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Friday, July 19, 2019

2011 WNBA Playoffs Preview: In Connecticut v. Atlanta, Regular Season Truly Does Go Out the Window

Article Lead Image

Photo Caption: Friday’s Eastern Conference Semifinal is likely to be a duel between Atlanta’s Angel McCoughtry (right) who missed out by decimal points on being this season’s league-leading scorer (21.6 points per game), and Connecticut’s Tina Charles (left), the WNBA’s top rebounder (11 per game) and no mean scorer herself after averaging a double-double with 17.6 points per game.

Photo Credits: Tina Charles Image Courtesy NBAE/Getty Images; Angel McCoughtry Image Courtesy Atlanta Dream

By Mel Greenberg

Preview the Eastern Conference semifinal match-up between the Connecticut Sun, the number two team in the East thanks only to having lost its tiebreaker with Indiana, and the Atlanta Dream, the hottest team in the WNBA at the moment? That’s one tough assignment. When it comes to these two teams against each other, the saying about the regular season going out the window once playoff time rolls around definitely applies.

An increase by four wins in the Connecticut Sun’s record from their 17-17 finish last season to 21-13 may not seem like much but the jump was enough for coach Mike Thibault’s youthful delegation to tie the Indiana Fever for first place in the Eastern Conference standings, earn a second-seed and return to the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

Had not the Minnesota Lynx (27-7) made their dramatic 14-game leap to a landmark performance for the Lynx franchise, the Sun might be labeled the most improved team in the WNBA.

On the other hand, the Atlanta Dream (20-14) may be the most improved team during this season from the opening tip in mid-June to this moment approaching the best-of-three semifinal conference series between the two, which begins Friday night at Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun Arena.

Atlanta, a Preseason Favorite, Takes Its Lumps Early

Coach Marynell Meador’s squad was one of the Eastern favorites to take the regular-season title after its 2010 postseason performance when the Dream as the East’s fourth seed quickly ousted top-seeded Washington and second-seeded New York 2-0 each and then fought the Seattle Storm to the finish in all three losses in the best-of-five championship series.

However, a knee injury near the end of training camp to All-Star and third-year pro Angel McCoughtry, the 2009 overall No. 1 pick and Rookie of the Year out of Louisville, was a key factor in causing the Atlanta to struggle at the outset with a 3-9 record.

Atlanta’s All Star center Sancho Lyttle was also out of commission early on, playing for Spain in the Eurobasket Tournament, then getting some much needed R&R before taking her place in the rotation.

Starting guard Shalee Lehning was lost along the way to a knee injury, and there also was an adjustment to make along the way with a new floor general, former Duke all-American point guard Lindsey Harding, who was dealt from the Washington Mystics prior to the season opener. Harding, averaged 10.5 points for the Dream and dealt 4.0 assists

Once everyone (but Lehning’s) health was restored, Atlanta went on a five-game winning streak and finished strong, going 17-5 following its early struggles.

Former Duke Star Alison Bales and reserve center has had some career games off the bench down the stretch to add to Atlanta’s frontal attack and the Dream also have former Oklahoma star Courtney Paris in reserve.

Coco Miller, the Georgia product whose twin sister Kelly was dealt to Washington prior to the season, comes off the bench in the backcourt.

A Youthful Sun Squad Matures Considerably

At the opposite end of the court on Friday will be the Connecticut Sun, a team with the most youthful roster in the WNBA, but one that has picked up a lifetime of experience as compared to last year.

“A year ago this time we were too young and immature to handle a team like Atlanta, their athleticism, their size, and everything else,” Thibault said.

In terms of intangibles, the Sun has a healthy dose of UConn DNA with five players whose collegiate careers were spent less than an hour away at the national powerhouse run by Hall of Famer and Olympic coach Geno Auriemma.

The Sun boast four starters with UConn pedigrees: Point guard and third-year pro Renee Montgomery; guard and second-year pro Kalana Greene; veteran forward Asjha Jones; and second-year pro and center Tina Charles, who broke her own WNBA record with 23 double doubles this season, and is perhaps the odds on favorite for this year’s WNBA MVP honors.

