You know how some nights the games just don’t seem to want to end? Yeah, last night was a long one in the WNBA, even though we only had three games. Maybe a directive went out from the head office that they hadn’t heard enough whistles in the first month of the season, because we sure got plenty of them to kick off July. Sometimes it really feels like they want us to watch the three people out there in those ugly beige-and-orange shirts more than the ten wearing the basketball uniforms.
The first game to tip off at least had a modicum of flow to it, with New York and San Antonio battling it out in the wilds of New Jersey. The sparse crowds at the Liberty’s adopted home (where they’re intending to play for the next three seasons) aren’t providing much of a home court advantage so far, and there was more bad news for New York before the tip. Essence Carson, one of their bright spots this season, suffered an eye injury in warmups and couldn’t play, not even appearing on the bench through the course of the game.
The first half was pretty painful for us neutrals. San Antonio are a decent matchup for New York, because the Silver Stars lack anyone with the size to take advantage of the back-side weakness of the White Line defense. Most of their points in the paint come from Sophia Young, and while her skills always make her a threat she’s barely 6-1. So for once this season, the White Line did its job, and as no one could get hot for San Antonio outside, New York started to build a lead. The Liberty offense wasn’t exactly flying, but Nicole Powell actually hit a few threes, Sidney Spencer came in and took advantage of the opportunity to knock down a couple herself, and by halftime the Liberty held a 39-34 advantage. New York didn’t look particularly comfortable, but they were holding San Antonio to a miserable 28% from the floor, which kept them in front. In fact, only the 11 offensive rebounds the Silver Stars had somehow amassed in the first half was keeping them in touch. San Antonio are typically horrible on the glass but all that fronting that New York do in their defense puts them out of rebounding position, leading to offensive boards for the other team. Still, if they can’t even hit the putbacks, you can deal with it.
An early third quarter run by San Antonio dispensed with the New York lead and this one was tight the rest of the way. The Silver Stars were still missing most of their shots, even the open ones on the weak side that you can get all day against New York’s defense, but without Cappie Pondexter making much impression on the scoreboard, the Liberty couldn’t pull away. All through the game San Antonio seemed more comfortable with what they were doing. They looked more confident in their system and their structure, looked like they knew what they were supposed to be doing, but nothing was going down. Sometimes you’re just going to have nights like that.
In the fourth, Cappie’s offense came alive as she started looking for her own shot a little more, and only the occasional connection from long distance by Becky Hammon or Danielle Adams was keeping San Antonio in the game. Neither could stay consistently hot enough to take the contest away from the Liberty. The final few minutes was all about Plenette Pierson for New York at the offensive end. After a night where she really hadn’t done much due to foul trouble, Pierson got aggressive, attacked the hoop, and had eight points in the last few minutes on four free throws and two layups. Up four with 47 seconds to play, the other key late play for New York was made by Nicole Powell of all people. Danielle Adams, already becoming known for her own endlessly-flopping style of defense, drove into the paint and ran right into Powell, who took the charge and got the call. I can’t blame Adams for her style of defense, considering the refs seem to buy it most of the time, but it felt like a little bit of karmic justice. For once, someone else went flying backwards and she was the one being called for an offensive foul.
Nice win for New York, even if it wasn’t pretty. They got some production from the likes of Spencer and rookie speedster Sydney Colson off the bench, which helped cover for the absence of Carson, and once Cappie found a little groove that was enough. They play San Antonio again next week, and with this game illustrating how their defense can work against the Silver Stars, they’ll be looking for another win. The White Line hasn’t worked against many teams so far this year, so they’ve got to make the most of it when they’re facing teams it can trouble.
Not a big deal of a loss for San Antonio. I’m sure if you’d offered Dan Hughes a 7-2 record after nine games to start the season he’d have bitten your hand off, so they’ll take this one on the chin. It did illustrate what can happen when none of their perimeter shooters are hot on a given night, however. Hammon went 5-12, Perkins 2-12 off the bench, and Danielle Adams got a little shot-happy from outside and ended up 6-17, including 2-9 from three-point range. 7-30 as a team from behind the arc killed them.
