Two games in the WNBA on Saturday, one East, one West, and each featuring the worst team in the respective conference. So it was another night of blowouts and garbage time, right? Not so fast.
The Washington Mystics have been playing slightly better basketball lately. They’d lost nine of their last ten and sported a hideous 3-14 overall record coming into this game, but they keep coming close. In fact, their last four games were lost by seven, six, four and two points, in that order. Keep up the pattern, and barring an even more excruciating one-point loss, they had to finally win this one. New York broke their own pattern on Thursday, finally winning two games in a row for the first time in weeks. But they managed it by beating Chicago in one of the more hideous games the WNBA has seen in recent times, so we’re trying to forget that one.
Recent Liberty addition Kara Braxton was yet to join the team, although Sidney Spencer has already made her way to Phoenix, so New York were down to ten for this game. Washington’s injury issues are still the same – no Beard, no Currie. The first quarter set the scene for most of what was to follow – in other words, it belonged to Matee Ajavon. Apparently, facing off against fellow Rutgers alumni Cappie Pondexter, Kia Vaughn and Essence Carson agrees with Ajavon. Her speed gave New York all kinds of problems, and when they forced her to take jump shots instead of knifing inside, Ajavon was knocking those down as well. She had 10 points by the end of the first quarter, and Washington had a 26-18 lead.
New York struggled horribly in the first half against Washington’s defense. The problems the Mystics have had this season have largely been on communication and mobility, but the Liberty weren’t moving the ball well enough or penetrating far enough to take advantage of those issues. Plus they couldn’t hit any shots, which never helps. The lead was as high as 19 on yet another Ajavon jumper with four minutes left in the half, but a late run fueled by Carson and Pondexter cut it to 50-38 at halftime. The two Liberty guards ultimately combined for 18 points in the first half – Ajavon managed that on her own.
With Crystal Langhorne and Marissa Coleman providing Ajavon with some backup, matters deteriorated even further for New York in the third quarter. Forced to pay more attention to the gunning of Ajavon and Coleman outside, they couldn’t deal with the movement and scoring prowess of Langhorne inside so she started racking up points. Confidence is a wonderful thing, and after their success in the first half, Washington had finally found some. They were moving the ball better than they had for most of the season, finding the right player at the right time and avoiding the cheap turnovers they’ve been giving away all year. The lead reached 68-46 with four minutes left in the third quarter, and it looked like the Mystics would be too far ahead to throw the game away in the closing minutes as they have so frequently this season.
Inevitably, Washington found a way to make things at least mildly interesting. Two Nicole Powell buckets cut the lead to 15, and a run keyed by the post pairing of Plenette Pierson and Quanitra Hollingsworth cut it to 10 with four minutes left. Kia Vaughn had a miserable night while her former college teammate flourished, but Hollingsworth was an able understudy. Still, it made you realise why they took the chance on the move for Braxton, and wonder how much help she might’ve been in this game. No flights from Phoenix direct to Washington D.C. in the last two days, Kara?
For just a few seconds you wondered if the Mystics were actually going to find a way to blow this one, but in truth the gap was never lower than eight points in the fourth quarter. Washington finally got to celebrate their fourth win of the season, closing it out 91-81.
Congratulations to the Mystics and their long-suffering fans, who frankly deserve a win after the number of times they’ve suffered painful late collapses this season. Clearly the answer is to play even better in the first three quarters and build a lead so enormous that even they aren’t capable of surrendering it. Ajavon shot 10-16 from the field, 10-11 from the free throw line, for a total of 32 points. That’s the Ajavon that has had some people touting her as a Most Improved Player Award candidate this year, even though both Carson and Vaughn are probably more likely candidates (among others). She’s grown up this year, forced to take on more responsibility with Beard, Currie, Lindsey Harding and Katie Smith all out of the picture. Her percentages and turnover rate still aren’t great, but she has the ability to take over games and to force her way to the rim or the foul line, plus she’s become a visibly better passer. Maybe some day the new and improved version of Ajavon will actually get to play with Beard and Currie instead of as their replacement. Beyond the standout performer, Langhorne had 20 in support, and the rest of the team continue to work hard and play for each other. New York had trouble working out their defense all night.