Montgomery, in particular, made major strides this season, averaged 14.6 points and dealt 4.9 assists. Meanwhile, a fifth Husky alum, center Jessica Moore comes off the bench.

The value of that UConn factor was one even Dream star McCoughtry acknowledged.

“That’s why they’re in the playoffs now,” she said. “They know what it takes. They’ve been coached by the best. They’re hungry. I would say, yeah (in having an edge coming from a winning program).”

Meanwhile rookie wing Danielle McCray, a Kansas product who must at times feel like an interloper at post-game get-togethers, has rounded out the starting line-up of late. McCray, who missed what would have been her real first WNBA season last year because of a knee injury suffered when she was a senior at Kansas, is not a prolific scorer, but has added a perimeter threat for the Sun.

The Connecticut bench may be a little deeper than that of the Dream. Besides Moore, the Sun also have former Nebraska star Kelsey Griffin, a second-year pro in the frontcourt. Allison Hightower, a second-year pro out of LSU is a reserve guard.

Home-Court Advantage: How Much Will It Mean?

With another year of experience under their belts, the Sun’s UConn core has fueled an impressive improvement, both overall and in their ability to hang with a team with Atlanta’s firepower. This year, Connecticut split its regular-season series 2-2 with Atlanta, who dominated the Sun in 2010. This year, each team won its pair of home games, and the Sun played the reigning Eastern Conference champs reasonably close even in the two losses.

More telling, neither saw the other on the floor until the season was well along.

“We didn’t play them early in the season, so we played them with their full contingent most of the time,” Connecticut’s Thibault said Tuesday during the WNBA pre-playoffs teleconference session with members of the media.  “Sancho Lyttle didn’t start one game, but did play. I think it’s pretty much benefited us to see them pretty much at full strength.”

Connecticut had a league-best 15-2 record at the Mohegan Sun Arena, and as the No. 2 seed holds home-court advantage over No. 3 Atlanta. As previously noted, in this season’s head-to-heads between the Sun and the Dream, the home team prevailed every time. So the upper seed is certainly worth something, and in this case perhaps more than others.

But Connecticut’s home-court edge does not necessarily everything when the visitors are the Dream, a team that travels very well, though they still haven’t found a way to beat the Sun at home this season.

Atlanta had no trouble playing on the road a year ago and at 9-8 over the last several months, the Dream played the best of the six-team Eastern Conference away from home.

Expect Great—Offense, That Is!

Those who like offense should expect to see an onslaught on the basket between these two squads who hit the 90s in several of their games and overall were the WNBA’s top scoring contingents this season, with Atlanta averaging 86.5 points per game while Connecticut averaged 80.11.

McCoughtry (21.575 ppg), who’s been scoring in the 30s recently and was aced out by mere decimal points for this season’s WNBA scoring title by another ex-UConn star in the Phoenix Mercury’s Diana Taurasi (21.625 ppg), can be the equalizer.

“We have to keep her off the free throw line,” Thibault said about trying to stop the Baltimore native. “She leads the league in free-throw attempts.

“I think she is now at the point because of her couple of years in the league and stardom, probably gets the benefit of the doubt, which she’s probably earned in some regards. But she does get to the line. We can’t have a huge free-throw differential in each game.”

Charles-McCoughtry Match-Up—The Stuff of Legends

The match-up between Charles-McCoughtry, both in the past and going forward, is reminiscent of a contemporary WNBA version of the legendary NBA rivalry between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.

Charles’ UConn team competed in the Big East Conference against McCoughtry’s Louisville squad and beat the Cardinals for the 2009 NCAA title. McCoughtry graduated that year, entering the WNBA as the No. 1 overall draft pick and finishing the season as the league’s Rookie of the Year.

A year later, Charles matched both of McCoughtry’s achievements. The two have also been teammates on USA Basketball’s World Championship gold medalists and likely to repeat that association next summer in the London Olympics.

