With the Dream losing nine out of their last 11 games and with forward Angel McCoughtry out with tendonitis in her feet, they needed help and fast. Dream guard Shoni Schimmel has shown a lot of talent, but no one suspected she was a time traveler: she turned the Dream’s clock back to before the slump by scoring 20 of her career-high 24 points in the second quarter as Atlanta coasted to a 96-82 win over visiting Phoenix to secure the Eastern Conference championship and the home advantage throughout the conference playoffs.
According to Dream head coach Michael Cooper, Atlanta’s focus in their last practice was devoted to defense: "…all of our pick-and-roll coverages, some things for our inside bigs as far as what they’re doing with post up people, and then our guard perimeter. I think when you put them together, it makes for a good basketball game. So it’s important that we play defense from here on out because that’s what is going to win us our championship."
Watching Shoni Schimmel explode was nothing new to Phoenix head coach Sandy Brondello. "It was like the All-Star game – nobody could stop her. When you give her too much separation, she is a confident kid and knows how to put the ball in the hole in a variety of ways."
Granted, Phoenix gave Atlanta some help as forward Penny Taylor and guard Diana Taurasi sat out, leaving Griner the lead figure in the Phoenix lineup. She had a good start in the first quarter with seven points. Dream posts Erika de Souza and Sancho Lyttle didn’t make it easy on her, guarding her closely and denying a Griner drive to the basket more than once. De Souza couldn’t be budged by Griner but found herself on the bench after two first-quarter fouls.
In spite of Phoenix taking it easy they led for most of the first quarter. Dream guard Tiffany Hayes led all scorers in the first ten minutes with ten points, but a run by Phoenix put the Mercury up 26-18 at the end of the quarter.
With a lead on the road, Phoenix had the luxury of going deeper into their bench. Atlanta closed to 28-26 on a drive by guard Matee Ajavon on a Mercury defensive lapse, necessitating a Mercury timeout with 7:54 left. Atlanta brought Schimmel in she immediately made things happen, starting off the game with a 3-pointer and piling up the points as her energy lifted the Dream into the lead. With 5:54 left in the first half Phoenix was over the foul limit and Griner could not catch a break from the referees or find the basket. As for Schimmel, she put on a show for the crowd, giving Atlanta the quarter they had been looking for all August, scoring 20 points in the second quarter on the way to a 55-41 Atlanta Dream lead at halftime.
The Dream scored 37 second quarter points and out-rebounded the Mercury by a factor of 27-10. Phoenix guard Erin Phillips led all Mercury players with nine in the first half.
Schimmel was simply answering a call. "Coach Cooper had said something at the beginning of the game and he asked, ‘What are you going to bring to this team?’ to every single one of us. So to go around and kind of be put in your place, you have to think about it and go out there and do what you can for this team and that’s exactly what I tried to do today. I just wanted to go out there and give whatever I can give to this team and contribute to them."
The only thing the Dream needed to do was keep the lead. Griner still wasn’t scoring and de Souza crossed into double-digit scoring early in the third. The Dream built up their lead to 20 points and crossed into 50 percent shooting and it was Tiffany Hayes’s turn to shine. She finished the third quarter with 19 points as the Dream closed the third quarter with a commanding 80-54 lead.
All that was left for the Dream to do was tread water and await the end. The Mercury made it look closer than it was but maybe Phoenix spent too much time celebrating their own conference-clinching win. It was Atlanta’s night to celebrate in front of a very happy crowd.
"It feels good and especially to get a win after a losing streak like that," Tiffany Hayes said. "We want to go into the playoffs with wins and not losses so it felt good to get that today."
The Dream shot 48.5 percent for the game and five Dream players finished in double figures, led by Schimmel. Sancho Lyttle scored only nine points but had 11 rebounds. Erin Phillips tied her career-high as she led Phoenix with 21 points on 4-for-6 shooting from 3-point range, and forward Mistie bass added 10 points from the bench.
Mercury center Brittney Griner would be held to nine points and five rebound by Atlanta. With both teams having secured their respective conference championships, there is the outside chance that they could meet again in the Finals.
Griner said of the Dream, "They definitely got it clicking on the boards. They had a lot of offensive rebounds and second chances in the paint. That hurts you when you allow second chances offensively. It will be different the next time we play them." The only question left is whether the next meeting of Atlanta and Phoenix will take place this year or next.
* The win not only clinches the Eastern Conference regular season championship for Atlanta – their first – but secures a final regular season record over .500. In addition, no Eastern team can tie Atlanta in wins.
* Schimmel recorded just the sixth 20-point quarter in WNBA history. Phoenix’s Diana Taurasi holds the WNBA record for points in a quarter with 22.
* Dream center Nadia Colhado scored a career high eight points off the bench.
* This is the second game this season where the Mercury have given up 96 points. Who did they lose to? Another Eastern Conference team, the Connecticut Sun.
Michael Cooper on turning things around: "This was a much needed game for us. I think after our long road trip and the way things have been going for us the last two-and-a-half/three weeks, for us to come back and play extremely well and to get a win was very important, especially going into the playoffs. But this win started two games ago. I thought we played extremely well in Los Angeles, but came up short in that game in overtime. Then we went to Chicago and we played well there and came up short. So for us to get a win today, especially after our leading scorer Angel McCoughtry was out of the game, was very, very gratifying."
Cooper on whether or not McCoughtry will be held out with the Dream having secured first place: "Her injury right now is a day-to-day foot injury and it’s up for the doctors to handle that. But she should be ready to go if not in the next game, the final game. She cannot miss the next two games going into the playoffs. She’s gotta be playing well, and you’ve got to be playing on the court and get some reps."
Cooper on Celine Dumerc: "Celine’s game is finally coming along. I think it took some time for her to adjust to the WNBA professional level here, the size of the players and the quickness. I knew she was going to be our starting guard at some point in time and she does exactly what we need her to do. She’s a free lance point guard, but she more sets up. I think in order for us to win games and win championships, you have to execute down the stretch, and that’s what she gives us."
Shoni Schimmel on advice from Angel McCoughtry: "She told me to go out there and just do my thing. Not to fill her shoes, but to go out there and contribute to this team. So that’s what I tried to do tonight. It’s never likely to have your leading scorer on the team out, but someone had to fill her shoes and I think we did it as a team."
Sandy Brondello on why Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor sat: "This was just one of the games that we decided to sit them down. We’ve had a very busy part of our schedule with six games in 11 days and that can be grueling. If we didn’t have the No. 1 seed they would have played tonight. Nothing is wrong with them, it’s about getting them more rest when we can. It was also good exposure for the other players who don’t normally get those opportunities."
Brondello on Griner’s improvement: "In her confidence. She’s physically stronger. She’s added to her repertoire of moves, back to the basket. And that just comes from hard work, getting in the gym, going one-on-one, going to China, getting better. We give her responsibilities, we want her to be a leader of this team and she’s really embraced that this year."