WNBA Playoffs: Connecticut at Atlanta – Game one details will help predict game two

Yesterday, I provided a brief summary of the Atlanta Dream’s road victory in Connecticut, over the higher seeded Connecticut Sun 89-84. Today, as we prepare for game two of the series in Atlanta (NBA TV, 3 p.m. ET), I am going to look inside game one, and help preview game two by going into depth about Atlanta’s Friday night upset and road victory.

Angel McCoughtry did not bring it in game one, but she contributed in other ways.

“Your most talented player is usually the one that brings personality to a team, and I’d say this team has a lot of Angel McCoughtry, in them as well,” said assistant coach Carol Ross post-game. “I think Marynell has done a great job bringing in players, personalities that compliment that so we are not in an identity crisis, that is our identity.”

In one of the more forgettable offensive games of her career, McCoughtry was only 5 of 17 for 16 points – below her season average of 21.6 points per game. Still, she contributed in other ways, including her ten rebounds. Her biggest contribution, however, may have been her demeanor on the bench when the team made their fourth quarter comeback, without her. As Coach Marynell Meadors told reporters: “Her demeanor on the bench was ‘coach, they’re doing good, don’t put me back in.’ She’s all about wins, and whoever is on the court, she’s supporting them 100%.”

Outside the locker room post-game, Graham Hays of ESPN, Mel Greenberg and I were talking to Armintie Price about her long history with Ross. An arm reached in from behind us with a cell phone extended like a voice recorder, and asked “Do you and coach Ross use some secret Ole Miss language?” to the laughter of Price. It was McCoughtry who had snuck up behind us, and was just having fun.

That’s what Angel can do for a team, even when she’s not scoring.

Price is a coach year round, not just during the college season. One of the more interesting things I was able to observe being at the game, was the fact that frequently when Atlanta runs their half-court offense, Price was by herself on one side, in front of the Atlanta bench. While there, she talked with Coach Carol Ross incessantly, while the offense ran through their motions, all the while watching the play and the ball. I asked Price about this.

“We just know each other, and I know how she thinks as a coach, and I just try to think like that on the court, and try to relay it to my teammates. It kind of works out really good, cause she tells me, they might not listen to her as much and they’ll listen to me, I just say it in a different voice. We just communicate, it works.”

Ross laughed while agreeing, when I mentioned that Price thought the players listen to her more than the Coach.

“I remember the very first time I ever met her.  She was a high school senior and she said, ‘coach they say all I can do is shoot layups.’ I said well, win your state title, and then it won her a lot of games in college, and she still shooting layups and now she’s doing it at the highest level. She’s got that fierceness about her, she’s now like a player-coach, because she coaches in the off-season, and she has a great basketball IQ….There’s a lot of times I’ll ask her, what defense, do we need to switch here, trap here, whatever it is. I might not always agree with her, but I’m always interested in her opinion, because she sees the game very well from the defensive end.”

Math, Sancho Lyttle style: If 85-90 percent can dominate, what can 100 percent do?

Sancho Lyttle signed a long-term extension this week in perhaps the best move the Atlanta Dream made this season. Lyttle is an amazingly talented athlete, with skills and abilities that combine to form a very rare WNBA player. She dominated the fourth quarter Friday night on the defensive end, tipping balls, trapping in the post and on the perimeter, and hustling for every loose ball.

What she is not, however, is totally healthy after a long season with back and leg problems.

“She is not completely healthy, but having her out there at 90 to 95 percent is a blessing for us,” explained Meadors. “Her leadership and her guidance on the court have been phenomenal. She’s one of the players that has really stepped up and helped with the leadership part of the team.”

Lyttle indicated that she closer to 85 percent healthy, but does not let it influence her game play.

“Every game that I play I’ve been in a sleeve, knee braces, ankle braces, just trying to keep my leg in one place and today I wasn’t wearing anything so, my mindset was if I don’t have anything on, I’m stronger than I was the day before. So jumping-wise, I would say I’m still at 80 percent, my skill level will never change, so I guess I’m at 85 percent.”

We shall see on Sunday if she can keep it up for a second game in a row.

Connecticut has struggled on the road during the season, but this is no regular road game.

The Sun face an uphill battle today in Atlanta, but it’s not like they don’t know what is in front of them. They split the regular season series with the Dream, and did lead for three of four quarters Friday night.

“I thought we played a good game until the fourth quarter, we had a chance, we had two six point leads in the second half, and they evaporated quickly,” explained Connecticut coach Mike Thibault. “The free throw line was obviously huge, we got outscored in a close game by seven at the line, we got outrebounded, and we had nine turnovers in the second half.”

Tina Charles and Asjha Jones did not control the paint as they do so frequently, and the Sun guards struggled in keeping Atlanta’s guards in front of them. Both are correctable, and with a day of film and some adjustments, not all that difficult to do. A game of playoff experience for Charles, Renee Montgomery and the rest of the younger Sun players will also help.

“This is a pretty resilient group,” said Thibault. “Our mistakes tonight were not from lack of playing hard, I think some of it was lack of playoff experience, some of it was them being a little more physical than us, and understanding you can do that in the playoffs. Understanding some things are going to be called and some aren’t, and to know the difference between what they are.”

The key will be rebounding once again. Not just Charles and Jones battling Erika de Souza and Lyttle inside, but also the wings and guards need to keep McCoughtry and Price away from the boards.

Montgomery discussed the difference right now between Price on the boards and her teammates.

“I just think it’s how aggressive she is, and rebounding no matter what size is always effort. Who’s going to make the extra effort to get the ball and I think every single time she goes and that’s hard to guard. When you have a player, especially a guard, that every single time the ball goes up they run in and try to get the rebound, so out of how many times they shot it today, even if she only got four, she probably went 35 more times to the board. But she got four of them, so that’s mental toughness, where you have to train yourself, every single time to turn around and find Armintie, because she’s going to go.”

If you need to sum up the Sun’s attitude though, heading into a game two in Atlanta, Montgomery said it best when asked if the Sun could win game two.

“Of course, that’s why there’s a series. I assume that was rhetorical.”

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