“Well, she’s definitely their leader,” McCoughtry said of Charles. “Her being so young at that, has a lot on her plate. She’s come into this league and done great things so fast.

“They really depend on her in Connecticut. She’s really shown that that’s her team. It’s going to be tough. She’s a beast down there.”

Still, Atlanta’s box score is often largely the work of McCoughtry inside, with help from Erika DeSouza. In contrast, while Charles is clearly the Sun’s star and they’ll be counting on her to to do her thing, Connecticut features a more balanced attack.

Keys to the Series

“Connecticut can’t allow Atlanta to get into a transition game,” said Carolyn Peck, the former Florida and WNBA Orlando Miracle (now Connecticut) coach who is a TV analyst on broadcasts for the league. “Atlanta is very good when they can get points in the paint.

“That will come from layups in transition, that will come off penetration, and then the rebounding they have with Lyttle, de Souza, and Bales. That definitely helps.

“I think for Atlanta defending Connecticut, they’ve got to take care of Tina Charles inside and Asjha Jones, their big post presence inside.

“What Connecticut also has is that scoring ability from the perimeter with Renee Montgomery shooting the basketball or Kara Lawson coming into the game and scoring quick points off the bench, and Tan White,” Peck continued.

“Atlanta, if it’s a half-court game has more to defend. If Connecticut can make it a half-court game, the main thing is they have to focus on is shutting down the paint.”

All in all this series could go either way but home court may be the difference in favor of Connecticut.

On the other hand, when McCoughtry has played in games at the Casino, the Connecticut has motivated some of her better performances.

Though the Dream did not win on their last trip, she had one of her plus-30 games and when asked afterwards about it, McCoughtry responded:

“I always call Connecticut the capital of women’s basketball,” she said after the Dream fell to the Sun 99-92. “It’s always good to come back to the capital. Geno is the mayor.

“You come back to the capital, you’ve got to play well.”



Originally published Wed, September 14, 2011

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Week: February 7, 2012
1 Baylor (31) 24-0 1 1 1 775
2 Notre Dame 23-1 2 2 2 743
3 Connecticut 21-2 3 4 3 710
4 Stanford 20-1 4 5 4 685
5 Duke 19-3 6 8 5 650
6 Miami (FL) 20-3 7 7 6 604
7 Kentucky 21-3 5 15 7 584
8 Maryland 20-3 10 10 8 534
9 Wisconsin-Green Bay 20-0 9 24 9 530
10 Ohio State 21-2 11 NR-RV
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11 Tennessee 17-6 8 3 11 476
12 Delaware 20-1 13 NR 12 434
13 Georgetown 18-5 15 11 14 379
14 Texas A&M 16-5 16 6 15 378
15 Nebraska 19-3 18 NR 13 309
16 Rutgers 17-4 14 12 17 372
17 Louisville 17-6 12 9 20 276
18 Gonzaga 21-3 19 NR-RV
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19 Purdue 19-5 17 21 16 222
20 Georgia 18-6 20 12 21 202
21 Penn State 18-5 21 14 18 176
22 DePaul 17-7 23 18 NR-RV
23 Georgia Tech 16-6 22 NR-RV
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24 South Carolina 18-5 NR-RV
NR 24 46
25 Vanderbilt 18-5 NR-RV
NR 45
Dropped Out: No. 24 North Carolina, No. 25 Kansas.
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Others receiving votes: St. Bonaventure (22-2) 34; North Carolina (17-6) 19; California (17-6) 18; Florida Gulf Coast (21-2) 16; Middle Tennessee (19-5) 15; Texas-El Paso (20-2) 8; Texas Tech (16-6) 5; Brigham Young (21-4) 4; Fresno State (19-4) 4; St. John's (15-8) 4; Princeton (15-4) 3; Oklahoma (15-7) 2; West Virginia (17-6) 2; Kansas State (15-7) 1.
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Credit: Courtesy Women's Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA). The weekly Division I Top 25 Coaches' Poll, sponsored by USA Today and ESPN, is based on voting by a Board of Coaches made up of 31 head coaches at Division I institutions all of whom are WBCA members.