St. Paul, MN — The Minnesota Lynx have taken a commanding lead in the best-of-five series against the Phoenix Mercury with tonight’s 96-86 win at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. The rival teams, which feature 11 Rio Olympians, have met in the semifinals four times since 2011 where the Lynx have won three of those series.
“You just have to find a way to get it done and to stay true to your identity,” Lynx forward Maya Moore said. “And for us, it’s being the best defensive team and the best offensive team; that’s our goal – that’s who we were during the regular season.”
Game 2 opened with a hard-fought, physical battle between the rivals, with 17 total fouls and both teams in the bonus less than halfway through the quarter. Phoenix center Brittney Griner picked up two fouls in the first two minutes of play, and sat out for what seemed like a long five minutes for the Mercury.
She riskily entered the game with three minutes left to play, but returned to the bench in the final minute, after picking up her third foul. Minnesota center Sylvia Fowles, picked up two fouls herself, however, the now three-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year went to work on the other side of the court, putting up 9 points for the Lynx. Moore led all scorers with 14 points, as the Lynx took a 35-24 lead.
“It’s a great, great challenge at this point in the year, but I think everybody plays their role,” Moore said. “Whether that’s cheering from the bench while you’re rehabbing from an injury or playing as many minutes as [Brunson] had to play or going in there having to get big stops down the stretch … so that’s the name of the game right now.”
Both teams shot 100 percent from the free throw line in the first quarter, and Minnesota forward Rebekkah Brunson opened the second by sinking two more. The Lynx continued to dominate, holding their lead throughout the rest of the half – though, for a short minute, the Mercury looked like they could have had a chance at a comeback.
Phoenix, however, remained in foul trouble, and the visibly frustrated Mercury continued to send the Lynx to the line, where Minnesota added 9 points to their 55-47 lead. Both teams recorded a combined total of 30 fouls and 41 free throws in the first half. Moore continued to lead all scorers with 21 points, followed by Brunson with 12 points and 8 rebounds.
“We lost our composure where we didn’t need to,” Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello said. “We want to push tempo, we want to make sure we’re playing with control. It’s like we’re trying to make a touchdown pass. We’re an experienced team, but we made some inexperienced or rookie mistakes tonight. You can’t do it against a team like Minnesota.”
Phoenix came out of the locker room ready for combat, immediately running a full-court press to start the third quarter. Two minutes in, Mercury guard Diana Taurasi picked up her third foul, but shortly after she hit Phoenix’s first three-pointer of the game, adding to the 19 points she used to lead the Mercury.
With six minutes to play in the quarter, Griner headed to the bench again after picking up her fourth foul. Brunson remained dominant on the glass for Minnesota, where she grabbed three more boards, and finished the quarter with 13 points and 11 rebounds.
Forced turnovers and free throws helped the Lynx contain their 77-65 lead heading into the fourth quarter, and Moore continued to lead all scorers with 26 points.
“Rebekkah Brunson got the game ball; she was just a warrior. She has to play a lot of minutes,” Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve said. “She was able to get us through some tough times with our hustle plays. Obviously, defensively, she’s always going to bring it and we needed every bit of Rebekkah Brunson tonight.”
The Lynx went on a small 4-0 run early in the fourth, and continued to hold their lead throughout the final ten minutes of play. Minnesota made everything difficult on both ends of the court for the hustling Mercury, and the Lynx locked down a 2-0 series lead with a 96-86 victory.
Minnesota finished shooting 50 percent from beyond the arc, compared to Phoenix’s 16.7 percent, and the Lynx forced 20 turnovers, while grabbing 12 steals. Taurasi added 12 points and led all scorers with 31 points and 4 rebounds, and Moore led Minnesota with 26 points and 4 rebounds.
“I think that the tempo that we wanted to push got us into trouble a couple of times,” Taurasi said. “You know, against a team like this, you need every possession, and when you turn the ball over and don’t get a shot at the basket 20 times, that’s a lot.”
The Lynx will continue their chase for a second consecutive WNBA championship on Sunday as the series moves to Phoenix for Game 3 and, if necessary, Game 4.
“We’ve just got to find a way, especially to have a chance to win on the road,” Reeve said. “We’ve just got to find a way to be considerably better defensively. Not just a little better, but considerably better.”