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.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Guru's WNBA Report: Temple's Fitzgerald Impressing Connecticut Staff

By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru

UNCASVILLE, Conn. – When most people, particularly Temple women’s basketball fans in Philadelphia, last caught sight of Feyonda Fitzgerald, her brilliant collegiate career and particularly senior season last winter with the Owls that landed her Big Five player of the year honors came to a excruciating end in the first round of the NCAA tournament in March.

That’s when on the way to a potential game-winning shot in the last second against Oregon in Duke’s Cameron Indoor Arena the effort was blocked and her collegiate stats were no more while the Ducks became Cinderella upsetting host Duke the next game and then doing likewise to powerful Maryland before Connecticut ended the run in the Elite Eight down the road from here in Bridgeport.

In the postgame press conference in answering a question and speaking from her own experience, Temple coach Tonya Cardoza said the loss can be more manageable for her than someone at the moment like Fitzgerald, who could live with the finish a long time unless great things might happen to dull the pain of the setback.

Sure enough several weeks later Fitzgerald landed in the second round of the WNBA draft, taken by the rebuilding Indiana Fever, but although the team liked her upside, waived her as the final cut before the league season opener.

Now a short time after that, Fitzgerald was fetched to fill a roster spot on the injury-riddled Connecticut Sun, which got further depleted when former Penn State star Alex Bentley left for a brief time to play overseas, as have several other WNBA stars, in the EuroChampionships.

Jordan Hooper was traded to the Atlanta Dream for a future draft pick on the day Fitzgerald was signed while the Sun also picked up free agent and former Stanford star Kayla Pedersen, who they waived during training camp.

“Obviously, Alex Bentley leaves, so what we wanted to do is bring in more of a shifty point guard, someone who could play with a change of pace,” said Sun coach Curt Miller of the transaction.

“We really liked how ‘Fee played in training camp in Indiana,” Miller continued. “And we had targeted her as someone we could take a serious look at. So through conversations with Indiana, through conversations with Tonya Cardoza, we really wanted to bring her in and see what she brought and she’s proven herself.

“And as she learns our system more and more, she’s going to be comfortable. We like her ability with her speed to change the pace of our game, so we’re really happy to have her.”

A year ago, Miller had his eye on then-Villanova senior Caroline Coyer, but the Wildcats star and 2016 Big Five player of the year had her senior season cut short at the finish with a knee injury.

Fitzgerald made her formal in-season WNBA debut Saturday night against Atlanta here, playing seven minutes while in Wednesday night’s 96-76 rout of the New York Liberty, she got into the final minute, missing two shots.

But for now signs of a pro career are hopeful again.

“Actually, I thought I had made the team in Indiana but then got waived the next day,” Fitzgerald said of the disappointment in Indianapolis.

“Everything happens for a reason so I mean that happened but another door opened for me so I’m doing whatever the coach needs to do and just working hard and getting better every day.

“I just had to be patient, patiences can be a virtual but it was nerve wracking waiting for someone to call.”

There’s some familiarity for Fitzgerald playing alongside former American Athletic Conference foe Courtney Williams, who starred at USF, and playing in a home arena that was also the home of the conference tourney Temple has played at each of her four seasons.”

“It’s funny, she was just talking trash how we beat them only one time my whole career but she’s a winner, so I don’t care. The fact we battled against each other in college and now have a chance to play on the same team is great.”

Meanwhile, despite the roster subtractions, former Maryland star Lynetta Kizer (back) and former Connecticut star Morgan Tuck (knee contusion) were scratched for Wednesday’s game while former Stanford star Chiney Ogwumike is out of for the season with an injury suffered overseas in winter ball, the Sun (4-5) went on a rampage against New York (6-4), stopping a four-game win streak of the Liberty as well as a nine-game losing streak of their own in the series.

It was the third straight win for Connecticut after a bunch of narrow setbacks at the outset of the season. The Sun also beat another quality team Saturday night against Atlanta, though the fun could be temporarily short-lived next time out, considering unbeaten Minnesota is just ahead in Minneapolis Saturday night.

The two teams have already met twice in the same week with the 2016 WNBA runnerup Lynx winning both games 80-78 at home and 82-68 here late last month.

But for the moment, Miller was ecstatic with an overall performance Wednesday that saw Williams score a game-high 22 points, second-year pro and former George Washington star Jonquel Jones score 19 and grab 12 rebounds, former Maryland star Alyssa Thomas score 18, former Duke star Jasmine Thomas score 14 points, and second-year pro Rachel Banham out of Minnesota score 11. Former Tennessee star Shekinna Stricklen just missed scoring in double figures with nine points.

The Sun came out strong right from the opening tip, outscoring the Liberty 26-15 in the first quarter and eventually leading by as much as 25 points.

Three former Uconn stars were in the Liberty starting lineup with All-Star and Olympian Tina Charles scoring 17, three off her 20.4 average; but Kiah Stokes held to one and Bria Hartley to six. Shavonte Zellous, however, scored 16, and Sugar Rodgers scored 10, while Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe scored 10 off the bench.

The Sun dominated the paint 42-32 and matched New York 30-30 on the boards.

“I am really proud of our team tonight,” he said in his opening remarks. “A great start to the game that set the tone as we came out fast out of the gate in the first quarter. It is the second straight game that we paid attention to the details of the scout and our team really made them work.

“On the offensive end, we only had one turnover at halftime and we moved their defense. That defense is the premiere defense in the league. They are the number one field goal percentage defense in the league, keeping teams in the mid-30s and for us to shoot 50 percent against that defense tonight is a big accomplishment.

“Credit our team to staying in attack mode, and we shared the ball as it was our second straight game with five players in double figures. The team is excited. Two teams that we got swept by last year, Atlanta and New York, turned into two big wins to stop two long losing streaks against both teams. I am really pleased  with how we have played these last five games and I want to keep the momentum going.”

A vocal crowd of 4,818 watched the game at the Mohegan Sun Arena alongside the Casino establishment.

There was an electricity in the building to start the game with three Uconn starters for New York,” Miller said. “They truly believe, regardless of injuries, in who we have in uniform that we can compete, and that is the mindset as a coach you love your players to have.”

Williams echoed Miller’s comment.

“Whoever ‘coach calls will go out there and compete,” she said. “It is tough being down a couple of players, but whoever is on the court, we are going to compete against.”

Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer, whose team is also trying to cope with missing players who are either injured or in Europe, said, “We didn’t really have our best effort tonight. We have been pushing hard, being shorthanded, and tonight we kind of hit a wall a little bit and didn’t have the energy necessary. (The Sun) are feeling good about themselves and we knew it would be a hard game if we didn’t put forth the effort.”

Added Charles, “They are much more physical, much more confident in all aspects of the game.”

New York next stays on the road to head to Texas, playing the Dallas Wings Friday night and then will have a week off before hosting Connecticut June 23 in Madison Square Garden.

The Sun, after Minnesota, is also off a week before being the visitor against the Liberty.