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, October 07, 2020

Guru’s WNBA Report: Breanna Stewart Leads Seattle to a 3-0 Sweep of Las Vegas and Fourth League Championship

By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru

 

How sweep it is for the Seattle Storm who finished off the Las Vegas Aces 92-59 completing a 3-0 wipeout in Game 3 for their second WNBA title in three seasons and fourth overall Tuesday night at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., near Tampa/St. Petersburg.

 

Former Connecticut collegiate star Breanna Stewart who, along with ex-Huskies great Sue Bird, powered the Storm (18-4), earned her second playoffs MVP after both of them were on the sidelines last year because of injuries following their championship in 2018 over the Washington Mystics, who then came back and beat the Connecticut Sun in five games last year..

 

“It’s just a high level of basketball,” said Seattle coach Gary Kloppenburg of the competition in the league. This summer he had to fill in for Dan Hughes in Florida after Hughes was recommended not to go because of his cancer surgery at the beginning of last season.

 

 “I’m just proud of proud of our group,” Kloppenburg said. “They stayed together through a lot of weird stuff. Just kind of weird playing a season in the bubble, but it’s been historic for our team and the league.” 

 

The conclusion also completed a job well-done for the WNBA itself that fielded the entire league in the Florida “wubble” and executed in a coronavirus-shortened 22-game regular season with a delayed start in late July and the 12 teams playing virtually every other day until a larger gap occurred between the first two rounds and the semifinals in the playoffs.

 

Other than inconclusive Covid-19 results to three Seattle players that delayed the start of their semifinal series with the Minnesota Lynx by two days, the league made it through the summer 100 miles away from where the NBA is using the Wide World of Disney as their bubble without any player or coach producing a positive reading.

 

The league saw a major rise in television ratings across the summer and into the finals even while competing against major pro sports who would mostly be out of season, which was excellent since the players were motivated to use that platform in the cause of social justice and pushing a turnout for the coming presidential election.

 

The Aces’ Angel McCoughtry was behind what became the move to have the name of Breonna Taylor, the innocent Black medical worker gunned down by police in a botched raid in Louisville while she slept, on the back of their jerseys and when WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert handed out the championship trophy she began by mentioning Taylor’s name and several other Black  victims of police violence.

 

In finals history, the Storm after beating the Connecticut Sun for their first title 2-1 in 2004, have now in championship series play swept the Atlanta Dream 3-0 before going 3-0 on the Washington Mystics in 2018 and then this season going 3-0 over Las Vegas.

 

This game had a bit of a wrinkle compared to the first two in this round in that the Aces (18-4), who had swept Seattle 2-0 in the regular season to earn the top seed off a tie-breaker, got off to a fast start and seemed poised to perhaps extend things when Stewart went to the bench with her third foul.

 

But the Storm regrouped for a two-point lead at the end of the first period, went to the half ahead 43-34, and then, unlike the third period in the previous games that featured Aces runs, broke it wide open outscoring Las Vegas 32-14.

 

The differential grew to 35 near the end of the game though still setting a finals record when the result settled to a 33-point triumph.

 

Stewart finished with 26 points to become the first to go through all six combined semifinals and finals contests scoring more than 20 points in each.

 

“”You know I remember where I was last year during the WNBA Finals, “ said Stewart, who was on camera during the zoom interviews from the media in remote locations across the country, as she wore goggles and took swigs from a bottle of champagne during her session.


“There’s plenty of champagne in the bubble,” she joked of the extended celebration just ahead.

 

“I was with my family in North Carolina. And it was hard for me not to be upset because I wanted to be part of the league. To be able to be here to get through all that we’ve gone through as a team, obviously individually, it’s an amazing feeling.

 

“There’s so much you don’t know after rupturing my Achilles. … really proud of just being able to be back.”     

 

Jewell Loyd, the former Notre Dame great, had 19 points and nine rebounds, while Alysha Clark scored 10, and reserve Jordin Canada out of UCLA scored 15. Bird has five points and seven assists but with the game out of hand early in Seattle’s favor, she got to be a spectator on the bench during the closeout as Kloppenburg tried to get the rest of the Storm some playing time at the finish.

 

Despite rising to a very elite player category in a short amount of time since her graduation from UConn, where she won four NCAA titles, Stewart said she had just one thought in a season in which the Storm was favored at the outset as one of the few teams whose roster was in excellent shape arriving in Florida the first week in July.

 

“I wanted to win a ring, and that was the priority,” she said. “Whatever else comes, comes. But getting another ring, getting another opportunity to play with Sue was what was most important, and whether it was unanimous (her MVP), who cares.”   

 

Las Vegas, who had a tough five-game semifinals series with the Sun, rallying to take the last two games, the last one by three in a low-scoring finish, had a more difficult time than the Storm accessing the finals.

 

A’ja Wilson, the regular season MVP, had 18 points for the Aces while Jackie Young scored 11, and Carolyn Swords grabbed 10 rebounds.

 

This time, Seattle’s shooting from the field, while still hot, dipped under 50% to 38-for-80 for 48% opposed to 34% for Las Vegas.