The real foul-fest of the night was in Phoenix, where Chicago were the visitors. So many damn whistles that my ears were ringing by the end of the game. While they usually enjoy free-flowing basketball games without much official intervention, the Mercury struggled in the early going before the zebras got involved. Chicago were up 13-1 after five minutes behind Sylvia Fowles inside and Epiphanny Prince outside, and most of the whistles Phoenix were causing was by repeatedly throwing the ball away for costly turnovers. Even though Fowles and Michelle Snow both had two fouls by the midpoint of the first quarter, Chicago’s bench came in and kept their momentum going, pushing the lead to 29-16 by the end of the first. 16 of those 45 total points were already from the foul line.
In their typical streaky style, Phoenix ran themselves back into the game in the second quarter. Or at least they attacked their way back in, anyway. Chicago still had an 11-point lead when Fowles suffered a very dubious illegal screen call with six minutes left in the half. That was her third foul, so her half was over. With Chicago’s primary interior threat removed, Phoenix started scoring and Chicago stopped, which I’m sure you’re all clever enough to realise tends to lead to a bit of a run. It was layup or foul shot, layup or foul shot for the Mercury, and by halftime they’d pulled it all the way back to a one-point deficit at 49-48.
I’m by no means accusing the referees of being biased, or even calling contact that didn’t happen – although they certainly weren’t afraid to blow. But the way they were calling the game ended up significantly favouring the Mercury. Not only did it remove Fowles early, but as I’ve pointed out in several of their previous games, Chicago don’t penetrate. Prince very occasionally, Vandersloot even more rarely, and maybe a little from Tamera Young off the bench, but largely speaking they’re a team of jumpshooters. And jumpshooters don’t get fouled (Phoenix’s defenders usually aren’t close enough, even if they wanted to). So the Mercury, 16-18 from the free throw line at the half, were right back in the game – because they’ve got players who’ll run the floor, attack the rim, and get fouled.
The second half was practically all Phoenix (unless you count the refs). Two threes and an easy layup had the Mercury in front within minutes of the restart, and then Fowles limped off the floor in pain. She missed most of the third quarter having an injury to some part of her right leg tended to, and while Phoenix were still only up 71-64 when she returned, it felt like they were in charge. The fourth quarter was very, very long. 24 free throws in total, most of them for the Mercury, and that was enough to keep them in front. Kara Braxton, Nakia Sanford and Candice Dupree were doing enough to keep Fowles in check, and the Sky simply didn’t have enough other threats to turn the tide back in their favour. Phoenix held on for a fairly comfortable 97-84 win.
Tying a WNBA record for made free throws with 42 isn’t the prettiest way to win a game – especially for us neutrals – but it sure is effective. 42-45 from the line is a hell of a shooting display as well. There are teams in this league that would’ve missed more than enough of those to turn this into a contest, but if there’s one thing the Mercury excel at, it’s free throw shooting. Diana Taurasi finished with 24 points despite only taking eight shots from the floor, and four other players were in double-figures. 41% shooting and 21 turnovers yet they won comfortably. I’m sure they’ll be more than happy with that, although head coach Corey Gaines has to be increasingly worried about the number of times his team are coughing up the ball.
The Chicago side of the boxscore actually looks okay at a glance. Four starters all shot at least 50%, all four were in double digits, and the team shot over 46% as a unit. It was all that fouling at the other end that ended their chances, and the lack of penetration to create their own opportunities at the stripe. 18-21 from the line is usually a pretty decent night, but not in this game. Fowles playing under 22 minutes didn’t help their chances either, although head coach Pokey Chatman’s heart must’ve been in her mouth when Fowles went down in pain. If Big Syl is okay, and she seemed to be moving fairly smoothly after she came back in, then Chicago have a chance to improve on these mediocre performances as the season progresses. If she’d gone down and stayed down, things could’ve gotten ugly. Well, uglier.
The final game of the night was in Connecticut, where the Seattle Storm were trying to win for the first time since 2003. Exactly why the Storm have such problems in Uncasville no one seems entirely sure, but those are the facts. Sue Bird won an awful lot of games in the Nutmeg State, but since she switched her UConn jersey for the green of Seattle, she’s found it a lot more difficult.
