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, October 05, 2017

WNBA Finals: Minnesota Holds Off Los Angeles 85-76 to Take A fourth Lynx Title in Seven Seasons

By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru

MINNEAPOLIS — Capping another thrilling WNBA best-of-five finals in a second straight penultimate Game 5, the Minnesota Lynx made history Wednesday night by making sure more recent history would not repeat at the hands of the rival Los Angeles Sparks, pulling out an 85-76 victory in front of an energetic sellout crowd of 14,632 at the University of Minnesota’s Williams Arena.

It’s the fourth WNBA crown in seven years under coach Cheryl Reeve, a former La Salle University star in Philadelphia, who grew up across the Delaware River in a South Jersey suburb.

That ties her for most WNBA titles with Van Chancellor, who won the first four WNBA crowns (1997-2000) with the former Houston Comets, while it also ties her with Chancellor and Los Angeles’ Brian Agler for championships coaching at the women’s pro hoops level in the United States.

Agler won an earlier WNBA crown with the Seattle Storm and previously to that, two with the Columbus Quest in the short-lived American Basketball League.

Minnesota was considered an endangered franchise when Reeve, who had been assistant on the champion former Detroit Shock and also an aide with the former Charlotte Sting, took the helm in 2010.

The first summer was a struggle but it led to gaining former University of Connecticut great Maya Moore as the overall No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft leading to the run in the last seven years that also includes two other finals appearances.

The Lynx are a group that has gotten better with age with a core of Olympians in Lindsay Whalen, Moore, Seimone Augustus and a few years later Sylvia Fowles and stayed together. When asked to talk about the consistency of success, Reeve’s answer brought a rarely seen emotion.

“Obviously, it’s the most special time in our lives from a professional standpoint, but it’s the people,” Reeve said choking back tears of fondness. “It’s the people that we do it with that just — we’re in it for life, this group. We’re in it for life, and that’s just an incredible blessing that I feel to be able to be around it every single day.”

But as gaudy as the numbers appear, they should have already been a tad better.

A year ago on the verge of winning championship No. 4 near here in their regular home at the Target Center, currently under renovation, the Lynx fell to Los Angeles on a shot in the final seconds that denied them becoming the first WNBA team to win back-to-back trophies since the Sparks were the last franchise to achieve the feat in 2001-02.

Prior to that came the first four Houston Comets titles.

This year’s series was similar to the one of 12 months ago with L.A. stealing Game 1, losing game 2 in town here, then winning Game 3 only to lose Game four both played at home and send the final round to its conclusion back here.

This time, however, just at the moment when things were appearing dire once more as a late 9-0 run eclipsed earlier double digit leads by the Lynx to pull Los Angeles within three at 79-76 with 34.9 seconds left in regulation, Minnesota applied the breaks.

Moore, likely the impact player of the past two decades, popped a six-foot dagger followed by regular season and playoffs MVP Fowles grabbing Odyssey Sims’ missed three-pointer.

Fowles was fouled, canned both free throws, and then after Candace Parker, one of the Sparks superstars, missed a three-pointer, Rebekkah Brunson, the former Georgetown star, grabbed a rebound and Whalen then went to the line to wrap it up with the final points in the arena of her alma mater, which she led to a Final Four appearance.

Brunson, another of the longstanding part of the Lynx core, became the first player with five titles, having won with the former Sacramento Monarchs and a few years later landing as a Minnesota pick when the roster was dispersed.

Fowles, who didn’t play well in last year’s final, “I looked at Game 5 on film (before playing here) and she was terrible,” Reeve said, was much different this time with double doubles in each of the five games.

Wednesday night, she was the key force in a first-half attack on the boards that caused Los Angeles to keep playing catch-up most of the way.

“I’m not a person to make excuses,” Agler said. “We just didn’t do what we needed to do to keep her off the glass. We tried to eliminate staying in a rotation as much as we could, tried to keep bigger bodies on them, but they were persistent, more persistent than we were, especially in the first 20 minutes.”

Minnesota finished the combined first two quarters leading 41-35 at intermission, holding a 27-15 rebounding advantage, including 10-3 on the offensive glass.