 

“I thought our defense was resilient all the way through. I think the way we came out for the third was tremendous. Sort of took their will away,” Kloppenburg said.

 

Turnovers again bedeviled the Aces, committing 18 to Seattle’s six giving the opposition an 18-6 scoring advantage in the category, while the Storm owned the paint 44-24.

 

“Give all the credit in the world to Seattle, they’re a very fine basketball team,” said Las Vegas coach Bill Laimbeer, who won three crowns with the former Detroit Shock and been to several other finals. “They played very well in this series. It was very obvious that they have more weapons than we do. It was clear that they were the better team in this series.

 

“For the whole season, yeah, I’m so proud of our players. We came in shorthanded (Liz Cambage opted out and Kelsey Plum was injured). And then got more shorthanded. Three of our top six players are out,” he continued.

 

“We accomplished a lot. Not only did we get to the finals for the first time, we also learned a lot. Our players learned a lot. I think A’ja grew up. I think she understands what this league is about and her responsibility.


 “We got to know Angel McCoughtry,” he said of the free-agent acquisition in the offseason, whose entire pro career previously was in Atlanta. “She’s going to work on her body and come back stronger next year.

 

“It hurts right now for our players. I’ve been down this road numerous times, winning and losing in the Finals. This was not a brutal beat. They beat us. This wasn’t an emotional, brutal loss at the last buzzer.”

 

Looking to next season, Laimbeer said, “Making our team is going to be very difficult. Free agency is going to be interesting this year. We are a very good destination, not only for basketball but also for the quality of the town, the organization.”

 

Bird was asked whether the dynasty tag could be applied to this group and she referenced Minnesota in the last decade.

 

“Their core group won four in how many years, like six, seven years. So we’re close, but not quite there.”


There was a bit of controversy developing back home in the Northwest after a newspaper column referred to NFL Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson as the best athlete in Seattle history.


Asked whether Sue Bird was the greatest Seattle sports athlete of all time, Kloppenburg responded, saying, “... Yeah, incredible to think what she’s done through a couple of decades. Really unprecedented.


“I think the other side of that is the women’s game hasn’t gotten the respect, and partly because of the white guys that are writing those type of columns. 


“Y’all white guys, wake up out there, man. You’ve got a whole tremendous gender that can flat-out play basketball. So maybe it’s time to move into the mid-century.”


Bird, who is about to turn 40 and is the second oldest player to win a WNBA title, and just finished her 17th season all with Seattle.


“I think the fact that I’ve been able to do it in different decades, with the same franchise, not many people can say that,” Bird said. “To recreate it over time and stay at a high level over time is definitely something I’m proud of, because it hasn’t been easy. 

 

 

 

Monday, October 05, 2020

Guru’s WNBA Report: Stewart and Bird Key Seattle 2-0 Finals Series Lead on Las Vegas

By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru

 

The Seattle Storm are just one win away from a 3-0 sweep for a second WNBA title in the last three seasons and a record-tying fourth overall after beating the Las Vegas Aces 104-91 in Game 2 of the best-of-five championship series Sunday afternoon at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., near Tampa/St. Petersburg.

 

Both teams finished the corona virus-shortened 22-game regular season 18-4 tied atop the league but the Aces’ win over the Storm on the final day completing a 2-0 series sweep earned Las Vegas the top seed, though both teams got hold of double byes into the semifinals.

 

Once there, Seattle swept the fourth-seeded Minnesota Lynx 3-0 while the Aces were extended deep into Game 5 by the seventh seeded Connecticut Sun (10-12) three points short of forcing overtime and another point under from what would have been a return to the finals for the second straight season.

 

While it took a bit of work off the first two for Seattle to gain domination in Game 3 in the series with Minnesota (14-8), so far the Storm has a grip on broom handles for another sweep unless the Aces can stay alive in Game 3 Tuesday (7 p.m., ESPN) and potentially keep going to gain an all-time comeback since the five-game configuration in the title round was introduced in the last decade.

 

Once again the University of Connecticut duo of past and deep past NCAA champions led the way with the younger of the two, Breanna Stewart, who had 37 points in Friday night’s opener, scoring 22 in this one, connecting on 5-of-8 three-pointers along the way, while ageless Sue Bird, who set a playoffs record Friday with 16 assists, scoring 16 in this one, making 4-of-7 threes, while dealing 10 assists.

 

“I think we’re continuing to take what the defense gives us,” Stewart said of the Huskies alumna combo. 

 

But it didn’t stop there in another game of hot shooting by Seattle (40-for-70 57%) from the field as Alysha Clark and Natasha Howard each scored 21 points, and reserve Jordin Canada scored 10 points.

 

“To be honest, I think that our performance was better than it was in Game 1,” Stewart said of the entire team. “Just as far as having a balanced approach. Our mentality is to just to kind of keeping our foot on the gas, knowing that especially in a series like this, a team, if you give them any chance to come back, then they will. 

