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Sunday, June 16, 2019

Dribble and Dish: WNBA Road Trip - Part III (Indiana Fever/Minnesota Lynx)

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Photo Caption: Full Court correspondent Chris Thompson’s 2010 summer road trip took him to seven WNBA cities across the United States, where he was able to take in five games (two of the teams were on the road), featuring nine of the league’s 12 teams, including most of this year’s playoff contenders. This report takes in games between the Fever and the Mystics in Indianapolis, IN, and between the Lynx and the Sun in Minneapolis. In total, Thompson covered more than 6,713 miles on this excursion.

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

By Christopher Thompson

Editor’s Note: This is the final 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 this summer, stopping to take in games in five WNBA cities. En route, he had the opportunity to observe nine of the league’s 12 teams, including nearly all of the playoff contenders. Previous stories have covered his reports on the Tulsa Shock (v. the Los Angeles Sparks), the Washington Mystics (vs. the Atlanta Dream) and the New York Liberty (v. the San Antonio Silver Stars). This final installment covers his stops in Indiana and Minnesota.

After I left New York, it was time to heed the words of Horace Greeley and “Go West, young man.” And while I can say that when I first did so more than 30 years ago, “young” was an apt description; nowadays, it’s a bit like calling Sylvia Fowles “Shorty.”

I drove through the night before stopping in Columbus, Ohio. Touring the Ohio State campus I realized that soon it would be time to see what Jantel Lavender and Samantha Prahalis could do with one more year of experience.

Then it was on to Indianapolis to see the Fever take on the Washington Mystics. I had seen the Mystics the previous week and they played very well against the Dream, but since then they had lost three straight. Meanwhile, Indiana had finally hit its stride and looked poised once again to win the Eastern Conference. (Thanks to late-season pushes by Washington and New York, the Fever are currently in a three-way tie for top honors that won’t be decided until the final day of the season.)

At that point in the season, the Fever had won seven of their eight games in July and with a win over the Mystics could separate themselves from the rest of the conference.

Indianapolis, IN: Indiana Fever v. Washington Mystics

Before I went to the game, I visited the Indianapolis Speedway, a mammoth structure nestled right into the west side of Indianapolis. From the outside, the Speedway looks old, but driving under the stands and into the Speedway, it is an incredible sight. The infield houses a museum and part of a golf course. I will probably never get a chance to see a race there but having been inside the structure, I look forward to next May’s race.

As for the basketball, Indiana is led by Tamika Catchings, perhaps the most complete basketball player in the WNBA. Catchings should become the first player to win the defensive player of the year four separate times by taking the award once again this season.  She has already won the award last season as well as in 2005 and 2006.

But Catchings is a lot more than a great defender. She also ranks eighth in the league in scoring, ninth in rebounds, tenth in assists, ninth in three-point field goals, fourth in free throws and second in steals all-time in the WNBA. Catchings is a perennial All-Star and has finished in the top five in MVP voting seven times. She is definitely part of the MVP conversation once again this year, but thanks to Lauren Jackson’s role in Seattle’s spectacular season and Cappie Pondexter’s part in the Liberty’s turnaround, Catchings is likely to find herself “always a bridesmaid, never the bride” again this year.

Katie Douglas is a good complement to Catchings.  She is a second scorer with a good outside shot. Her size allows her to defend either a forward or a guard which lets Fever coach Lin Dunn use Catchings against the top player on the opposition. Tully Bevilaqua and Briann January give Indiana two distinctly different looks at point guard. Bevilaqua is a cagey veteran who distributes the ball very well. January is a solid defender and a speedster.

In the front court Tammy Sutton-Brown and Ebony Hoffman can both play very well at times but are often inconsistent. Sutton-Brown is a good one-on-one defender inside but doesn’t do as well stopping players driving to the basket.  Hoffman is more of a classic banger inside.

Photo Caption: Indiana’s two cornerstones—Tamika Catchings (above left, driving against the Sparks’ DeLisha MIlton-Jones”) and Katie Douglas (above right, pulling up to launch a three-ball)—are perfect complements for one another. Catchings, a three-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year and perennial All Star, is averaging 18.2 points, 6.9 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 2.3 steals per game this season, and is one of the league’s best all-around players. Douglas is putting up a stat line of 14.1 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 3.4 assists (against just 1.97 turnovers) per game, and, despite a thumb injury, is shooting 39.3 percent from three-point range.
Photo Credit: Photos Courtesy Indiana Fever


On this night, Indiana ran out to a nine point-lead over the Mystics, 26-17, after the first quarter. From that point until the middle of the fourth quarter the Fever appeared to be in total control. The Mystics would make a run, and then the Fever would repel them.