Who knew what losing Sidney Spencer’s cheerleading ability could do to a team, huh? The final numbers for New York don’t actually look too bad. Pondexter was 7-15 for 21 points, Pierson 10-17 for 20, and they got 11 each from Carson and Hollingsworth off the bench. But they were never really in it. Still, the way they’d been playing, Washington had to beat somebody sometime soon, and it turned out that New York were the victims. The key differences in the end, besides Ajavon’s career night, were on the glass and at the free throw line. Washington dominated the boards 32-20, and while New York were an impressive 18-18 from the line, Washington finished 28-29. They were more direct, more aggressive and simply more desperate to finally win a freaking game. These teams meet twice more in the next ten days, so the Liberty will have opportunities for revenge. For their sake, let’s hope they come up with a way to deal with Ajavon by then.
In contrast to their fellow basement-dwellars, Tulsa haven’t looked like beating anybody lately. They’ve had a couple of games that at least headed into the fourth quarter close, but they’ve typically been finished off well before the other team had any need to bite their fingernails. Then Friday night, Indiana blew them off their own floor. 24 hours later, they were in San Antonio to face a Silver Stars team that had lost three in a row and were desperate to beat up on somebody. The signs weren’t looking good for the Shock.
Guess what? Teresa Edwards stuck with the same starting lineup! If you’re not a regular at this website, an exclamation point at the end of that sentence will probably strike you as strange, but regular readers will understand. Dan Hughes also kept faith with his regular starting five, which was far less surprising.
I found a new way to entertain myself in this game, something which has become necessary this season to survive a lot of Tulsa contests. I decided to start counting what I referred to as Abominably Shitty Turnovers (ASTs for short). Please forgive the language, it seems necessary on this rare occasion. ASTs aren’t your normal, run-of-the-mill turnovers. They’re the ones that are just extraordinarily stupid, completely unnecessary, and often thoroughly unforced. Although throwing an idiotic pass across the front of the defense begging for the ball to be intercepted still counts, even though technically it would’ve been ‘forced’.
Tulsa had five ASTs in the first quarter alone. This team doesn’t value the ball anywhere near enough, despite being coached by one of the greatest point guards the women’s game has ever seen. Cheap giveaway after cheap giveaway drive you crazy as a neutral – it’s hard to imagine what it’s like watching them as a fan. Edwards’s coaching decisions were odd as well. Ivory Latta was benched after only 74 seconds for Andrea Riley, who’s an AST waiting to happen (and committed two of the five in the first quarter). Amber Holt joined Latta on the pine barely a minute later. Is Edwards seeing something in the first couple of minutes to make her change her mind about her starting lineup? Is it an attempt to make some kind of statement? I really don’t get it, but if she prefers Riley over Latta – although God knows why she would – then just hand Riley the starting spot. The substitutions don’t seem coherent.
San Antonio only led 16-11 at the end of the first quarter, because they were struggling with their own offense, and being pulled into the messiness of the encounter by the Shock. Like several games early in the season, Tulsa somehow managed to make the game such a shambles that their opponent started playing down to their level. Besides Becky Hammon, who’s always good for a few turnovers while trying to do too much, the Silver Stars don’t give the ball away. In this game, they did. By halftime Tulsa’s AST count was up to eight, the official turnover count was a hideous 16-9 to Tulsa, and San Antonio led the game 28-21. Not pretty.
If Hammon could’ve found her range from outside in the first half, the Silver Stars would’ve led by a lot more than seven at the break. She was 0-4 from three-point range in the first half but finally hit one on their opening possession of the second. The something completely unexpected happened – Tulsa started taking better care of the basketball. The game was still uninspired and messy, but they were at least managing to hold on to the ball long enough to get a shot in the air on most possessions, rather than throwing it to someone in the third row (or a Silver Stars vest). It kept Tulsa in the game as the period progressed, allowing the lead to stretch no higher than 11, and when Riley turned a poor Hammon turnover into a breakaway layup, the score was 48-43 with barely 20 seconds left in the third. Somehow, we had a ballgame. The gloss was taken off it when rookie center Liz Cambage completely lost counterpart Jayne Appel on the following possession, and Appel drained her first three of the season, but Tulsa still had hope.