 

“We want to continue to kind of do what we need to do, just really have a complete game and really, like I said, leave  it all out there on the court. This is a time when we want to play our best basketball. I think we are doing that.”

 

Both Stewart and Bird missed last season with injuries, depriving Seattle of a chance to defend the 2018 title, thus enabling the Washington Mystics to gain their first in a five-game series pulling ahead of Connecticut in Game 5 at home in the nation’s capital.

 

Seattle coach Gary Kloppenburg, normally an assistant, but filling in for Dan Hughes, said Sunday the performances of Bird and Stewart in the first two games is a result of the motivation to regain the crown this summer.

 

“I just think they were so single-minded in their rehab and wanting to get back and I just really think they want it so badly and it’s displayed in their game, and just unbelievable ” Kloppenburg said.

 

“I mean Sue, 16 and 10, shot the ball really well, we knew she was going to get some shots and that was coming. Stewie, just 22 points and shot the ball from three, those guys are just such clutch pressure players, but I’m glad they’re on our side.”


Hughes was advised to stay away from the WNBA bubble when the teams assembled in Florida in early July for the delayed start several weeks later because of his cancer surgery at the front end of last season when Kloppenburg also stepped in to run the show.


Of course all this is precaution over the Covid-19.


 Last week, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert noted in her annual state of the league teleconference the 12 teams had zero positive results in ongoing testing though Seattle was forced to be postponed in a delay start of its semifinals due to three players producing inconclusive results off a test though subsequent results were negative and the Storm and Minnesota opened two days later.

 

Sunday’s game flow was a mirror of Game 1, while this time, by quarters, Seattle jumped to a 31-24 lead into the second period in which the Aces were one better 18-17 but trailed at the half, 48-42.

 

Seattle outscored Las Vegas each of the next two, 27-26, and another strong fourth, 29-23, but another strong Aces run cut an 18-point deficit to within three in the third before the Storm went on to lock the doors.

 

Second chance points to the advantage of 21-12 for the Aces was helpful for keeping them competitive.

 

“This is a very good team we are playing or they wouldn’t be here,” Kloppenburg said. “I thought we stayed focused, came back down and got really good shots and we were putting the ball down, driving, and kicking and I thought our execution offensively was really good tonight.

 

“Only 10 turnovers and we forced 16, so that’s good. 


“The other thing we really wanted to do was play defense, without fouling and that’s — you know with them just taking five free throws, that’s tremendous. They are usually — they are the lead in the league at getting to the line and I thought we really did a good job there.”

 

Rather than just Bird, this time the Storm set the assists team record in a finals game.

 

“All year long we have been a high assist team,” Kloppenburg said. “It’s just the way we play and move the ball. We felt like tonight we really put together a 40-minute game.”

 

On Las Vegas, South Carolina’s A’ja Wilson, the regular season MVP, had 20 points, while Angel McCoughtry and reserve Emma Cannon each scored 17 points, and Kayla McBride scored 14, while Danielle Robinson dealt 10 assists.

 

“Again, we’re our own worst enemy, sometimes,” said Las Vegas coach Bill Laimbeer, who won three WNBA titles with the former Detroit Shock, now the Dallas Wings via Tulsa in between. He also coached the New York Liberty.

 

“Our turnovers tonight really hurt us badly. They’re a very fine basketball team and you can’t make those blunders against them.

 

“But make no mistake, we had no favors from the referees today. They go to the free throw line more than us and they’re jump shot shooters? Please. That makes no sense.

 

“So that was a big part of this basketball game, also. It’s not the whole story, but just a part of it, and so was our turnovers. We missed (Dearica) Hamby tonight,” he said of the WNBA Sixth Player honoree who was injured in the last round. “But it is what it is. We are who we are and we have what we have.

 

“You have to win one game before you can win three, and that’s that’s our task, win the next game and then make it a series.”


All-League Honorees

 

Earlier in the day, the WNBA announced the last of the postseason awards voted by a national media panel — this one the two all-league team selections.

 

The first team consisted of Las Vegas’ Wilson and Seattle’s Stewart, as first team forwards, plus Los Angeles center Candace Parker, and guards Courtney Vandersloot on the Chicago Sky and Arike Ogunbowale on the Dallas Wings. 

 

The second team forwards were Connecticut’s DeWanna Bonner and Minnesota’s Napheesa Collier, with Washington’s Myisha Hines-Allen at center, with the guard spots filled by the Phoenix Mercury’s Dianna Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith.

 

 

 

 

 

    

 

 

Saturday, October 03, 2020

Guru’s WNBA Report: Bird and Stewart Set Playoff Marks As Seattle Puts Down Las Vegas in Finals Opener

By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru

 

The third time was the charm as well as the WNBA best-of-five championship opener Friday night for the Seattle Storm which shook off another third quarter playoffs surge by the Las Vegas Aces and regained control in the final period to grab a 93-80 victory at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., near Tampa/St. Petersburg.

 

A Las Vegas win over Seattle on the final day of the corona virus-shortened 22-game regular season just under two weeks ago enabled the Aces to match the Storm at the top of the standings at 18-4 and gain the No. 1 seed off their 2-0 sweep of the series.