Of course, Bird wasn’t the only player on show who used to feature for the Huskies, and it was a more recent graduate who starred in the first half. Tina Charles has been red hot lately, including the 20/20 she put up on LA last time out, and she just kept going in this one. Her combination of size, agility and a little range got her 12 points on the Seattle defense in the first half, along with eight rebounds, and that was a primary factor in the Sun’s 45-33 lead at the break. They were also connecting from long range, going 5-7 as a team from behind the arc, and Seattle’s offensive struggles were continuing at the other end. Without the bailout option of Lauren Jackson the offense runs nearly as smoothly, but without the ‘oh just throw it to her’ option when the ideas run out. It makes scoring even more difficult.
The referees weren’t kind to Seattle either, calling them for several offensive foul calls in both halves, at least two or three of which were horrible decisions by the officials. However, despite allowing the Sun’s lead to balloon as high as 18 in the third quarter, Seattle started to utilise the refs to get back in the game. Swin Cash finally started to capitalise on the obvious size and strength advantage she has over anyone Connecticut can throw at her at the small forward spot, getting in the lane for scores or for fouls that she turned into points at the free throw line. With Ashley Robinson getting heavy minutes for Seattle to try to make Charles’s life more difficult underneath, the Sun went cold in the fourth quarter and by the final few minutes we suddenly had a ballgame.
Seattle drew within two points for what felt like the first time in hours on a Camille Little layup with 2:16 left in the game. After an awful Andrea Riley-esque three-point airball from Renee Montgomery where none of her teammates touched the ball on the entire possession, Seattle had a chance to tie. Sue Bird threw a backdoor bounce pass on a pick-and-roll to where she thought Little would be, but Little never quite got there. Turnover. Maybe Lauren Jackson would’ve reached it. After a couple of Kara Lawson free throws put Connecticut up 70-66, Bird was long on a three but a tough offensive rebound and putback by Cash got the Storm within two again. A Tan White miss underneath meant Seattle had another chance to tie. Bird lost White off the dribble, and with Asjha Jones (oh look, another UConn grad) closing out on her, took yet another jumper. Short.
Two Montgomery free throws made it a four-point game again with 29 seconds left, but somehow this still wasn’t over. After an ugly Little three-point attempt – it seems unlikely that’s what Brian Agler drew up in the huddle – Bird eventually hit her toughest attempt of the night, a leaning 10-footer over Charles with eight seconds on the clock. Lawson only made one of two from the line after the intentional foul, so Seattle had the ball back down three with yet another chance to tie the game. No dice. Bird took a horrible, forced, falling-down three pointer that was so far off it went behind the backboard. There was no need to rush that much, but maybe she was hoping to get a foul call on Jones, who was right up on her. On a night of endless whistles, the one Bird wanted to bail her out on that final play never arrived. Two Kalana Greene free throws closed the game out, Connecticut once again clinging on by the skin of their teeth to win 75-70. That’s the second straight game their opponents have had multiple chances to tie the game in the final seconds and the second straight time they’ve just barely held on. Still, they all count.
The Storm just don’t quit. You have to give them credit for that, even if they don’t come out of this game with credit for much else. Cash finished with 25, 12 of them at the line, and Bird was an ugly 4-12 from the floor for eight points. They need to find more from their guards. Birdy’s been doing okay this season, but with Jackson gone they’re going to need her offense to come to the fore on a consistent basis. Tanisha Wright and Katie Smith are both cold as ice, and have been all season. The post players are actually compensating fairly well for their missing star, but someone has to hit some shots from the backcourt. I love complimentary players like Little and Le’coe Willingham, and even Ashley Robinson’s had her moments lately, but you can’t expect that group to be the focal point of your offense. The 2010 version of Tanisha Wright would be a hugely welcome addition to this squad right now.
Letting the opposition back into games like this can’t be good for Mike Thibault’s heart. Charles and Kara Lawson were the only ones who really got going offensively all night, which limited the Sun’s options once they seemed to forget about Tina late in the game. She still finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds. Renee Montgomery was only 4-12 for 11 points, and I swear she didn’t go left one single time all night long. It shows just how tricky and talented she is that she can only go in one direction and yet has still been very effective this season. Ultimately, Connecticut’s UConn alumni just about outplayed the Storm’s and that was enough for the win. Good thing the Sun don’t have as much trouble winning in this state as the Storm.
In other news…
The final European spot in next year’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament went to Croatia, after they beat Montenegro in the EuroBasket Women 5th-place playoff. The final, between Russia and Turkey, is tomorrow.