WNBA Playoffs: Conference Finishes Result in Historic Night

(Guru's note: Being in the home office to pen this Saturday night contribution means some detail and quotes were contributed off the Associated Press).

By Mel Greenberg

 When the next revision of historic moments in WNBA history occurs, Saturday night's decisive Game 3 action in both the Eastern and Western Conference finals will need to be noted somewhere on the new list.

In the East, it will be remembered as a crowd of more than 18,000 in Indianapolis, thanks to the purchase of 9,000 tickets by Hall of Famer Larry Bird, saw the Indiana Fever end three previous years of frustration by dethroning the defending WNBA champion Detroit Shock, 72-67.

The former Boston Celtics and president of the Pacers organization that houses both the NBA and WNBA entities, bought the balcony after Friday night's win by the Fever evened the series with Detroit at 1-1.

The financial move makes Bird become the first WNBA playoff story whose first name is not Sue.

Ironically, the Fever were considered an endangered franchise, and may still be, at the season's outset, making Indiana join Seattle, Sacramento and Detroit, on the list of franchises which also were under similar duress before making a first-time finals appearance.

Detroit, under previous coach Bill Laimbeer, had shown Indiana the exit door three straight times in the playoffs.

The win returns Katie Douglas, a Hoosier State home girl out of Purdue, to the finals for the first time since she played for the Connecticut Sun when they lost to the Seattle Storm in the 2003 finals.

More important, it became a breakthrough evening for former Tennessee star Tamika Catchings, who has been waiting for this moment since being the No. 1 pick of the Fever and third overall in the 2001 draft.

She missed her first season with a knee injury suffered her senior year at Tennessee.

"Finally," Catchings said Saturday night after the Fever's win in the closely-fought contest. "I've been waiting for this for eight years. I don't want to get too excited; I want to finish it off."

Over in the West, the Phoenix Mercury stopped the visiting Los Angeles Sparks, 85-74, to also make it a 2-1 best-of-three triumph and return to the finals for the second time in three seasons and first since winning a title in 2007.

The Fever win wasn't determined until the fourth quarter. But in the West, just as the Sparks had done in Phoenix Friday night, the Mercury jumped to an overpowering start and the differential never got close until the last minutes when the outcome had been long decided.

On the Los Angeles side, the loss became a moment of poignancy for both the Sparks and WNBA as a whole.

The setback becomes the final chapter in the storied career of Lisa Leslie, who will head into retirement with three Olympic Gold Medals two WNBA titles, though she'll remain a role model for years to come.

In her spare time, Leslie can begin writing her Hall of Fame acceptance speech for 2015 in Springfield, Mass., where she'll surely be inducted her year she is first eligible to appear on the ballot.

Leslie, a founding player in 1997 who was the first to dunk in WNBA history, finished Saturday night with a game performance showing 22 points and nine rebounds and fouled out with 1:39 left to play. 

"I feel great,"Leslie said at the postgame conference. "You know why? Because I have no regrets. Every time I stepped on that court I played as hard as I could, I've left everything out there.

"Today is my last day of playing professional basketball, but I will stay close to the game because I feel I need to be part of it."

It was a night for the Rutgers faithful to feel proud as another notch was added to the legacy of Scarlet Knights coach C. Vivian Stringer, who will have two former players on opposing sides in the championship best-of-five series.

Tammy Sutton-Brown, a member of the Rutgers 2000 contingent that advanced to the Scarlet Knights' first Women's Final Four appearance, had a team-high 17 points for Indiana in the win over Detroit.

Cappie Pondexter, prehaps the all-time star of the Stringer era at Rutgers, returns to the finals again with Phoenix after recently being voted on the Alll-WNBA first team. Two years ago she was the MVP of the Mercury 3-2 series win over Detroit -- the first time the visiting team took the title on an opponent's floor in the playoffs.

Kudos to Ann Meyers, the Hall of Famer and former UCLA star as well as Mercury top executive who kept the franchise and system moving under Corey Gaines after Paul Westhead left Phoenix following the 2007 ttitle to be an NBA assistant.