 

University of Connecticut all-time alumna Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart did not play in that game dealing with injuries at the time for Seattle, which was still going to get the other double bye to the semifinals as the No. 2 seed.

 

The aging/relatively still young duo were back in force for this one, however, with Stewart collecting a new playoff career mark in this postseason for the second time with 37 points which highlighted a stat sheet-filled line adding 15 rebounds, 5-of-8 three-pointers, and four blocked shots.

 

That’s a WNBA playoffs first.

 

Bird set a playoffs and finals mark with 16 assists, one under the overall WNBA mark of 17 set by the Chicago Sky’s Courtney Vandersloot in the regular season. Bird also set a playoffs and finals mark for assists in a half with 10, while the previous playoffs assists record was 14 held by Bird and Vandersloot.

 

“Yeah, they’ve been through it,” Seattle coach Gary Kloppenburg said of the formers Huskies stars. “They’ve been through the wars. They’ve been through those championships. So that experienced is invaluable.”

 

For good measure former Notre Dame standout Jewell Loyd had 28 points and former Rutgers great Epiphany Prince coming off the bench had 11 points.

 

Seattle took the fourth-seeded Minnesota Lynx (14-8) down on a 3-0 sweep in a semifinals series that started two days late when three Storm players produced inconclusive Covid-19 tests but subsequent testing came up negative.

 

Las Vegas, on the other hand, had to grind back from a 2-1 series deficit and battle the seventh-seeded Connecticut Sun (10-12) to a three-point win in the decisive Game 5 on Tuesday.

 

If the Storm was believed to gather some rust with a slightly longer wait to begin the championship series, that was belied quickly Friday night as Seattle battled to a 23-21 lead at the end of the first quarter and then handled the Aces 34-19 in the second for a 57-40 lead at the half.

 

The Aces jumped to a 6-0 lead at the outset of the game before Loyd got Seattle on the board with a three-ball.

 

It got to 11-5 and just stayed there for a long-while, reminiscent of the fourth quarter of semis Game 5 when neither the Aces nor Connecticut could generate any offense.

 

Then Stewart scored and Seattle grounded out a 10-0 run for a 15-11 lead and worked its way staying ahead until the Storm then exploded in the next period when Stewart scored for a 35-34 regained lead and the Storm continued on a 14-0 run until Wilson scored to stop the streak for the moment with 2:01 left in the second.     

 

But Las Vegas came alive in the third 27-12 to trail by just a bucket 69-67 with 10 minutes left in regulation.

 

Seattle paced by Stewart regrouped offensively and defensively 24-13 in the fourth for the final result setting up a critical Game 2 Sunday at 3 p.m. on ABC in which the Storm with a win could be on the cusp of their second title in three seasons and a fourth overall tying the marks of the former Houston Comets, which won the first four, and Minnesota, which won four in this past decade.

 

“She got that look in her eyes like I’m just going to take over,” said Kloppenburg, the assistant who is filling in as head coach for Dan Hughes, who was advised to stay  out of the Florida bubble this summer because of cancer surgery early last season when Kloppenburg also filled in. 

 

“She hit some threes, got a couple from inside, got to the line, and she was just fabulous down the stretch,” he continued.

 

“I think we kind of lost our focus in that third quarter,” Kloppenburg said. “Got more into a half-court game. They picked their defense up, and I think we just didn’t respond in that third quarter and we let them all the way back in.

 

“I’m proud of the way we refocused, regrouped, got our defense solid in the fourth quarter, got a run going to stretch it out and win.

 

“A five-game series, you desperately want to get that first one, then we can go see what we’ve got to do to adjust to get a little bit better for the second one and really come out and try to get this next one.

 

“Especially against a team like Las Vegas. They’re a very good team.  They have a lot of good weapons. They shot the ball really well tonight from three. We can’t rest on these guys.” 

 

Of the fourth quarter and her overall game, Stewart said, “I don’t think I was like, oh, I’m going to score this many points straight. I was just taking what they gave me and being confident. I think I’m definitely excited for the moment and the big stage. 

 

“I think also the fact that I expect to be here and I’ve been here, whether it’s been college, WNBA, or USA. Continuing to embrace that big moment and take advantage of it. That is why we play basketball. These are the reasons why I play big games, help my team in big moments. That’s what I want.”

 

Noting her assists, Bird said, “I think Stewie and Jewell were pretty much on fire,” Bird said. “What do you think? 

 

“I’m just out there trying to find the open player. But like said, and I’ve always said this, assist is a two-person thing. And tonight those two were amazing.”    

 

 Las Vegas coach Bill Laimbeer has shook off adversity before guiding the former Detroit Shock to three crowns, the first of a which in a then best-of-three championship series saw his team get pounded by the Los Angeles Sparks in the opener out West in the Staples Center and then regroup to take the next two in a pair of thrilling games in Motown.

