Inside The W with Michelle Smith

The biggest news of the young WNBA season broke Monday when Indiana Fever head coach Stephanie White accepted the head coaching position at Vanderbilt.

White, who will stay with the Fever through the 2016 season, will rely on Carolyn Peck, the former Purdue coach turned ESPN analyst, as associate head coach to run her new program until her WNBA commitment ends.

“It was an opportunity that came to me,” White said in a conference call Tuesday morning. “I got a call to see if I had some interest. I let that person know that I was committed to the Fever through the season, that I was under contract. They asked if I would be interested in coming on after the season was over. I went to (Fever general manager) Kelly Krauskopf and got permission to explore it and it sort of went from there.”

White, who led the Fever to the WNBA Finals last season in her first as a head coach, said she has always known she wants to be a college coach.

“I have a passion for college athletics and helping young people,” White said. “I always knew some point I would be back in college. I have these two amazing jobs and an organization that’s in my DNA. It had to be a terrific opportunity for me to leave and Vanderbilt is that opportunity.”

White said when the season is done, she will miss coaching “with and against the best athletes and coaches in the world.”

White will now be leaving at the same time as Tamika Catchings, who is retiring at season’s end after her legendary WNBA career. White said she talked with Catchings and that Catchings and the Fever players support her.

“We have each other’s backs and those things are never going to change,” White said. “Pros are pros and they get it. And if they choose to go somewhere else at some point, I’ll be in their corner.” …

MERCURY WAITING TO RISE

The Phoenix Mercury are learning that it takes time to put a team back together.

An 0-3 start wasn’t what anyone probably saw coming from the league’s preseason title favorites, but Phoenix certainly looks like they need more time to gel before a championship contender emerges.

“This is not the way we wanted to start, but maybe a little adversity early on is good for us,” Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said.
Phoenix is winless in its first three games to open the season for the first time since 2013.

With Seattle’s 81-80 buzzer-beating win over Phoenix on Saturday night, the Mercury’s core group of Diana Taurasi, Penny Taylor, Brittney Griner, Candice Dupree and DeWanna Bonner lost together on their home floor for the first time in 20 games.

Brondello admitted that maybe the Mercury thought that incorporating Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor back on to the floor after a one-year absence would be easier than it is.

“Yeah, probably,” Brondello said. “People are waiting for somebody else to do something. But two years ago is two years ago and we can’t look back and think that’s where we are now. We haven’t played together in a long time. Our chemistry is not there yet.”

Brondello said Phoenix’s biggest issues right now are on the defensive end, particularly in the area of transition defense.

“We haven’t been playing hard enough,” Brondello said. “But our mistakes are very controllable. We just have to bring focus and energy. Transition defense is all about effort and communication.”

The problem with a tough start is that the Minnesota Lynx and Los Angeles Sparks have already gotten off to hot debuts at 3-0 and the pursuit for the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the league’s new playoff format means that every win, even at this stage of the season, is going to count.

“It’s a 34-game season, but there’s a little sense of urgency with the new format,” Brondello said. “We need to get back to playing the way we are capable and focus on the process, not the result. Hopefully, we will be peaking at the right time. But, yeah, it would be nice to have a few wins under our belt.” …

ESTABLISHING AN IDENTITY

This is why Tina Charles came to New York. She wanted to come to her hometown team and be a part of building the Liberty franchise into one of the league’s elite teams.

The Liberty are 2-2 with both losses coming in overtime, but are still looking poised to build on the success of 2015, when they posted the best record in franchise history and the best regular-season record in the WNBA.

Charles said the Sparks loss, a game in which the Liberty led by eight with 1:16 to go in regulation, leaves “a bad taste.”

“That was definitely our game to have,” Charles said. “It’s a matter of the small details and closing out games.”

But the fact that it’s a matter of small details and not major renovations means that New York is closer to where Charles was hoping they would be. Charles said she has watched the best teams in the league over the past few years – teams like Minnesota and Phoenix – and she sees an “identity” that the Liberty are now showing under Bill Laimbeer.

“We have veterans and people have played together and that puts us in a position to be successful,” Charles said. “I think we have a belief that we can play against anyone and win.” …

THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE HOME

Dallas broke in its new home floor in style, defeating San Antonio in its inaugural home game at the College Park Center in Arlington. Odyssey Sims, playing in front of family and friends, led the way with 23 points.

And the historic evening was also notable because it marked the return of Skylar Diggins to the court. Diggins, donning a knee brace, played for the first time since she sustained a torn ACL on June 28, 2015. She played nearly 12 minutes, finishing with one point from the free-throw line…

SPARKS OFF TO STRONG START

The Los Angeles Sparks are much more than just Candace Parker. They proved that over the weekend in New York, defeating the Liberty in overtime to move to 3-0 for the first time since 2003.

It was Nneka Ogwumike’s time to shine in this one as the athletic forward scored 25 points to go with 15 rebounds. Kristi Tolliver hit a 3-pointer that sent the game into overtime as the Sparks overcame an eight-point deficit in the final 1:16 to force bonus minutes.

The Sparks are in the middle of a 10-day road trip, already with two road wins. Not a bad place to be as they work to keep pace with Minnesota atop the Western Conference standings. They play in Chicago on ESPN2 on Tuesday and Connecticut on Thursday before returning to the Staples Center…

IMMEDIATE IMPACT IN ATLANTA

The Atlanta Dream are 3-1 to start the year and getting something of an unexpected boost from guard Layshia Clarendon, who was traded to the Dream for a draft pick on May 10.

Clarendon, the Cal product, had a great game Sunday in an 87-71 win over Chicago, scoring 15 points to go with eight rebounds.

Clarendon played a key role two years ago for the Fever because of injuries and then played a more limited role a year ago when Indiana made its run at a title.

She averaged 6.7 points a game last season, but is averaging 12.8 points in four games in Atlanta so far…

WOUNDED WASHINGTON EARNS FIRST W

The Mystics, who stumbled out of the gate to their first 0-3 start since 2007, figured out a way to pull off a win while playing short-handed, defeating Connecticut 84-76 in OT on Saturday.

Maybe the secret was getting healthy, with forwards Tierra Ruffin-Pratt and Ally Mallot back on the floor.

Now it’s time to see if that victory is only a brief respite from a more sustained stretch of struggle. Five of the next six games for Washington are on the road.

Washington is still playing without point guard Ivory Latta (knee injury) and forward-center LaToya Sanders (out for 10 games playing for Turkish National Team). Latta is expected back in the next week or two…

CAREER HIGHS

Jewell Loyd’s 30-point effort against Phoenix on Saturday night…Washington’s Tayler Hill with 24 points against Connecticut…Seattle’s Alysha Clark with 20 points against Minnesota on Sunday.

MILESTONES

Lindsay Whalen scored 14 points on Sunday against Seattle to move into 14th place on the league’s all-time scoring list, moving past Sheryl Swoopes at 4,882.


Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith will have a weekly column on WNBA.com throughout the 2016 season.

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