He's since left that job and is now the new coach of the Oregon women in the PAC-10 conference.

When league play begins this winter, he'll see a familiar face along the trail.

The Sparks loss also meant the second exit of coach Michael Cooper, a former NBA Los Angeles Lakers star, who will coach Leslie's alma mater at Southern Cal.

The last time Cooper departed it was for a few short-lived jobs in the NBA.

In his first tour of duty, Cooper's sparks ended the WNBA initial 4-0 title run of the former Houston Comets and set the stage for league owners to begin hiring more coaches who had an NBA pedigree.

"It kind of looked we missed out on a good game," Cooper said. "The Mercury established their game early on us and we never recovered from it."

He got emotional on saluting Leslie: "It's been a joy coaching her. Obviously we wanted her to go out on top and that's not going to happen. But you know what? She's had a heck of a career, I thought she did a wonderful job for us this whole entire series."

It is not known who will replace him with the Sparks, but assistant Marianne Stanley, a former Immaculata star in suburban Philadelphia who coached Leslie in college, has already had head coaching experience with the Washington Mystics.

If the Sparks don't stay in-house, another potential candidate is Anne Donovan, the interim coach of the New York Liberty, who becomes a viable free agent if she isn't promoted to full-time status.

Another candidate might be former La Salle star Cheryl Reeve, who, after Laimbeer departed three games into the season, added the general manager's job to her duties as a Detroit assistant to Rick Mahorn.

If anything, the Phoenix win again symbolizes a torch passing to a younger generation.

The Mercury were led by former UConn star Diana Taurasi, the leading regular season MVP candidate, Saturday night, who had 21 points, including 15 in the second half.

"It comes down to just wanting the game sometimes," Taurasi said. "Not necessarily defensive schemes, plays, just wanting the game. And unlike (Friday) night, tonight we wanted the game. We didn't necessarily play great basketball on either end but we went and took the game.

"You have Lisa, who didn't want to play her last game, and the way she played this series, she probably's got another 3-4 good years under her belt."

Phoenix also has former Auburn star DeWanna Bonner, one of the top WNBA newcomers this season.

In Los Angeles, the Sparks now officially become Candace Parker's team without any shared status, although the second-year pro and former Tennessee star was held to six points Saturday night.

There's no rest for her because the loss puts Parker on a plane this week for Washington to join the first USA Basketball women's national team training camp under Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, who will head this country's efforts next year at the world championship and in the London Games at the 2012 Olympics.

The camp, held at American University's Bender Arena, will feature a public event next Sunday.

Catchings and Taurasi, members of the last two Olympic successes would have been Washington-bound as part of the core group of eight players had their WNBA teams been eliminated.

And in discussing coaches, Lin Dunn gets to her first finals at the pro level after having built Purdue into a national power in the late 1990s.

Dunn, as a former Seattle  Storm coach, had the distinction of creating the Storm's building blocks with the back-to-back drafting of overall No. 1 picks Lauren Jackson out of Australia and former UConn star Sue Bird.

She was gone, however, before the squad blossomed under New York's Donovan for a title in 2003.

As for some who will speculate the WNBA didn't get the best markets in the finals, the reality is the two teams that were the best in their conferences and had the top two overall records made it all the way through, albeit with a few bumps and bruises along the way.

The two split their season series at 1-1 in cross-conference games with Phoenix earning home-court advantage in the championship series before the playoffs got under way.

Indiana sort of wobbled down the stretch after dominating an otherwise equal Eastern race through most of the season.

Both teams were under conference finals pressure -- Indiana lost its opener in Detroit and Phoenix was blasted at home Friday night, leading many to believe perhaps Los Angeles was on a destiny path.

But it was not to be.

If there's no more Connecticut-Tennessee annual get-together at the college level, the finals resemble a bit of an alumni showdown in Taurasi and Catchings.

The finals begin in Phoenix Tuesday night, remain there Thursday, and then move to the Midwest Sunday for Game 3. A Game 4, if necessary, will also be played in Indianapolis.

-- Mel