 

Should the Aces come back Sunday the series has an excellent chance to go the distance for the second straight season, following the Washington Mystics winning their first title a year ago in the nation’s capital downing Connecticut with a strong fourth quarter finish in Game 5.

 

“One game down,” Laimbeer said, “One or by 21, it really doesn’t matter, we lost the game. A lot of things didn’t go right for us today. “We struggled to score, struggled to make shots. 

 

“Give their defense some credit, they switched a lot. But at the same time a lot of those shots we have normally been making. We can’t get frustrated. We have to keep playing our solid defense. Clawed our way back into the game, but then ran out of gas.”

On Friday, Las Vegas got 20 points from prized free-agent acquisition Angel McCoughtry in the offseason, while WNBA regular season MVP A’ja Wilson scored 19, while the Notre Dame alumni duo of Kayla McBride had 13 and Jackie Young scored 10, and Carolyn Swords, who this season came out of retirement when Australian sensation Liz Cambage opted to stay in her home country because of the pandemic, grabbed 12 rebounds.

 

The keys were Seattle’s tremendous 36-for-72 shooting of 50% from the field while the Storm blocked shots better 9-2 and overwhelmed in the paint 48-18.

 

As for Bird’s performance, Kloppenburg said, “I mean, yeah, 16 assists and three turnovers is just unbelievable. She was just doing a really good job of finding shooters, getting into their defense, the different ways that we do that, and just tremendous floor game for Sue.

 

“I think she’s going to hit a couple of those threes once we keep moving on. She’s too good a shooter, she didn’t take a lot of shots tonight, really, but she found open players, and they knocked them down.”

 

  

 

  
  

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Guru’s WNBA Report: Las Vegas Rallies in Semis Game 5 Second Half to Edge Connecticut 66-63 And Set Up 1-2 Showdown with Seattle in Finals

By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru

 

The Las Vegas Aces shook off a 13-point deficit at the end of the first quarter and rallied to edge the Connecticut Sun 66-63 Tuesday night to claim their semifinals series 3-2 in an exciting decisive Game 5 to set a 1-2 showdown in the WNBA Finals for the second straight season, this one without fans and most live media at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., near Tampa/St. Petersburg.

 

The best-of-five finals will begin Friday night at 7 p.m. on ESPN2, two days ahead of the original planned opening on Sunday, which will now feature Game 2 on ABC-TV at 3 p.m.

 

The rest of the series will have Game 3 on Tuesday, if necessary Game 4 on Thursday, and if still necessary, a Game 5 a week from Sunday.

 

Back in early July when the teams arrived in Florida and train for the delayed start to a coronavirus-shortened 22-game regular season, Las Vegas coach Bill Laimbeer, the former NBA Detroit Pistons Bad Boys era veteran who won three WNBA crowns with the former Detroit Shock, did not see his team as a prime contender this summer.

 

“In the playoffs, as it becomes with two teams going at it against each other, it becomes a test of wills, Laimbeer said of the series and Tuesday’s result. “Tonight was no exception. 

 

“It wasn’t the prettiest game, especially down the stretch, but both teams were getting stops, both teams were getting rebounds, we dug out a lot of loose balls, the big plays were made by A’ja Wilson, going to the free throw line, attacking the basket, and then both teams were playing defense and no one could score.

 

“That’s a test of wills. That’s what happened today. It was an ugly basketball game but it was a pretty basketball game because our team learned a lot about themselves,” Laimbeer said. “We didn’t give up. We were down early. We kept playing.

 

“Adversity wasn’t going for us. It was going against us. And we just gutted it out. And now it’s on to the next series.”

 

The Sun looked good through the first 10 minutes Tuesday but for all purposes the offense died the rest of the way though the Aces didn’t take control for good until 1:47 left in regulation when Wilson, the league’s regular season MVP, connected on two foul shots to make it 64-63 and she made two more with 1:36 left to complete the night’s scoring by both teams.

 

“The starters did their job,” Laimbeer said. “It’s a team game. Every night someone different may go off. But, yeah, we’ll take this one.”

 

The seventh-seeded Sun (10-12) fell just three points short of where they left off a year ago extending the Washington Mystics into early in the fourth quarter of another decisive Game 5 in the nation’s capital that gave the home team it’s first-ever title.

 

The Sun’s first quarter advantage was built on a 20-6 run at the close of the period, the 30 points becoming the most points in the period by any team in this season’s playoff field. 

 

Connecticut had become the Cinderella team in the playoffs bouncing back from an 0-5 regular season start as the entire league like their NBA relatives sequestered in a bubble atmosphere in Florida.

 

But the Sun recovered to become the first team in the 24-year-history of the WNBA to then move from that beginning to reverse direction and advance to the semifinals. 

 

While the Connecticut body of work to qualify for the postseason included just two wins over teams with records of .500 or better — 1-1 splits with the Chicago Sky and Phoenix Mercury — once the playoffs got under way it became a different story.

 

The Sun upset the sixth-seeded Chicago Sky and third-seeded Los Angeles in the first two single-elimination rounds, and then pounced on a week’s-long rested Aces in their semifinal opener making good on coach Curt Miller’s earlier forecast that his team was going to be a tough out.

