mystics, New York Liberty and her former team in the Windy City.

What’s not to like by the 2016 Olympian’s debut less than two hours from her Wilmington home as she scored 24 points, shooting 8-for-12 from the field, including connecting on her’s and the game’s first shot, though in a rarity she actually missed a free throw in her nine attempts and did get into some foul trouble.

Coach/General Manager Mike Thibault, whose was hired in the winter of 2012 after being let go at the end of a decade of success but no title guiding the Connecticut Sun, was mostly pleased with his new offensive machine that includes other prominent parts such as young but veteran Washington stars Emma Messemann of Belgium and Tayler Hill as well as new addition Kristi Toliver, the former Maryland great who helped the Los Angeles Sparks win the WNBA crown last season.

“I’ll tell you guys what I told our players,” said Thibault at his postgame briefing. “It’s a good start. It’s a win, particularly at home. I think it will get people excited about us. Far from perfect. Some defensive lapses, occasionally.

“I don’t feel we played great, though we scored 89 points and held them to 74. They’re certainly going to be a whole lot better when we see them later in the year when they have (Kelsey) Plum, (Moriah) Jefferson, and (Kayla) McBride.

“But we’ll take the win. Mo Currie was great for them today. I’d like to say it was just a payback against us but she did the same yesterday to New York so she’s on a roll. I’m happy for her, but not today,” Thibault quipped about the former Duke star who played with Washington for eight seasons through 2014.

“I thought we did a lot of good things. We moved the ball pretty well, offensively. We didn’t make some of the shots we’ve been making but Kristi and Emma have had about a practice and a half or two practices with us and I think that will get better,” he said.

“Although we’re not looking forward to playing L.A. (Friday) and Seattle (Storm, Sunday), we’re looking forward to going on the road and have some private time together to work on some stuff. Training camp become a mish mash of a lot of meetings and media and league things, so it would be nice to just get back to basketball.”

Once concluding his opening remarks, though further down the road, the questions from media members could start over almost anything and anyone, considering the new-look Mystics, Sunday meant cutting to the chase to gush about Delle Donne.

Though it can be said, if you’ve seen one Delle Donne 24-point performance with the Mystics, you’ve seen them all, that only holds up until next time.

“We have a rule. If you violate while she’s shooting a free throw, we’re going to fine you $25 a piece. We almost had one of them do it earlier in the game. But they’re all going to fine her for missing a free throw because it’s such a rare thing.

“I thought it was good. She got in foul trouble a little bit. We’re not going to play that kind of lineup all the time, necessarily. But we wanted to play kind of a little bit smaller lineup today with her today at center. Although we gave up a couple of things because of it, teams are going to have a hard time guarding us at the other end because of what she and Emma can do.

“So we’re going to give up something to get something. She’ll get better once she gets used to our defensive system of staying out of foul trouble. I thought she kind of got there a little bit late. But I thought it was a great start to come and get 24 points in your debut, that probably sets a pretty good tone for things.

“But I was kind of impressed how the ball moved for us in that regard. She facilitates for everybody else, too.”

A crowd of 6,126 watched the game, a figure that could grow considerably if Washington gets to show they are serious contenders for a title.

Part of that crowd included a chunk of Delle Donne’s fans from her area and alma mater, which Sunday made news naming Georgetown’s Natasha Adair as the Blue Hens’ new coach. She will be introduced Monday morning at a press briefing at Delaware.

Delle Donne was on the search committee, though she did not address the process Sunday. But she did salute the advantage of now playing near home, a chance lost in 2013 when Washington finished with the worst record in 2012 but failed to land any of the top three slots in the lottery.

She did admit to having nerves despite her long list of career accomplishments.

“Certainly. I thought I got here at 11:45,” she smiled of arriving early for the 3 p.m. tip. “For sure there were nerves. I didn’t sleep great. I was jittery. And just ready to get here. It was one under my belt but  that was amazing.”

Usually when Delle Donne scores quickly it’s a sign for things to come. “Thank God. I can breathe,” she said of making her first shot. “I was able to breathe.

“It’s exactly what I was hoping for and even more. This team has great chemistry but when you get here and you feel it, it’s even better than I imagined. So many options.”

As for her personal fans, “I knew the Delaware faithful would show up. There was no doubt in my mind. Mother’s Day. It didn’t matter. I knew they’d be here. That’s my crew. That’s my family. Delaware always makes me proud and I knew they’d show up.”

The Bob Carpenter Center has sold out when Chicago played preseason games there as well as when USA Basketball played several exhibitions.

Now, it’s easy for that crowd to come down here, though it would not be surprising to see Washington follow Chicago’s lead and play games at Delaware in the future.

“It’s truly a home game. Literally a home game. Delaware doesn’t care that it might be two hours. It’s home for them. Everybody showed up.”

 As for her true home family, they all went to dinner Saturday night.

Despite having had posted some titanic performances with Chicago, Delle Donne said she is not thinking about the potential to score even better with the Mystics.

“I don’t really look at numbers. I know a lot of players look at numbers and coaches look at stats. For me, I look at the end number – the Mystics had more than the other team. That’s all I worry about. Game to game, obviously there’s other numbers that are going to be different. There are going to be ups and downs but as long as the Mystics are on top, that’s the number I care about.”

As for the numbers from everyone else that helped put Washington on top, Meessemann had 13 points and Hill had 15, while Tierra Ruffin-Pratt scored eight, and Toliver had eight and dealt four assists out of the starting lineup.

Tianna Hawkins had nine points off the bench, while Ivory Latta scored six and former Saint Joseph’s star Natasha Cloud scored four.

Another contingent in the crowd consisted of Old Dominion fans and former coach Karen Barefoot, newly named at UNC Wilmington, who came to support rookie Jennie Simms, who did not get into the game.

San Antonio dropped its second straight as Plum, the new NCAA scoring leader and overall No. 1 draft pick out of Washington, remained sidelined with a sprained ankle. Second-year pro Moriah Jefferson did not play either due to a nagging foot injury, while McBride, a former Notre Dame great, is still overseas with Turkey playing for a title.

New coach Vickie Johnson, a former New York Liberty star, is 0-2 waiting for her first official victory.

Currie, who was the only player for the Texans in double figures, scored 31 points, following up her 23 on Saturday against New York at Madison Square Garden.

The Silver Star next host the Phoenix Mercury on Friday and the team is hopeful Plum will be ready for the home opener.