Los Angeles also struggled on 3-point attempts, shooting 2-for-18 for the game.

The Sparks weren’t helped either by Nneka Ogwumike, the game-winning hero of last year for Los Angeles with her putback. She had 11 points and fouled out. Parker had 19 points and 15 rebounds, while Chelsea Gray scored 15 points and Sims had 14.

All five Lynx starters scored in double figures, More led the group with 18 points and also had 10 rebounds, Fowles and Whalen each followed with 17 while Fowles had a season-high 20 rebounds, Augustus had 14 points and Brunson scored 13.

As a team the Lynx final numbers domination on the boards was 46-29 and they outscored the Sparks, 19-4 on second chance points.

“I mean, we’re sad,” Parker said of the loss. “Obviously, we lost. Glad everybody enjoyed the series, it was exciting. That’s all I’ve got. It was a good series. “

“With 20 seconds left, we’re down three,” Agler said of the rally. “That’s a credit to our team, you know, to fight hard, put ourselves in position. We made some really good plays and finished and couldn’t get over the hump.”

Talking about Ogwumike’s foul situation, he said, “You know, in some ways, it didn’t kill us, so we had our chances, that’s what you play for.”

Speaking of when things got dicey in the closing minute, Whalen observed, “Like ‘Coach said, ‘at a certain point, players make plays,’ and Maya made that runner at the free-throw line, which is why she’s Maya Moore, which is also why we like her on our team.

“Every time you do this it gets just a little more special because it gets just a little harder and it gets a little more meaningful because you know it’s not easy, you know it’s not something that we take for granted ever … “ Whalen said.

“But we keep coming back, and that’s just a testament to our organization, to our coach, and to everybody on this team is that we keep fighting, we keep coming back.”

Reeve was an assistant to UConn’s Geno Auriemma on the 2016 USA Olympic gold medalists in Brazil and likely to be picked to work with Dawn Staley in the next cycle.

Speaking of her Lynx’s fortitude, she said, “… I just can’t explain to you in words what it’s like to be those guys and have to walk every single day of greatness, of expectations every single day.

“Now, they wouldn’t have it any other way, but it’s just incredibly draining, every night we play, we get a team’s best effort, like every night throughout the regular season. And so it takes a toll on you. I just give them so much credit for their fortitude.”

And now it’s off to overseas and winter ball for most of them. The key is to stay healthy and if so, we might very well all be back here at the end of next summer with Minnesota highlighting another WNBA stellar season, which will be No. 22.

 

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

WNBA Finals: Lynx And Sparks Duel Decisive Game Five Again With New History At Stake

By ROB KNOX (@knoxrob1)

 No need to quote the legendary Yogi Berra. 

 Minnesota-Los Angeles. Game Five. For the WNBA championship. Again.

 In the hoops version of Ali-Frazier, the two gold standards of the WNBA, the Lynx and Sparks collide Wednesday night at 8 p.m. in a winner-take-all game for the second consecutive year. The only thing different is the venue. Instead of playing in the Target Center, the teams will ball inside of Williams Arena on the University of Minnesota’s campus.

 Lately, the venue hasn’t mattered between these rivals. In the last 12 games between these squads, the composite score between them is an astonishing 908-908. So it’s only right that the Lynx and Sparks play another high stakes contest with everybody watching.

 “It’s very fitting,” said Minnesota guard Maya Moore following Tuesday’s practice. “It makes for a really compelling ending to a 2017 season. Both teams have been showing why they’re the best all year, and I’m just glad we’re able to really play and hopefully the game will go in a way where the best team wins.”

 Moore and the Lynx are looking to reverse last year’s outcome. The Sparks won the title at the Target Center in the decisive fifth game, 77-76. It was easily one of the best games in the history of the WNBA. The game had five lead changes in the final minute. 

 This series has featured more drama than an episode of “Power.” The intensity has been off the charts. As the esteemed writer Sue Favor of womenshoopworld.com tweeted to me during the fourth game, the intensity “was as thick as cement” inside of the Staples Center.

