A massive marketing campaign designed to highlight the top three draft picks in the 2013 class brought out solid attendance numbers in Monday’s pair of WNBA games, but conditions may not have been the most optimal.
An overtime affair between the Washington Mystics and Tulsa Shock, last year’s bottom-feeders, forced the “featured” event between the Chicago Sky and Phoenix Mercury to an overflow ESPN feed for some time, but the nationally televised doubleheader demonstrated what should be a far more competitive environment, which may rebound sagging attendance that marked the 2012 season.
The Shock opened their season on Saturday, but received the ESPN treatment on Monday as the lone network carrying WNBA games wanted to promote all four lottery picks in the 2013 group.
On that front, the plan did not produce expected results; Shock rookie Skylar Diggins had trouble finding the basket for the second straight game, while Mystics rookie Tayler Hill saw limited minutes to preserve the momentum for a blistering performance from Matee Ajavon.
However, Washington displayed a renovated spirit that soured under former head coach Trudi Lacey, the first sign in removing the colloquial doormat of the last two seasons.
Tulsa also showed promise, but early injuries and the late addition of Liz Cambage could hamper their stamina in the early leg of the 2013 season.
Brittney Griner, the first overall pick, did not wait long to showcase her dunking acrobatics as a newly-minted member of the Mercury. Eager to awaken the silent crowd at US Airways Center, Griner elevated twice to the rim, becoming the third player in WNBA history to dunk in a regular season game.
Her presence should rapidly increase the frequency of basketball’s most accurate shot attempt. The last regular season game to feature a dunk took place five years ago, when Candace Parker did so for the Los Angeles Sparks.
Griner shared an unusual common bond with the first woman to dunk in a WNBA game; she and Lisa Leslie (Los Angeles Sparks) recorded dunks during a blowout loss at home.
What the Mercury gained in offensive power could be neutralized by continued defensive lapses. Phoenix was throttled by an accurate Chicago team, who bolstered their lineup by taking Elena Delle Donne with the second overall pick in the 2013 draft.
What Delle Donne lacks in vertical is compensated by her versatility; she banked a three-pointer to close out the first half and did not relent against any of her defenders, which included a few face-offs with Griner.
The Los Angeles Sparks and Seattle Storm also kicked off their campaign Sunday, with their a microcosm of preseason discussion. Although they lack a true wing, the Sparks showed far more comfort with a true point guard, while the Storm have many calculations ahead of them in the absence of Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson.
Minnesota is the league’s last team to not play a game yet, a statistic that will end on Saturday.
Sparks knock wind out of Storm
If you are not signed on to the plethora of press who have picked Phoenix to win the 2013 WNBA championship, the popular second option is the Los Angeles Sparks.
Bringing in Lindsey Harding to secure the point guard position brought the desired effect Sunday night, when the Sparks throttled the Seattle Storm 102-69 to register their largest margin of victory in franchise history.
Los Angeles (1-0) also flirted with Minnesota’s record for highest field goal percentage in a game, but a 62 percent clip was more than enough to pull away from Seattle (0-1), especially in the second half.
The Sparks outscored the Storm 31-12 in the third quarter and had 26 assists for the game.
No one scored more than 17 points for the Sparks, but an individual breakout was not needed. Harding finished with 12 points and eight assists, and Kristi Toliver (pictured) reached the 17 mark, making six of nine field goals.
Seattle’s leading scorer was Camille Little, who knocked in 13.
Mystics absorb Shock for overtime win
Washington Mystics guard Ivory Latta was let go by the Tulsa Shock after the 2012 season in order to make room for Skylar Diggins at point guard, even though Latta finished the season with career highs in scoring and field goal percentage.
In a fitting footnote, Latta scored a career-high 27 points to lead the Mystics to a 95-90 win Sunday afternoon against her former Shock club at BOK Center.
Latta’s 6-of-16 clip was not impressive by mathematical standards, but she converted all 11 of her free throw attempts.
Neither team led by more than eight, entertaining the 7,381 fans in attendance who would have shrugged off this match-up in previous years.
Tulsa (0-2) had just eight players available after losing Candice Wiggins to an ankle injury, and their energy depleted in the closing stages. They suffered a field goal drought of 8:22, spanning the final 3:33 of regulation and nearly the entire overtime period.
Exhausted, their defense turned sloppy as well, and Washington (1-0) took advantage by making 26 of 38 free throw attempts.
The extended three-point line was barely noticeable, with both teams at or near the 50 percent mark for the game.
Liz Cambage and Glory Johnson both posted double-doubles for the Shock; Cambage had 21 points and 10 rebounds. Johnson earned 20 points and 14 rebounds.
Diggins finished with nine points and 11 assists, demonstrating improved ball control from Saturday’s loss to Atlanta.
Delle Donne sends Sky to ascension over Mercury
After Elena Delle Donne registered 22 points, eight rebounds and four blocks to lead the Chicago Sky to a 102-80 win over the Phoenix Mercury Sunday afternoon at US Airways Center, there was some discussion suggesting Phoenix should have scooped up the 6-foot-5 forward with the first pick instead of Brittney Griner.
The tone of such chatter may change over the course of the season, but Delle Donne was by far the more mentally prepared of the highly-touted draft picks.
Griner was hit with three fouls before the first quarter ended, forcing her to sit for the second period. The Sky (1-0) wasted no time utilizing her absence, scoring a franchise-high 39 points in the second quarter to take a 56-32 halftime lead.
Phoenix (0-1) never got closer than 12, but the 10,200 spectators did not leave early as they normally would, and cheered emphatically when Griner became the first WNBA player to dunk twice in a game.
Chicago is hoping to make a legitimate case for the playoffs after a 7-1 start last year unraveled following a prolonged injury to Epiphanny Prince. The Sky will have to adapt without her again in June, when Prince will play in an overseas tournament in Russia.
If Prince can stay healthy, her scoring ability will continue to draw coverage away from Delle Donne and marquee center Sylvia Fowles. Prince scored a game-high 26 points against the Mercury, making six of nine three-pointers.
Diana Taurasi led Phoenix with 18 points. Griner rebounded in the second half, finishing with a respectable 17 points, eight rebounds and four blocks.
Phoenix can take encouragement from recent history. The Minnesota Lynx dropped their first game of 2011 after drafting Maya Moore before tearing apart the competition en route to their first championship that season.