 

The Sun had their opportunity taking a 2-1 lead in the series when Alyssa Thomas returned from missing all but five minutes of Game 2 with a dislocated shoulder.

 

But in the second half of Sunday’s Game 4, Angel McCoughtry willed the top-seeded Aces (18-4) to dead even setting up the completed comeback Tuesday and facing the second-seeded Seattle Storm (18-4), who completed a 3-0 sweep of the fourth-seeded Minnesota Lynx (14-8) Sunday to advance to the finals for the second time in three seasons.

 

Still, Connecticut got off to a terrific start in the first quarter, leading 30-17 after the first 10 minutes, but then Las Vegas crept back the rest of the way, first outscoring the Sun 22-15 in the next period to trail 45-39. The Aces thrived on a 12-0 run in the period. 

 

“You could tell we were getting frustrated,” Miller said. “But we gathered and played our tails off defensively, but we had 13 turnovers in the period.”

 

It was defense as much as offense on the Aces’ side the second half, outscoring the opposition 14-9 in the third to trail 54-53 going in the last period, in which Las Vegas owned the differential 13-9.

 

“Both teams played so hard, both teams are really talented, defensively,” Miller gave fatigue some mitigating factor in the combined low scoring in the final period.

 

In the game the Aces thrived where they do much of the time shooting 19-for-22 from the line while Connecticut made 8-of-9 free throws.

 

In the playoffs, the Sun’s DeWanna Bonner was 32-for-32 from the line, tying Washington’s Elena Delle Donne for most foul shots without a miss and most consecutive foul shots without a miss in a single postseason.

 

Seattle was first in the standings all summer until the final day of the regular season when the Storm were caught by Las Vegas to finish with identical records but the Aces got the top seed off a 2-0 series sweep though both teams earned double byes to the semifinals.

 

Wilson, the former South Carolina superstar, lived up to her regular season vote as the league MVP, scoring 23 points and grabbing 11 rebounds Tuesday for the Aces, while also dealing four assists, and she also blocked three shots.

 

“Knew it was time to put the team on my back,” said Wilson, who had 11 of her points in that final period when Connecticut was unable to get a three-point shot off at the finish that if good would have forced overtime.

 

“Thought I was in cruise control throughout the whole season. When the fourth quarter came, had to flip the switch. Felt like I did. The job still isn’t done.

 

“This is the Finals. The two best teams in the league going at it,” Wilson said. “End of day, we’ll go back and watch film on ourselves and Seattle.”

 

McCoughtry continued her fine play off Game 4, scoring 20 points, while Kayla McBride had 10 points and Carolyn Swords and Danielle Robinson each grabbed 10 rebounds.

 

Las Vegas was able to make do without Dearica Hamby, winner of the Sixth Player Award, who was lost the rest of the way would be with an injury.

 

Playing in all but one minute, Connecticut got 22 points, 10 rebounds, three assists, plus a steal and blocked shot from its engine, former Maryland standout Alyssa Thomas, while Bonner had 15 points, eight rebounds, six assists, five steals, and three blocks, the first player to have such a stat line in a playoff game, and Brionna Jones grabbed 12 rebounds.

 

Jasmine Thomas had nine points and even though the Sun struggled offensively after the first quarter, Alyssa Thomas put the Sun up 63-62 on a jumper with 2 minutes, 32 seconds left in regulation.

 

But that was to be the last Connecticut points in what became a 4-0 finish by Las Vegas courtesy of 
Wilson’s foul shots.

 

“Shoot under 25 % for a half,” Miller said of the final 20 minutes. “I don’t care what level you coach at, you don’t win a lot of games when you shoot under 25 % for a half.” 

 

As for Seattle, Laimbeer said, “They’re going to be rested. Sometimes that’s good. Sometimes that’s bad.   There’s a bit of rust. But we know them, they know us. We eyeballed each other twice. 

 

“Dearica won’t be playing. That’s a body we can put on Stewie (Breanna Stewart). We have what we have. We just have to be competitive and win games. 

 

“You saw, we’re a competitive bunch. The toughness of this ball club, the mental toughness of this ball club is outstanding.

 

“A large part of that I credit to Angel McCoughtry.”

 

The former Louisville star was the big offseason free agent acquisition after previously playing her entire career with the Atlanta Dream.

 

Xxx

 

The WNBA announced two more postseason honors, with the Los Angeles Sparks’ Nneka Ogwumike winning the Kim Perrot sportsmanship award.

 

There was a bit of controversy on the first and second team all-defensive teams selected by the league’s 12 coaches, who could not vote for their own players.

 

Los Angeles’s Candace Parker, who won the individual Defensive Player of the Year handed out in the series of honors deliberated by a national media panel, did not appear on either defensive squad, a first for a WNBA player so individually honored.

 

The first team consisted of former Rutgers star Betnijah Laney and Elizabeth Williams from Atlanta, Seattle’s Alysha Clark, the only unanimous pick; Brianna Turner of Phoenix, and Connecticut’s Alyssa Thomas.

