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Friday, July 19, 2019

Dribble and Dish: WNBA Road Trip - Part II (Washington Mystics/New York Liberty)

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Photo Caption: Part II of Full Court correspondent Chris Thompson’s WNBA road trip takes us from Tulsa, OK, where he witnessed the Shock fall to the Los Angeles Sparks, through Memphis, TN, Mobile, AL, and Atlanta, GA (where the Dream were not home), to Washington, DC, to take in a game between the Mystics and the Dream, and on to New York for a showdown between the Liberty and the San Antonio Silver Stars. Stay tuned as Part III takes us through the cities and teams of the American midwest.

Photo Credit: Map Courtesy istockphoto.com; Logos Courtesy WNBA Media Central; Original Artwork by Full Court Press

By Christopher Thompson

This is the second installment in a series of reports from Full Court Press Columnist Christopher Thompson as he took a one-month road trip across the United States. While on the trip he stopped in five WNBA cities and took in games among nine of the league’s 12 teams, including nearly all of the playoff contenders. This installment covers his stops in Washington and New York; Part III will take us on to the American (and WNBA) midwest.

Leaving Tulsa, I toured the Southeast. The first stop was Memphis for some music and some barbecue. Beale Street and Graceland satisfied my music Jones but I was disappointed to find that Payne’s Bar-B-Que was closed for a few weeks. Reputed to have the best pulled pork sandwich in the world, I missed out by two days on being able to eat at Payne’s. But since I was in Memphis I was able to go to my second choice, Charles Vergo’s Rendezvous. There I had the best dry rub pork ribs I have ever eaten.

After a brief trip down to the Gulf of Mexico I wound my way through Atlanta to Washington DC. Regrettably, the Dream were on the road too, so I was unable to them play at home. This was no problem, however, as the Dream would be in my next stop, the nation’s capitol, to play the Mystics. These two teams, along with Indiana, looked like the top teams in the East at the time, and all three have now locked their spots in the upcoming WNBA playoffs. Since then, New York has come on strong, launching a late-season, 10-game winning streak to tie the Fever for first place in the Eastern conference. I would get to see the Liberty take on San Antonio, also a playoff contender (in the West) at the next stop covered by this report, New York City.

Washington, DC: Washington Mystics v. Atlanta Dream

Despite their recent ups and downs, Atlanta is in many ways the most complete team in the East with both a powerful frontcourt and dynamic scoring from the wings. Erika DeSouza and Sancho Lyttle are the best pair of interior players in the East while Angel McCoughtry and Iziane Castro Marques are the only duo of teammates among the top eight scorers in the league.

For its part, Washington has been one of the biggest surprises in the league this season, managing to nail down a playoff berth despite the absence of their best player, Alana Beard. Beard, who has made a name for herself despite struggling with injuries throughout her career, has been out all season since undergoing arthroscopic surgery to repair a tendon in her left ankle.

Even without Beard, however, the Mystics have proven to be a dynamic scoring machine, though one with very little interior presence. Crystal Langhorne has become a star, but even though she is fifth in the league in rebounding she is not a classic inside banger. Her scoring and rebounding comes from her athleticism, but she can’t control the middle. Nakia Sanford is the Mystics’ strongest interior defender, but she has had foul troubles and can often be a liability on offense. Chasity Melvin has some offensive skills and better hands than Sanford, but she is defensive liability.

Photo Caption: Crystal Langhorne, the WNBA’s Most Improved Player in 2009, has taken her game up another notch this season and is one of the reasons why the Mystics are still in the playoff mix despite the loss of their star, Alana Beard. Langhorne is 10th in the league in scoring, averaging 16.4 points per game, and fifth in the WNBA in rebounding, at 9.8 boards per game. But though she is billed as a forward-center, at 6-2 she is undersized at the five and is certainly not the banger the Mystics need in the middle. Here, Langhorne drives to the hoop against the Liberty, as Janel McCarville tries to sell the charge.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Washington Mystics Media Relations

The lack of a real center is all the more glaring because the rest of the team is so exciting. Monique Currie and Lindsay Harding can both take over games for long stretches. Katie Smith is still one of the best outside shooters in the WNBA and can open up the floor for the duo from Duke. If they are all hitting together, the offense is as potent as that of Phoenix. Washington may be able to upset anyone on a given night but their weakness inside will not allow the Mystics to win a title.

The Atlanta-Washington game tipped off at the unseemly hour of 11:30 a.m., as the Mystics brought in 6,000 kids for Camp Day. The interior players for Atlanta didn’t seem to get the wake-up call as both DeSouza and Lyttle seemed well off their games. Both spent much of the game in foul trouble and surprisingly neither could exploit the middle against Washington.

The Mystics ran out to a big lead, getting up by as many as 19 points and then holding off the Dream each time they made a run. Langhorne scored 24 and iced the double-double with 15 rebounds. Matee Ajuvon and Marissa Coleman both contributed strong minutes off the bench. In the end Washington won 82-72, leading the entire game after Atlanta scored the first basket.

The announced crowd of 14,347 seemed high, even with the kids. Perhaps it was just the size of the Verizon Center, but it didn’t look like there were even 4,000 fans excluding the campers. Wednesday morning probably isn’t the best time to bring in adults. The crowd was noisy when prompted, but wasn’t overly engaged in the game itself.

