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.

Monday, September 11, 2017

WNBA Playoffs: Offseason Washington Wheeling and Dealing Leads to Rally and Upset of New York

By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru

NEW YORK – The electoral votes for the inaugural WNBA Basketball Executive Year, determined by one front office executive from each of the 12 league franchises, went to the Connecticut Sun’s Curt Miller, who also took coach of the year Sunday afternoon in two of several postseason honors announced by the league.

But by the time nightfall arrived here outside Madison Square Garden, there were two human statistics seated alongside Washington Mystics coach-general manager Mike Thibault, the runner up in the league vote, to indicate what the popular vote might be if the fanbase were allowed their say.

Thibault nodded in the direction of former Maryland star Kristi Toliver, who helped the Los Angeles Sparks snap a WNBA title drought last year, and to former Delaware star Elena Delle Donne, who had turned the Chicago Sky into a perennial playoff team.

“I think to win at this level, to win big games, you have to have several players – we’ve got two of them right here – who don’t mind taking pressure shots.

“You can’t be shy about the situation and I think that speaks to their level of play, and is certainly why I spent most of the winter trying to figure a way to get them. The credit is all theirs for coming out and believing what we’re doing.”

 Toliver has a place in collegiate lore for hitting the three-ball at the buzzer in regulation that sent Maryland to their only NCAA women’s crown in 2006 in Boston when the Terrapins prevailed in overtime against Duke in what was at the time an all-Atlantic Coast Conference title.

On Sunday, she had a legendary pro game hitting a playoffs record nine treys and finishing with 32 points to fuel a rally from an early 14-point deficit to a 20-point lead by the sixth-seeded Mystics before settling at 82-68 over the third-seeded New York Liberty in round two of the postseason.

Delle Donne finished with 18 points, switching roles and becoming the second banana to Toliver in Sunday’s off-Broadway production.

The upset earlier in the day in terms of seed when No. 5 Phoenix ended No. 4 Connecticut’s Cinderella season coupled with Washington’s upset of New York caused a re-seed flip into the semifinals so No. 1 Minnesota, which had a double bye, will open a best-of-five semifinals Tuesday night hosting the Mystics while second-seeded Los Angeles, also coming off a double bye, will host Phoenix.  

Thibault just shrugged his shoulders and smiled when the irony of the outcome of the new WNBA executive award was noted to him knowing he couldn’t call on his Congressional neighbors in Washington for a federal investigation since they already have their hands full dealing with another election of note.

New York, which had a first-round bye, came into the game as the third seed for the second straight year under the revised playoff format begun in 2016 allowing the best eight teams without regard to division conference affiliation to compete in the postseason.

But with the first two rounds being one-and-done affairs, once again Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer and his players also had to re-discuss what happened, not to be confused with a book coming out Tuesday with the same words, “What Happened,” by the runnerup in that other election.

Besides admitting Toliver made Laimbeer’s worst nightmare come true, he explained, “The biggest component of this game was the rebounding. They dominated the rebounding against us, 14-3, on the offensive boards, but another big, glaring statistic that no one pays attention to was team rebounds was 14-2.

“Which means all of the loose balls that went out of bounds are a rebound went their way. They took it to us on the rebounding. We knew that was as big key and we didn’t get it done. So when we shoot 45- to 39 against their team, we should be right there to win a game but the rebounding and the turnovers (15-6) were the big disparity and they got 20 more shots against us.

“That was the really the deciding factor. That’s not us. That’s not who we are. That’s not how we hang our hat and when that happens to us we deserve to get spanked and that’s what happened.”

Krystal Thomas also scored in double figures for Washington with 11 points, Delle Donne also had 10 rebounds, and Thibault saluted the work of starter Tierra Ruffin-Pratt and Tianna Hawkins. Former Saint Joseph’s star Natasha Cloud was also her usual defensive self.

 Tina Charles, one of the superstars of the league who played for Thibault when both were with the Connecticut Sun, had 18 points, while Bria Hartley had 15 points and Epiphanny Prince scored 12.

“You don’t get lucky around this time,” Charles said, taking her turn explaining what happened after the Liberty came up short again. “You want to have the defensive rebounds – that’s usually our staple. I believe we’re #1 in the WNBA for that. But, come playoffs, it’s a different ball game. Krystal Thomas – they did great on the rebounding end.”

In Washington’s opener last Wednesday at home the Mystics had 20 offensive rebounds in the win over the Dallas Wings, formerly the Tulsa franchise and before that the three-time WNBA champion Detroit Shock, which was coached by Laimbeer.

Comparing last year’s exit. Charles said of this year’s season-ender, “These past 10 games, we were on a rise. We were feeling very confident in our play, feeling very good going into today’s game, know that the last time we played against Washington, we played against them really well.

“What makes them great because they’re focusing on the detail of what it really takes to win.”

Playoff Schedule

The semifinals will open Tuesday, with Washington at Minnesota, 8 p.m., EST, while Phoenix is at Los Angeles, 10 p.m., EST, both games on ESPN2.

Game two in each series is Thursday with the game From Minneapolis at 8 p.m.and the game from Los Angeles at 10 p.m., also on ESPN 2.

On Sunday, the Minnesota-Washington series moves to the nation’s capital in the renamed Capitol One Arena at 3 p.m., EST on ESPN while the Los Angeles-Phoenix series moves to the desert in Arizona at 5 p.m. EST on ESPN.

The sites stay the same for potential Games No. 4 on Tuesday, Sept. 19, times to be determined, but games to be played will air on ESPN 2. 

Decisive Games No. 5, if necessary, will air on ESPN2, times to be determined and played back in Minnesota and Los Angeles.