 

Seattle’s Breanna Stewart, Minnesota’s Napheesa Collier, Washington’s Ariel Atkins, Las Vegas’ Wilson, and Los Angeles’ Brittney Sykes made the second team.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Monday, September 28, 2020

Guru’s WNBA Report: Vegas “Angelic” Win Forces Connecticut to Semis Game 5 While Seattle Completes 3-0 Sweep of Minnesota

By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru

 

The second-seeded Seattle Storm made it an easy 92-71 victory and a 3-0 semifinals sweep of the fourth-seeded Minnesota Lynx Sunday afternoon while Angel McCoughtry’s 16-point scoring explosion in the third quarter on the way to a 29-point performance along with five rebounds, six assists, and three steals, spurred the top-seeded Las Vegas Aces to an 84-75 series tying win 2-2 over the seventh-seeded Connecticut Sun forcing a decisive Game 5 Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. on ESPN2 at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., near Tampa/St. Petersburg.

 

The championship best-of-five series which Connecticut advanced to last year, losing to the Washington Mystics in a decisive Game 5 in the nation’s capital, will begin Friday night two days ahead of the original schedule on ESPN.

 

“The teams that played with more tenacity and energy have won each of the first four games so we can’t let the inability to string together stops or a turnover or missed open shot affect how we play defense,” said Connecticut coach Curt Miller, whose team otherwise would have won the series in a huge upset had the Sun prevailed in Game 4.

 

“We have to go ahead and have a great night in Game 5 defensively.

 

“Elimination games, we’ve been two for two this year,” Miller referenced the rounds one and two upsets of the sixth-seeded Chicago Sky and third-seeded Los Angeles Sparks, respectively. “We knew this series was not going to be easy. 

 

“We knew closing it out wasn’t going to be easy. They’re the No. 1 seed for a reason.”

 

Defense has carried the Sun (10-12) this far after reversing an 0-5 start before Briann January and Natisha Hiedeman arrived following a delay off testing protocol for dealing with the coronavirus that forced the entire league to go to Florida similar to the NBA and operate out of a bubble on a shortened 22-game regular season schedule with each team playing two-game series against the other 11 predominantly every other day since late July.

 

But the Aces (18-4), who caught Seattle (18-4) by beating the Storm on the final deal of the regular season, and secured the top seed off a 2-0 sweep, were the story Sunday following Connecticut’s surging finish in Game 3.

 

Regular season MVP A’ja Wilson out of South Carolina followed behind McCoughtry with 18 points and 13 rebounds for Las Vegas, while Danielle Robinson also scored 18 points, and Kayla McBride scored 11.

 

In the third quarter paced by McCoughtry, the Aces outscored Connecticut 28-16 for an 11-point lead heading to the final period in which the Sun were unable to rally.

 

For the game, Connecticut’s Jasmine Thomas, the former Duke standout, had 25 points and six assists, while Alyssa Thomas, who had a monster performance Thursday returning from a dislocated shoulder that forced to the sidelines five minutes into Game 2, scored 15 points and eight rebounds playing in all but three minutes Sunday, while DeWanna Bonner had 10 points and 15 rebounds, Brionna Jones also had 10 points, while January scored nine.

 

“We know what kind of player Angel is,” Jasmine Thomas said. “She’s always been talented and she was aggressive tonight. She got down low on us, put pressure on our defense, got into the paint against us, and then her shots started falling.

 

“When she got into a rhythm it was hard to slow her down. Her teammates fed off that. You could see the energy kind of shift.” 

 

This time the domination in the paint switched back to Las Vegas, 46-20, besides 8-3 on second chance points, and 16-8 scoring on the fast break.

 

“They killed us in the paint,” Bonner said. “That’s how we win, that’s how we get our wins by dominating the paint. “Tonight, we didn’t do that.”

 

Additionally, Connecticut committed 12 turnovers.

 

“Angel wasn’t ready to go home,” Aces coach Bill Laimbeer laughed in his opening summary about his star free agent acquisition in the offseason of McCoughtry, whose whole pro career had been with the Atlanta Dream after graduating Louisville.

 

“It was a spectacular performance (in the third quarter), it gave us the lead, we maintained the lead the rest of the way,” he continued. “I can’t believe how calm she has been playing this whole year.

 

“You look at the stat sheet, a lot of differences from the last game. They didn’t get as many offensive rebounds, we didn’t turn the ball over as many times, overall I thought we played a very solid basketball game. And on to Game 5.

 

“We didn’t get rattled at any time through this game. They had an opportunity to win (the series), now both of us have an opportunity to win.”

 

Seattle Completes Sweep of Minnesota

 

For the second time in three seasons the Storm are back in the championship series they won for the third time in 2018 and might have successfully defended that crown a year ago had they not been riddled with injuries.

 

They started in the “wubble” this time around as the preseason favorite with their health in order though head coach Dan Hughes was advised per the COVID-19 situation not to go to Florida due to his cancer surgery a year ago.

