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.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

WNBA: Pondexter Gets New York A First-Place Tie

(Guru's note: Updating to add a fact or two and revise the narrative. A second post above this one wraps up Sunday's entire WNBA action and sets up the playoffs.)

By Mel Greenberg

Former Rutgers star Cappie Pondexter, a native of Chicago, last winter wanted out of the defending WNBA champion Phoenix Mercury to return to the big city atmosphere provided in New York and reunite with her Olympic coach Anne Donovan.

For her part, with former UConn star Diana Tarausi left behind from what had been a winning tandem to two titles in three seasons, Pondexter promised to do all she could to return the Liberty to its glory days.

"We saw it from the beginning," Pondexter said Sunday after scoring 31 points and hitting the winning shot with 13.8 seconds left in overtime to give New York an 88-87 victory over the Connecticut Sun (17-17) at Madison Square Garden and a first-place tie with the Washington Mystics at 22-12.

New York, a perennial playoff participant which competed several times for the championship in the early years of the WNBA, set franchise records with the 22 wins and a 10-game win streak that was snapped Friday night in Washington by the Mystics on former Duke star Lindsey Harding's shot in the final half minute.

"They brought me in to lead these guys -- I wanted to be the leader, I wanted to give back to this organization, they definitely deserve it," Pondexter said. "It was special. It's obvious it was meant to be."

New York, which was on the sidelines a year ago in the postseason, will open here Thursday against the defending conference champion Indiana Fever (21-13), who were stunned at home by the Minnesota Lynx 83-79 in overtime and dropped to third a game behind.

Pondexter, likely to receive her share of MVP votes after Monday's deadline for WNBA postseason honors, has kept her end of the promise after New York obtained her in an offseason mega three-team trade that also involveed the Chicago Sky.

The 2006 Scarlet Knights graduate, who was taken second overall by Phoenix in the 2006 draft, has come a long way since her Hall of Fame Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer used to lament over Pondexter being "too nice" in not taking over games at crunch time.

That was then this is now, as the saying goes.

Pondexter's heroics saved New York's opportunity to gain a home court advantage in the revised 1-1-1 best-of-three format when the playoffs get under way this week.

"It was much more of a grind than we would have preferred," Donovan said of being extended by the Sun, which finished fifth five games behind the leaders and two behind Atlanta for the fourth and final playoff spot. "But Connecticut didn't want to go down without fighting, and they fought hard.

"Once again I felt we could have let it go -- at that point I don't know if our players knew what kind of meaning it had. But it came down to the end, and in overtime Cappie was Cappie and we rode her coattails to the win."

Donovan, who guided the Seattle Storm to a WNBA title in 2004 and the United States to an Olympic gold medal in Beijing, China in 2008, will be heading to the collegiate level after the Liberty's season to coach the Seton Hall women across the Hudson River in South Orange, N.J.

The former star of one of Old Dominion's national champions also took the former WNBA Charlotte Sting from a 1-10 start to the finals asgainst Los Angeles in 2001.

The final day of the regular season in the WNBA East began with a three-way tie for first, including Indiana. By the time the Liberty ook the floor, Washington, which edged New York at the finish Friday night, was way ahead at Atlanta against the fourth-place Dream (19-15) and held on for a 90-81 win.

That gave the Mystics the overall No. 1 seed in the East and also home court in the conference best-of-three 1-1-1 finals if they prevail in the first round against Atlanta. The series with the Dream begins Wednesday at the Verizon Center in Washington.

New York's home court, which will be at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., the next three summers during Garden renovations, would have been safe if all three East leaders had won or lost Sunday.

But once Washington grabbed the top East seed, New York needed to beat the Sun, who were eliminated a week ago by Indiana, to open the playoffs here.

Though early Sunday night when Indiana lost at home to the Lynx in overtime, that setback would not have been helpful to the Liberty had New York also lost.

In terms of tie-breaking for second seed, New York tied Indiana in season play 2-2 winning big here last Tuesday in a blowout. That knocked out the first tie breaker. A loss Sunday would have given the Liberty the same conference record as the Fever, eliminating the second tie breaker.

Then it would have come down to comparable records against teams in the entire WNBA who were .500 or better and Indiana would have gained the No. 2 seed by a slight margin.

New York benefitted Sunday in winning by a point when Connecticut's Tan White, going for the basket, connected on a running 10-foot jumper with 1.2 seconds left instead of attempting a trey that could have sent the game into a second overtime.

"What we drew up was to take the first good shot in the first five seconds on the clock," Connecticut coach Mike Thibault said. "If you have to take a layup in the first five seconds take it so we turnaround and foul.

"After five seconds, we would have taken a three. Why we did what we did is what encapsulates what we did for the entire season," Thibault added of a bunch of frustrating losses.

The Liberty had been extremely strong in the second half in going 14-2 since the All-Star break prior to Friday night's loss. They took an early 12-point lead at the outset of the third quarter before the Sun began to rally.

The crowd of 15,989 got nervous when the Sun grabbed a brief lead late in the fourth quarter and then were able to force overtime on Kara Lawson's 25-foot three-point shot and rookie Tina Charles' layup with 41.8 seconds left that made it an 809-80 tie.

But Pondexter was not done, scoring six of her points, including the game-winner, in the extra period.

Former Stanford star Nicole Powell added 14 points to the Liberty total, Janel Mccarville scored 12, and Leilani Mitchell had 13 points, including another strong attack from the perimeter making 3-of-4 three pointers.

Pondexter also connected on three treys.

Charles, a former UConn star and overall No. 1 draft pick who made another return Sunday to her native New York, finished an outstanding rookie debut with 21 points and 13 rebounds to set the new WNBA record for double doubles in a season at 22.

"It was disappointing," said Charles of the Sun elimination. She had spent the last two collegiate seasons in her final games winning national NCAA titles with unbeaten records. "This team has worked hard. We demand so much of each other. Unfortunately, we have to rollover and wait till next season.

"This league has a lot of talent," she said of the competition, especially in the East where the Sun's finish is one of the better ones for a fifth place team in terms of games behind the rest of the pack. "You can't expect the same thing that happened in college or high school. Every situation is going to be different and there are a lot of great players so I knew there were going to be a couple of losses."

Charles, however, won't be idle for too many days. She she will rejoin her college coach Geno Auriemma with the USA national team making preparations for next month's FIBA World Championships in the Czech Republic.

Sandrine Gruda scored 18 points for the Sun, which had a better record than Western runnerup Phoenix (15-19). Renee Montgomery scored 17 points and Kara Lawson had 15.

-- Mel


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