WNBA Today, 08/20/2011: With a Lyttle Bit of Luck

Just one game to look at from Friday night in the WNBA, but first the quick injury report from Saturday – Jackson’s back but Taurasi sat with a bad back. Try saying that five times fast. I’ll have coverage of all four of tonight’s games in tomorrow’s column, including a couple that went right to the wire. For now you’ll have to make do with Connecticut‘s visit to Atlanta, which was no mean contest itself.

The usual starting fives that these teams have settled into took the floor to open the game. After a crushing overtime loss in New York the night before, Connecticut were looking to rebound quickly a get back to winning ways. However, as always in this league, fatigue can be a serious issue in the second half of back-to-backs. After completing a four-game roadtrip on Tuesday in LA, Atlanta were undoubtedly happy to be home, but they hadn’t had much trouble on their travels. 3-1 on that trip, and 9-3 overall in their last 12 games, it’s been a month of progress for the Dream that they were hoping to continue against the Sun.

The first quarter was entertaining, but no one managed to create much of an edge. It took Renee Montgomery barely two minutes to throw two terrible passes into lanes that simply weren’t there, before deciding she’d just start shooting and score instead. That’s a positive way to avoid turnovers. At the other end, Sancho Lyttle got off to a hot start by nailing a series of mid-range jump shots, and then Atlanta started doing what they do best – attacking the paint. When you can’t shoot from outside, it’s a good thing that you can score on the inside. From 16-12 down after six minutes, the Dream were either making layups or drawing fouls and heading to the free throw line on possession after possession. Fortunately for Connecticut, Kelsey Griffin came off the bench and gave them the same boost she’s provided in several games of late, and Atlanta only led 22-21 at the end of the first quarter.

Things went a little pear-shaped for the Dream in the second quarter when coach Marynell Meadors went to her reserves. With Lyttle and Erika de Souza replaced by Alison Bales and Courtney Paris down low – one of the slowest post pairings you will ever see on a basketball court – Connecticut made a run. With Montgomery making assured, solid passes and racking up assists – I was as surprised as anyone – the score was 35-28 Connecticut by the time the Dream starters returned en masse. For the rest of the half, Tina Charles was being forced into tough shots but knocking them down regardless, so the Sun maintained their advantage. The combination of Danielle McCray and Kalana Greene on the perimeter was doing a solid job making Angel McCoughtry’s life difficult, and Connecticut led 50-41 at the break. So far there were no signs of tiredness after the previous night’s efforts in the Big Apple, and once again the Sun were crashing the glass, grabbing 11 offensive rebounds in the first half (and leading the rebounding battle 29-17 overall). That’s a pretty impressive feat against the giant Atlanta front line, even when Charles is on your side.

The Dream stepped on the gas to open the second half, raised the tempo of the game, and immediately started to look more of a threat. Lindsey Harding was in an aggressive mood, looking for that little pull-up jumper of hers that she always has in her locker but sometimes seems to forget about. Atlanta’s team defense played a significant role as well, making life difficult for Charles inside and creating several turnovers by dropping down and helping out on her. A de Souza layup with under three minutes left in the third quarter tied the game for the first time since the opening period, and by now the Dream had all the momentum. Connecticut seemed to have lost all their offensive rhythm, nothing was dropping from outside when they held on to the ball long enough to shoot, so Atlanta were taking control. Harding went to that jumper three times in the closing minutes of the third for Dream buckets, but Kara Lawson was working her socks off to keep Connecticut in the game. She went the length of the court in 5.5 seconds for a layup as time expired to cut Atlanta’s advantage to 69-68 heading into the fourth.

Curiously enough, at that 5.5 second mark, Renee Montgomery went to the bench. Perhaps not curious in itself – she’d just picked up her fourth foul, and starters often rest late in the third quarter – but what was interesting was that it would be the last we saw of her on the floor all night. She hadn’t played exceptionally well, but she hadn’t stunk the place out either with 3-7 shooting for seven points and seven assists, along with only three turnovers. Exactly why she didn’t return never seemed to be addressed by Sun coach Mike Thibault in the post-game interviews, so I have no answer for you as to why her night was over at this point. Your guess is as good as mine.

The same collection of Dream reserves that conceded ground in the second quarter opened the fourth, but this time they managed to hold on. They couldn’t find a way to score, but neither could Connecticut, so the game was still practically deadlocked when the starters came back with 6:30 left in the fourth. The final ten minutes of regulation were sloppy regardless of who was in the game, with turnovers being freely exchanged by both teams. After a largely miserable night from outside, Asjha Jones hit a couple of perimeter jump shots down the stretch after Atlanta’s switching and helping defense left her open out top. The final one gave Connecticut a three-point lead at 78-75 with under three minutes left. Then it was just brick after brick from a whole variety of players.