The fourth quarter was dominated by the running battle between Cambage and Appel down low, and Tiffany Jackson’s scoring. Cambage was too big and too strong for Appel to deal with offensively on several plays, but then Appel was too quick and had too much range for Cambage at the other end. They kind of cancelled each other out, but it was interesting to watch. At 19, Cambage still has a long way to go to fully realise all the potential within her, and Appel is only just starting to make an impact on this league after a miserable rookie season in 2010. We should see these two going at each other a lot more over the next decade.
Jackson was the focus of Tulsa’s offense when Cambage wasn’t fighting it out with Appel, and she was having one of the better nights of her career. All this while primarily matched up against Sophia Young. Rookie forward Kayla Pedersen hit a nice little layup on a post move with four minutes to play that cut the lead back to five, and after Young sank a turnaround in the lane, Jackson took her personal total to 27 with a tough fadeaway over Appel. The gap was down to five again, and Tulsa got the ball back after solid defense forced Jia Perkins into an awful scooping prayer that never had a chance. This was Tulsa’s opportunity. They could’ve made it a one-possession ballgame with under three minutes to play, and put thoughts in the Silver Stars’ minds of yet another last-second loss, after losing two games to Minnesota in that manner last week. But it wasn’t to be. Andrea Riley, yet again, threw a terrible loopy entry pass that was deflected and stolen, and Hammon followed it up by nailing a triple at the other end. After visions of cutting the lead to three, the advantage was suddenly eight instead, and the game was practically over.
After Pedersen hit an improbable three to cut the score to 70-64 with 45 seconds left, Tulsa had a final chance to potentially make things interesting, but Appel slid past Cambage for an offensive rebound and they were toast. Hammon added a couple of free throws for the final score of 72-64 San Antonio.
As atrocious as they were in the first half, you have to give Tulsa a little credit for how they performed in the second. I stopped counting ASTs because there weren’t enough to maintain my interest any more, which was an achievement in itself. They finished the game with 24 turnovers, a horrible total but not quite so bad when you remember that they had 16 at halftime. Jackson went 10-13 from the floor for 27 points and chipped in 10 rebounds, while most of the support was provided by Pedersen, who had several smooth moves for her 14 points (on a perfect 6-6 from the floor). Why Andrea Riley played 34 minutes, allowing her to shoot 2-11 from the field for four points (and five turnovers), you’d have to ask Teresa Edwards. I suppose she’d point to the fact that it was very nearly a game in the fourth quarter. Someone else might point out that if Riley hadn’t been out there, the comeback might’ve been completed.
San Antonio were desperate for a win, and that’s what they got, but they didn’t half make hard work of it. Hammon was 7-14 for 19 points, Young 8-17 for 20, and they joined Tulsa in cutting down on the turnovers in the second half. But they got annihilated on the glass 35-21, reinforcing their position as far and away the worst rebounding team in the WNBA. You’d think that having Appel and Ruth Riley out there for extra minutes while Danielle Adams is injured would improve matters on the boards, but it doesn’t seem to be having much effect. They’re still getting killed, and it’s not like Tulsa are a rebounding powerhouse. San Antonio’s upcoming schedule features five out of the next seven on the road, all against playoff teams. Perform like this against opponents like that and it’s unlikely they’ll be able to cling on for wins.
In other news…
Candace Parker was apparently out on the floor and shooting before LA’s game tonight, and looked pretty spry jumping off the bench to support her teammates. Good signs that her return might not be too far off.
Atlanta’s Armintie Price had to be helped off the floor and back to the locker room with a left ankle injury in today’s game, but according to later reports x-rays were negative and she’s currently listed as day-to-day. It’s just a ‘little sprain’ according to her twitter account. That’s good news for the Dream, who could do without any more injuries after losing Shalee Lehning to an ACL tear just last week.
Today’s Games (already completed):
Seattle @ Atlanta, 3pm ET
Connecticut @ Phoenix, 6pm ET
Indiana @ Chicago, 7pm ET
Minnesota @ Los Angeles, 8.30pm ET