But in the final five minutes, Washington’s Lindsay Harding took over. She scored the final 13 points for Washington while Indiana could only net two points on a Catchings jumper. During that stretch Catchings and Douglas missed four shots each, while Hoffman and January missed two apiece. All but two of the misses came on jumpers. The only Fever player to get a rebound in the final five minutes was January.

Photo Caption: Lindsay Harding (12.2 points, 3.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists per game) is carving out a role as a closer for the Mystics. The 5-8 guard out of Duke took over the final minutes of the Mystics’ game at Indiana, erasing a nine-point deficit and carrying Washington to a 77-73 road win over the Fever with her personal 13-2 run. If, as is currently the case, Washington and Indiana are still tied when the regular season comes to an end tomorrow, Indiana will regret their failure to contain Harding in the closing minutes of this game. Above, Harding gets some hang time while dropping in the buzzer-beating jumper that took the Mystics to a 75-74 win over New York last night, putting Washington in a three-way tie with Indiana and New York for first place in the Eastern Conference.
Photo Credit: Full Court Press/Teri Priebe©

In those last five minutes, the Fever’s two biggest weaknesses were exposed—the lack of a strong interior defense and the absence of a reliable third scoring option. As to the defense, Harding was consistently able to drive to the basket and score. Dunn never put Catchings on her and paid the price when none of the post players stepped in to stop her penetration. On offense, the Fever had no go-to player. Catchings and Douglas kept shooting, but the Fever got no movement to the basket. Perhaps you just don’t expect a team, especially one that has been shooting well, to go 1-13 in the final five minutes. This was a game that the Fever should have won and could well come back to haunt them if they lose the Eastern Conference by one game (worse yet, by the tie-breaker!).

Conseco Fieldhouse is a wonderful building for basketball. With the top level closed off it becomes a roughly 10,000-seat venue that has an intimate feel. The announced crowd was just over 8,000 but a more reasonable estimate was 6,500. The crowd was engaged and knowledgeable. They were there to see good basketball and to root for their team.

Minneapolis, MN: Minnesota Lynx v. Connecticut Sun

From Indy, it was on to Minnesota. I drove through Chicago during the first week of August, but unfortunately the Sky were on the road, playing at Phoenix. My misfortune in this turning out to be an away game for Chicago was magnified when I saw that the final score was 97-96, Phoenix, with Diana Taurasi and Sylvia Fowles each scoring 35 points.

The Minnesota Lynx has a wonderful assemblage of talent, but this team has been snake bit by injuries. The season started with both Seimone Augustus (recovering from fibroid surgery) and Candice Wiggins (recovering from arthroscopic surgery on her right knee) out for medical reasons and Rebekkah Brunson late in getting back from her European season. This led to a 2-9 start. Augustus and Wiggins both came back, Brunson joined the team, and the Lynx enjoyed a three-game winning streak before Wiggins ruptured her Achilles’ tendon with just eight seconds left in the Lynx’s win over New York. Wiggins would be sidelined for the remainder of the season. This caused another 2-7 slide, but due to the weak play in the West the Lynx still had a chance to make the playoffs. A win over Seattle (only the Storm’s third loss of the season) in the last game before I saw them bolstered the Lynx’s hopes, as well as their chances. (The Lynx remained very much in the playoff hunt until the penultimate day of the season, when the combination of a San Antonio win and an L.A. loss knocked them out thanks to the tie-breaker rules.)

Still, even without Wiggins, with Augustus in the picture, the Lynx have a strong starting lineup. Nicky Anosike and Rebekkah Brunson give Minnesota a solid inside presence. Lindsay Whalen and rookie Monica Wright give the Lynx a more than respectable backcourt. Charde Houston provides strong scoring off the bench.

Photo Caption: Back in action after a season-ending ACL tear last year, Seimone Augustus managed to keep a struggling Minnesota Lynx franchise in playoff contention until the final days of the 2010 regular season. Augustus averaged 16.5 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.0 rebounds per game this year, all off her career averages, but still impressive after her speedy return from the abdominal fibroid surgery that kept her out of the early games of this season.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Minnesota Lynx/Getty Images

The opponent this night was the Connecticut Sun, fighting for a playoff spot in the East. (The Sun, too, dropped out of the playoff picture late in the season.) The fates of these two teams were very much entwined. In the offseason Minnesota traded the overall number one 2010 draft pick and Renee Montgomery to the Sun for Whalen, a Minnesota “homegirl,” and the number two draft pick. The Sun used its pick to tap Tina Charles; the Lynx chose Monica Wright with theirs. All four players of those players would prove to be major factors in this game.