I took the Metro to the game rather than driving into DC and that decision worked out well. The Verizon Center is located right at Gallery Place where three of the Metro lines stop. I was able to avoid all the D.C. traffic, and the $4.30 cost of the Metro was far less than I would have had to pay for parking in the city.
Perhaps as interesting as what Washington will do this year is the question of is what they will do for next season. The Mystics are still one player away from being a legit title contender, but as good as she is, Alana Beard is not that player. If Washington can figure out a way to leverage Beard or Currie in a trade for a defensive stalwart in the middle, a WNBA title may be in the Mystics’ future.

New York City: New York Liberty v. San Antonio Silver Stars

From Washington I made my way up I-95 to New York City. The Liberty picked up Cappie Pondexter in a three-way deal with Phoenix and Chicago. Though the trade cost New York the only really productive players they had last season, the arrival of Pondexterand renewed hopes that the Big Apple could have a title contender.

Pondexter provides New York with a reliable scorer. Fourth in the league in scoring, averaging over 21 points per game and, perhaps more importantly, scoring in double digits every game but one this season, Pondexter is considered by many to be a candidate for MVP of the league. (She has some tough competition from the likes of Lauren Jackson, Tamika Catchings, and former teammate Diana Taurasi, of course, but there are precious few players who have done as much to turn around the fortunes of their team as has Pondexter.)

Photo Caption: The arrival of Cappie Pondexter in New York via a three-way trade with Phoenix and Chicago has restored the Liberty to the glory of former years. Pondexter adds scoring (21.1 points per game), assists (just shy of five per game), and most of all, an energy and enthusiasm that inspire both her teammates and the crowd, who have quickly taken to the Rutgers alum.
Photo Credit: Courtesy MSG Photos

Nicole Powell, picked up by New York in the dispersal draft from Sacramento, provides additional offensive punch. Taj McWilliams-Franklin also signed on, giving New York a strong interior presence on both offense and defense.  Additionally, the Liberty got a steal when they acquired Plenette Pierson from the Shock in return for Tiffany Jackson earlier this season.

As a result, this is a completely different team from the one that finished last in the league in 2009. While Janel McCarville and Leilani Mitchell return as starters, the team now has an ability to score at every position. Early on, the Liberty looked like they would once again be a cellar dweller (and thus, a front runner in the Maya Moore sweepstakes), but once the team got acclimated to one another they have become one of the best teams in the East. Atlanta may have a little better interior play, Washington may have a little more offensive punch and Indiana is a better defensive team, but the Liberty have a little bit of all those things, and thus have a very good balance.

Once again, I decided that public transit made more sense than driving and was glad I did. By parking in Newark and taking PATH, I avoided both traffic and the Holland Tunnel toll.

Madison Square Garden is considered by many as the Mecca of basketball arenas. This may be so, but it is far from the best venue. Like the Verizon Center in Washington, the Garden is a large facility that also hosts hockey. This translates into less intimacy and more distance between the fans and the game. (The Garden will be undergoing a major renovation beginning next year, and where the Liberty will play for the next few seasons is one of the league’s bigger mysteries.)

On this night, New York was hosting San Antonio. The Silver Stars are also not the same team they were last season. Unfortunately, the difference for them is that Ann Wauters decided to stay in Europe this season. Michelle Snow has turned into a decent post player, but she is not the defensive force that Wauters was last season. Wauters, Sophia Young and Becky Hammon were the best center, forward, guard combination in the WNBA last season, but with Wauters missing from the Big Three, the chemistry has not been the same this year. That goes a long way toward explaining why this proud franchise is now one of three Western Conference teams tied for third place, and still in search of a playoff berth with sub-.500 records.

As the players were announced over the Garden public address system, it was clear that even though she had been traded four years ago, Becky Hammon was still the most popular player on the floor. There were numerous Hammon Liberty jerseys in the crowd and she got the biggest ovation of anyone on the court. No one seemed to mind that she was now wearing a San Antonio jersey or that she had played for Russia in the Olympics. Chamique Holdsclaw, a former prep standout from New York, also got a huge cheer.

As much of a boost as Pondexter has given the Liberty, New York had to find a different way to win on this night. Pondexter had her second worst scoring output of the season, tallying only 13 points on 4-12 shooting. Rookie Kalana Greene stepped up with a career-high 17 points and Pierson added 16 as the Liberty won, 77-72. The New York reserves shot 68 percent from the field and actually outscored the starters, 41-36.

The crowd of 10,712 (announced) was treated to the new face of Liberty basketball and it liked what it saw. New York has only gotten better as the season has progressed, but whether they will be able to carry this winning atmosphere into the playoffs and into the team’s first WNBA championship is open to question. One thing is certain, however: This is the best Liberty team since Teresa Weatherspoon was leading their attack.

Next up, in Part III, is the Midwest swing of the Great WNBA Road Trip, with stops in Indiana and Minnesota.

Originally published Thu, August 19, 2010

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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.
First-place votes: Total first-place votes received (if any) are indicated in parentheses following school name.
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.