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.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

WNBA Roundup: Home At Last Following Long Road Trip New York Slips Past Indiana

By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru

NEW YORK – It was quite the pseudo homecoming for the Indiana Fever’s Erica Wheeler, the former Rutgers three-point shooting ace, class of 2013 Tuesday night in a key WNBA game here in Madison Square Garden, but a real one for the New York Liberty on the same court turned out to be the better of the two.

Coach Bill Laimbeer’s squad overcame Wheeler’s career-record 33 points, one short of the Indiana mark set by Katie Douglas, and losing what had been a 14-point lead to emerge in the final minute with an 81-76 victory.

Wheeler also tied Douglas’ Fever record with seven connected treys set in a game in the 2012 season.

New York hadn’t played here in the Garden since the morning of July 19, earning a win over the surging Connecticut Sun prior to the All-Star game in Seattle that was followed by a 13-day, five-game road trip.

Indiana (9-18), fighting to extend a WNBA record 12-season playoff appearance streak, came to town off an impressive win over the front-running Minnesota Lynx and on the doorstep of the eighth and final spot for the playoffs with the stretch drive under way.

But the Liberty (13-12), which had gone 2-3, the two being narrow wins at Indiana and Chicago, have their own playoff needs, pursuing a first-round bye but also to avoid slipping to fighting for just the right to be playing past the first week in September.

“For six weeks, we’ve been through a lot,” Laimbeer said after not losing any more ground to Connecticut, which rallied at home to beat the Seattle Storm on a night the Sun honored longtime University of Connecticut associate head coach Chris Dailey, who played in the early 1980s at Rutgers, with their Margo Dydek award.

“It’s been grinding,” Laimbeer said. “We didn’t play great but we played with enough energy to win the game and that’s all you can ask when you come back off a long road trip. … I think Erica Wheeler shocked them into the game. Her making all those shots. We had the energy and that was what was important.”

Wheeler, who played with New York in 2015 and signed this season as a free agent with Indiana, had 20 of her points in the first half, and shot 7-for-11 on three-point attempts for the game, while Temple grad and all-star Candice Dupree scored 14.

But New York got production the reliable from Tina Charles in the post for 26 points and seven rebounds, and 16 points from Shavonte Zellous. 

Sugar Rodgers, the Georgetown grad and all-star member from the Liberty along with Charles, only got two points, but Bria Hartley, another former UConn star, in her first season with New York coming from the Washington Mystics, had 13 points while former UConn star Kiah Stokes had 12 off the bench.

“(Hartley) played pretty well tonight, I think,” Laimbeer praised. “Her confidence is growing every day. She knows she doesn’t have to look over her shoulder right now. Early in the season she was new to the team and she was coming off a baby – that’s not an excuse, I don’t use that as an excuse – but a new team, new coach, jumping in and out of the starting lineup, you get pulled quickly, her confidence was down, but now she’s very in tune with what her job and responsibility is with us and she knows she’s going to play quality minutes, barring foul trouble and things like that.

“That takes a big load off a player’s mind and they’re able to go play basketball. And she’s having a real solid second half of the season right now.”

The Liberty built a 10-point lead at the end of the first quarter and extended it to 14 in the second before Wheeler’s hot shooting brought Indiana back to within one. New York then countered to go up by six at the break.

In the second half it got to nine on a Charles’ shot for the Liberty before Indiana began slicing from behind again to take a brief one-point lead before Stokes got it back just before the third period ended.

Indiana got its biggest lead when Stanford grad Erica McCall and Arizona grad Briann January propelled the Fever to go ahead by three early in the fourth. 

New York got rid of that and the two teams spent the middle of the fourth within a point of each other before Rutgers grad Epiphanny Prince pushed New York ahead for good with 1:53 left in the game .

It got to seven in the last half-minute on Stokes’ two free throws off of Dupree’s foul. Wheeler with a pair of treys helped get it back down to a three-point lead but she fouled Prince, who made the game’s final points for the 81-76 finish.

“I’ll start with the 27-point first quarter,” new Indiana coach Pokey Chatman, formerly over the Chicago Sky, said afterwards of the Liberty opening eruption. “I always give credit to the opposition, but we have to be better than that.

“If we look at every other quarter after that, it’s pretty good – even in the fourth quarter when we had to foul just to stop the clock.”

The Liberty’s recent road trip featured a rally from a deep deficit to win at Indiana.  

New York, which had a crowd of 10, 068, hosts the defending champion Los Angeles Sharks, holding the league’s second best record behind Minnesota, Sunday at 3 p.m. 

Indiana next plays at Washington Saturday at 7:30 in the Verizon Center.

The crowd included Chelsea Clinton, former President Bill Clinton’s daughter, who prior to the opening tip, autographed copies of her new children’s book in the Madison Square Garden Theatre Lobby.

Newly-retired WNBA great Tamika Catchings, now an executive with the Indiana organization, made the trip from the Midwest.

         Elsewhere Around the WNBA

Two other league games were played Friday night with the Connecticut Sun rallying at home to top the Seattle Storm 84-71 to stay third overall and tops in the East while Minnesota shook off its loss to Indiana at the finish to maintain the best overall record in the WNBA after beating the host Atlanta Dream 81-72.

Connecticut (16-9) won with a huge fourth quarter when the Sun outscored the Storm 33-9.

Second-year pro Breanna Stewart had 17 points for Seattle (10-16), while veteran All-Star standout Sue Bird had 14 points and four assists, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, had 15, and former Notre Dame star Jewell Loyd had 11 points.

Connecticut, which has former Duke standout Jasmine Thomas (sprained ankle) and former Maryland star Lynetta Kizer on the injury list, got a game-high 27 points from Courtney Williams, the former South Florida great; 20 points and 14 rebounds from former George Washington great, All-Star Jonquel Jones, 17 from former Maryland star Alyssa Thomas, and 12 off the bench from former Penn State star Alex Bentley.

Connecticut, under second-year coach Curt Miller, is over .500 on the season and has a magic number of three to make the playoffs for the first time since 2012.

Minnesota (21-3), whose two of three losses were at the finish, got 27 points and 13 rebounds from Sylvia Fowles, 16 points from Maya Moore, 13 from Renee Montgomery, and 10 points and nine rebounds from Rebecca Brunson in beating Atlanta (10-16), which is fighting for a playoff spot.

The Dream got 16 points and 11 rebounds from former Duke star Elizabeth Williams, and 13 each from former UConn guard Tiffany Hayes, an East All-Star starter; and 13 from Layshia Clarendon, who played at California.