Minnesota ran out to a 15-2 lead with Whalen scoring seven and dishing out an assist. The Lynx continued to dominate and eventually led, 51-21, with four minutes left in the second quarter. The Sun came back with a 15-7 run to end the half, but the Lynx were still up by 22 and Whalen had nine assists as the teams headed to the locker room.

The Lynx held Charles to 1-5 shooting and only two points in the opening half. That changed as Charles went 4-4 from the field and scored 10 points in the third quarter alone to cut the Lynx lead to seven, 75-68. The lead was still seven with 3:42 remaining, but then the Sun’s UConn players shifted into high gear. Charles scored four more points, Asjha Jones scored two and Montgomery scored 11, including a three-pointer at the buzzer to send the game into extra minutes.

Photo Caption: Even the addition of No. 1 draft pick Tina Charles, who is averaging a double-double of 15.4 points and a league-best 11.4 rebounds per game, has not been enough to propel Connecticut into the playoffs this year, but the future of the Sun is obviously in good hands. Minnesota managed to contain Charles in the opening half of their game at Target Center, but Charles came alive in the second half to send the game into overtime.
Photo Credit: Courtesy NBAE/Getty Images

The overtime was the time for the Lynx guards to shine. Whalen scored 10 points in the overtime and Wright added four, leading the Lynx to a 111-103 victory. For the Sun, Renee Montgomery scored a career-high 33 points while Tina Charles had 19 points and 21 rebounds. Lindsay Whalen notched 27 points and 12 assists for the Lynx, while Monica Wright added 21 points. Whalen and Wright also combined to shoot 16-16 from the free throw line allowing the Lynx to pull away in overtime.

Photo Caption: Despite a full season to observe and consider, it’s still tough to say who got the better of the Minnesota/Connecticut, Whalen/Montgomery, first-pick (Tina Charles)/second-pick (Monica Wright) off-season trade. Montgomery has averaged 13.2 points and 4.1 assists per game since returning to her Connecticut stomping grounds; Whalen (pictured above) started out a bit slowly, but is currently averaging 12.5 points and 5.7 assists (plus four boards) per game since arriving in Minnesota. Tina Charles is the consensus rookie of the year,  but Monica Wright is certainly no slacker, having become a key element in the Lynx starting rotation with 11.2 points, 2.7 boards and 1.5 assists per game. Besides, whatever Minnesota might have lost in that deal, they more than made up for by trading rookie Kelsey Griffin for Connecticut’s first-round pick in 2011, giving the Lynx an extra shot in the Maya Moore sweepstakes.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Minnesota Lynx/Getty Images

As exciting as the game was, it was unfortunate that the Target Center was nearly empty. The announced crowd was 5,954, but it is unlikely that even 4,000 saw the game. This was right after the Lynx beat Seattle, but even that win didn’t get people to turn out. The Lynx have a good chance at Maya Moore or Amber Harris as they already have Connecticut’s first-round pick, and if Minnesota also misses the playoffs they will own two of the top four choices. But without more fans the Lynx franchise may be in trouble.

From Minnesota I headed to Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial (under construction). Both are incredible feats of architecture, carving works of art out of the Black Hills of South Dakota. As impressive as they are, I marveled at how small they seemed compared to their surroundings. It was a fitting end to my journey (even if I still had 1,200 miles to go before I actually got home).

In the end, it was a wonderful month. The WNBA will continue to struggle for a while. In a country as great as this there are so many forms of entertainment on offer that women’s basketball hasn’t been able to carve out a big enough niche yet. Ironically, perhaps the biggest challenge the league faces may be the popularity of women’s basketball abroad. The world’s best players make more money overseas than they do here. Niche sports like Arena Football and Major League Lacrosse can make it here, though their followings are relatively small, but these sports don’t have to compete for talent financially. Corporate sponsorships may fill the void for now, but unless the WNBA can get more fans in the seats, both at the venues and in front of TV sets, its long term existence remains in doubt. And as someone who has now seen nearly the entire league in action, I can speak from the heart in saying that would be a tremendous loss.


Originally published Sat, August 21, 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
10 483
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
19 234
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
22 104
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.
Rank remains unchanged since last week
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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.