 Chelsea Gray scored the decisive basket in the opener with 2.4 seconds left. In the second game, the Lynx held off a Sparks charge by getting a pair of defensive stops in the last 13 seconds. The games in Los Angeles were pretty one-sided as the Sparks controlled the third game and the Lynx cruised to victory in the fourth game.  

 “We can look at it as a disappointment that we’re playing in a Game 5 or we can look at it as an opportunity,” Sparks center Candace Parker said. “I think that if you poll anyone anywhere around the league that if you have one game and an opportunity to win a championship would you take it. I’m pretty sure everybody would take that. So that’s the mentality we have to have going in. It’s not going to be easy. There’s a lot of things that you can reflect on after Game 4 and this entire series of what we can do differently.”

 The Sparks have this on their side. In the last two Finals series, no team has won consecutive games. Each team has an opportunity to add its fourth WNBA title, matching the Houston Comets for the most in league history. The Sparks are looking to become the first team to repeat since the franchise did it in 2001 and 2002 behind Lisa Leslie.

 “I think that’s the good thing about having a series with two great teams,” Minnesota’s Rebekkah Brunson said after being asked about learning about each other. “It’s about changing, making adjustments and making the little things happen out there. I’m sure they’re saying the same thing. Nobody in here and nobody out there is going to be saying much different. I think we know each extremely well at this point. Now, it’s just time to play.”

A win with the Lynx would make Brunson, a former Georgetown star, the first individual to play on five WNBA champions, having been part of the former Sacramento Monarchs win and henceforth landing with Minnesota in the roster dispersal when the then-NBA owners jettisoned the franchise.

Brunson is currently tied with the famed big three of Tina Thompson, Sheryl Swoopes, and Cynthia Cooper, who won the first four WNBA crowns as part of the former Houston Comets from 1997 to 2000.

Los Angeles won the next two in 2001 and 2002 and since then no team has won back-to-back titles, which L.A. duplicate while the Sparks would then run coach Brian Agler's collection to five as a women's hoops pro coach in the United States, which would be a record. 

Besides last year's crown, Agler won with the Seattle Storm in the WNBA and previously gained the two Columbus Quest titles in the short-lived American Basketball League in 1997 and 1998. Conversely, his Minnesota counterpart, Cheryl Reeve, a former La Salle star in Philadelphia from South Jersey in the suburbs, with a win would tie Agler and former Houston coach Van Chancellor with the U.S. record an Chancellor with the WNBA record.

Reeve, by the way, was on UConn coach Geno Auriemma’s USA staff with last summer's gold medal olympic champs in Brazil and is a top candidate to join South Carolina’s Dawn Staley during the next cyle. She also helped coach Staley when both were with the WNBA former Charlotte Sting.

Meanwhile, Parker leads the Sparks in scoring in this series, averaging 16.6 points per game. Nneka Oguwmike has averaged 9.6 rebounds per contest for the Sparks. Meanwhile, the Lynx has been fueled MVP Sylvia Fowles, who is averaging 18.9 points and 12.1 rebounds. 

 “There’s going to be great players making great plays all over the floor,” Minnesota’s Seimone Augustus said. “From the guard position to the post position, there’s matchups everywhere. Game 5, you probably have a wrinkle here or there, but for the most part, you’re going to have to do what you do. I’m going to have shoot my patented jump shot. Syl is going to have to get in there and bang. Maya is going to have to shoot her three-ball. Those are things we’re going to have get down to the basics.”

 One trend to look for is the team that has led after the first quarter has won each game of this series. 

 “It’s going to come down to defense,” Los Angeles guard and WNBA Defensive Player of the Year Alana Beard said. “These are two teams that are very capable of doing amazing things offensively. It’s our job and our mindset to make it as hard as possible. I’m sure it’s the same for them. There is no other way to explain it other than this will be a game of intangibles and defense is a part of that.”

 Sit back, relax and enjoy another championship game that is destined to take this already wonderful rivalry to new heights.

The Guru, Mel Greenberg, contributed to this report and will be on the scene in Minneapolis Wednesday night.