 

Assistant Gary Kloppenburg  has been guiding the show this season as he did early last season when Hughes had his surgery.

 

Back then multi-MVP Breanna Stewart was out of commission all summer with an injury suffered in her overseas competition while Sue Bird was also sidelined.

 

Stewart has since returned this summer as good as new as the former UConn great demonstrated in Sunday’s win, scoring 31 points, grabbing six rebounds, dealing seven assists, grabbing three steals and blocking a pair of shots by the Lynx (14-8).

 

Bird was also back, scoring 16 points, propelled by three 3-pointers, and she also dealt nine assists.

 

“She was really focused, you could tell before the game,” Kloppenburg said. “She’s been in these moments her whole career. She was really locked in. Her ball handling was really well.”

 

Reserve Mercedes Russell had 10 points and six rebounds.

 

Minnesota, which certainly had a successful summer considering the adversity the Lynx dealt with, thus landing former La Salle star Cheryl Reeve of South Jersey coach of the year, got 22 points and 15 rebounds from Napheesa Collier, last season’s rookie of the year, while her former UConn teammate Crystal Dangerfield, who won the award this season, scored 16, as did Damiras Dantas, and Odyssey Sims scored 10.

 

Two teams, the former Houston Comets, with the first of them, all consecutively, and Minnesota in the last decade, have won four WNBA crowns, which Seattle will try to match in the next round.

 

Las Vegas’ Laimbeer won three with the former Detroit Shock, which later became the Tulsa team and is now the Dallas Wings, coached by Brian Agler, who won one of the Seattle titles and one with the Los Angeles Sparks besides two with the Columbus Quest in the former American Basketball League.

 

A week ago the Seattle series opener was postponed when COVID-19 testing on three Storm players produced inconclusive results but subsequent tests were negative and the team quickly began making up for lost time with the Lynx to the point they now have to wait for Tuesday’s semifinals other series’ Game 5 results to see if their opponent will be the Cinderella Sun or Vegas.

 

“Our defense was pretty good and our ladies executed a good plan jump switching and we took them out of their threes, that’s what we wanted to try to do,” Kloppenburg said of a 22-2 run in the first quarter after trailing 6-0 in the opening minutes.

 

“We really set the tone in that first quarter with our defense and we got some easy baskets even though we didn’t shoot the ball that well tonight, though we turned them over 19 times for 20 points.

 

“The bench was tremendous,” Kloppenburg said. “I think we outscored them 32-7.

 

“You put things in perspective, here you are with the best players in the world and you’re playing in the championship and you have a chance to be the best team in the world this year. Our players understand with the historical situation which we’re in with the world your really wanting to be ready and come out to bring a championship back to Seattle.”

 

Of Stewart, he said, “She’s been kind of getting her wind back, getting her rhythm back this series. Obviously got back to that high level today at both ends of the floor, the defensive end as well. Stewie’s a big time game player and she’s been in those moments her entire career and kind of relishes them.”

 

Getting done early will enable Seattle to get some rest awaiting to learn the name of Friday’s opponent.

 

“We’re going to enjoy this one and then start getting prepared for who we play next,” Kloppenburg said. 

 

Said Bird, who has continued to deal with injuries of sorts, “For me, it’s been an interesting year getting in and out of the lineup, any kind of rhythm, any kind of flow for myself. So, the time has been hard, so you just have to understand to get through it, to get to the other side, to start to feel good again.


 “Today, mentally, I tried to let go a little bit, try to be a little kinder to myself, and just go out there and see what happens.

 

“It’s not easy as an athlete, you just have to play through it and see what happens. To say Minnesota got swept isn’t really fair because these were three difficult games.”

 

On Minnesota’s side, Reeve summed up, saying, “That was a vintage Sue Bird performance. I wish it would have ended differently, to be sure.

 

“But it doesn’t take anything away. This was a special season to be sure for the players, a special group, you can accomplish special things together.

 

“Nobody thought we could get past the Seattle Storm. We believed we could put ourselves into a competitive position. We were confident. Today’s game was just disappointing in so many ways. I didn’t see that coming. 

 

“Stewart imposed her will on the game. Probably wasn’t happy the way Game 1 went, maybe even Game 2, but she came out great and established herself. Offensively, we just got off to such a rough start. Struggled,” Reeve continued.

 

“We weren’t as good as we need to be in special elimination game. If there’s a silver lining in this, we’re leaving the bubble. See your families again. But this was a special group. And now we turn the page and pack up and leave the bubble.”

 

***

 

Earlier in the day, the WNBA announced the all-rookie team voted by the league’s 11 coaches (you couldn’t vote your own team) of which four were unanimous picks, highlighted by Minnesota’s Dangerfield, who won the individual award that’s part of the package deliberated by a national media panel.

 

Three others joining Dangerfield as unanimous picks were Dallas’ Satou Sabally out of Oregon, Atlanta’s Chennedy Carter out of Texas A&M, and Belgium’s Julie Allemand of the Indiana Fever.  Jazmine Jones of the New York Liberty out of Louisville picked up six votes to be the fifth member.