With 40 seconds left, McCoughtry penetrated and kicked to Armintie Price, who clanked another mid-range jumper off the rim. Connecticut inbounded the ball from under the basket, but made a complete mess of advancing the ball past halfcourt in the face of pressure from McCoughtry, Price and Lyttle. On the brink of an eight-second violation, Greene jumped in the air and threw the ball wildly across the halfcourt line but straight out of bounds. It doesn’t really matter if you get it across the time-line if the ball disappears directly out of play. Having your starting point guard in the game might’ve helped advance the ball over halfcourt, of course. That gave Atlanta another chance, still down three but with nearly 30 seconds left. They ended up with a shot that Thibault probably would’ve happily let them take in an empty gym – a Sancho Lyttle three-pointer. The only one she’s hit in her entire WNBA career was an overthrown pass that accidentally rattled in earlier this season, but her effort on this play bounced high off the iron, kissed off the glass, and dropped softly through the hoop. Sometimes, the gods are on your side. Tied ball game at 78.

Here’s where you knew something strange was definitely going on with Montgomery. With 12 seconds left to find a winning basket, Thibault inserted deep reserve Allison Hightower into the game for Kalana Greene instead of his starting point guard, who’s made several big shots over the course of her career. When Kara Lawson penetrated and stopped, she eventually found Hightower in the far corner as time was running down, and she put up a three. Unfortunately for Hightower and the Sun, McCoughtry was sailing through the air in her direction at the time. The shot was blocked with consummate ease, and we were heading for overtime. In retrospect, Hightower had time to pump fake and draw a foul, or take a dribble to the side and then shoot, but she didn’t realise that. Who knows if Montgomery would have.

A tough leaner from Harding as the shot clock expired opened the scoring in OT, and a quick baseline drive from de Souza stretched Atlanta’s advantage to four. With Charles completely invisible by this point and Montgomery still sat down, it fell to Jones to try to will her team back into the game. A jumper cut the gap to two, and when Lyttle replied with one of her own Jones drove and sank a difficult runner in the lane while drawing a foul. When she added the free throw it was back to a one-point Dream lead with under two minutes to play.

After a Lyttle miss, the key play of the extra period came on the defensive end for Atlanta, when McCoughtry came from the blind side to help defend Charles and poked the ball out of her hands. It was Charles’s eighth turnover of the night, and McCoughtry drove to turn it into two points at the other end and an 86-83 lead. She followed a Jones miss with a jumper from 17 feet that hit nothing but twine, and the game seemed essentially finished at 88-83 with 22 seconds remaining.

There was still a little drama left when a mix-up in the Atlanta defense left Tan White ridiculously open for three to narrow the lead back to two points, but Lyttle sank a pair from the line and de Souza rejected a Lawson drive to kill off the faint remaining Sun hopes. A series of meaningless scores in the final seconds (meaningless to everyone except the gamblers, anyway) left us with a result of 94-88 Atlanta.

While Atlanta never truly got their running game flowing, the most glaring stat of the night was the Dream’s 25-2 advantage in points off turnovers. The Sun coughed up the ball 21 times over the course of the game, and Atlanta took serious advantage. Of course, for those watching, the most obvious issue was what happened to Montgomery. Maybe she picked up a minor injury, or Thibault decided she was tired after playing the night before, but she looked fine until he pulled her at the end of the third quarter. You have to imagine that she’d have offered more of a threat than Hightower in crucial offensive situations. Charles had a nightmare after halftime, going 0-3 for zero points, three rebounds and six turnovers in the second half and overtime. When the opponent manages to do that to your star, your lead guard is sat on the bench and your third wheel shoots 9-24 you’re probably not going to win too many games. Maybe carrying the load for a second straight night proved too heavy a burden for Charles.

From an Atlanta perspective, this was another game that they somehow managed to snatch out of the fire. There was a ridiculous game ten days ago when Iziane Castro Marques and McCoughtry hit their only threes of the game in the final moments to enable Lyttle to win it at the buzzer, and this was no less remarkable. Lyttle’s triple to send the game to overtime was, once again, their only made three of the game. Extraordinary. After a horrible start to the season, everything seems to be falling for Atlanta lately, apart from the nasty injury to backup point guard Shalee Lehning. Their starting five has finally settled, and in this game Harding shot an outstanding 10-14 from the floor for 21 points and five assists. McCoughtry was 9-22 for 26, and the de Souza/Lyttle pairing combined to shoot 13-26 for 32 points and 15 rebounds. They’re flying right now, and finding ways to win games instead of discovering ways to lose them, as appeared to be the case earlier in the season. If they keep playing like this they might not have to upset the apple cart from the fourth seed like they did last year – because they could easily be higher in the standings by the time we head to the postseason.

 

In other news…

Nothing much besides the injury news related at the top of this piece. I spent a large part of today at the London Prepares Basketball Series, an invitational event to test out the arena which will host the majority of next year’s Olympic basketball tournament. So look out for a report on the venue, the court, the food and anything else I can think of early next week. London 2012 is less than a year away.

 

Today’s Games (already completed):

Chicago @ Washington, 7pm ET

Los Angeles @ Minnesota, 8pm ET

San Antonio @ Phoenix, 10pm ET

New York @ Seattle, 10pm ET

 

Tomorrow’s Games:

Atlanta @ Connecticut, 5pm ET

Washington @ Indiana, 6pm ET

Los Angeles @ Tulsa, 7pm ET

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