Phoenix, AZ — Tuesday night, the New York Liberty and Phoenix Mercury went head-to-head in what could be viewed as a 2016 play-offs rematch. Last year, New York took the win in the regular season matchup, but Phoenix prevailed in the post-season. One year later, both teams were ready to face off again to see who would come out on top.
Yet, this year’s battle proved to be anything but the same old song and dance from 2016. Although they were coming off of a two-game winning streak this year before their match-up with the Liberty, the Mercury could not afford to bask in the glory of their early success.
Unfortunately, any foundation of confidence that Phoenix built after their two wins was shaken once their all-star player, Diana Taurasi, was suspended a game.
With no Taurasi, would Phoenix be able to keep the fire and competitive edge they needed to defeat New York?
Mercury fans predicted that Brittney Griner, the third leading scorer in the league already, would be able to pick up the slack and carry Phoenix to a victory. However, in the first quarter, those fans were disappointed. From the start, New York came out fighting. Known for their very physical style of play, the Liberty started attacking from the first buzzer, and the Mercury -- including Griner -- could not defend.
New York simply pounded Phoenix in the paint, as it seemed as though the Mercury spent more time looking at the Liberty’s shots than getting any body on them. It appeared that Taurasi’s absence would prove to be Phoenix’s kryptonite against New York until a glimmer of hope came in the form of Leilani Mitchell and Stephanie Talbot.
Mitchell finally scored to bring the Mercury back within four points of the lead, a deficit smaller than they had seen for the majority of the game. Next, with Talbot at the free throw line, Phoenix decreased their deficit to only two, with a score of 15-13. By the end of the opening stanza, the Mercury had its first lead of the night, 20-19.
Yet, even with the excitement of a small comeback, Phoenix’s performance still proved lackluster without Taurasi as they continued on into the second quarter. Without Taurasi’s defensive grit and tenacity, the Mercury’s defensive efforts proved futile against the Liberty’s powerhouses of Tina Charles and Epiphanny Prince.
Both ladies went to work offensively. In fact, Prince only missed one shot in the first stanza. Ultimately, both ended the game in double-digits, Prince with 24 points and Charles with 22.
Liberty Head Coach, Bill Laimbeer, attributed the offensive success not just to Taurasi’s absence, but to Griner’s as well, stating, “We know Griner’s going to be a defensive presence in there and Tina was fortunate to not get mashed up early with her in the game and took advantage of it.”
It seemed as though the only way that Phoenix could begin to compete offensively was to take advantage of New York’s turnovers -- 17 of which they had by the end of the game. Unfortunately, they were not able to capitalize on what seemed like any as they shot under a mere 32%.
As the ball continued to rattle in and out of the basket for the Mercury, Prince, who had yet to hit a three in the young season, hit 3-of-4 by the third.
But then, just at the end of the third period, a Mercury miracle named Mitchell decided to take ownership of her team and provide the spark for the flame of victory that Taurasi left extinguished. She, along with Yvonne Turner, put together a 12-point run that brought the score 55-52 and the Mercury only down by a triple.
With Turner and Mitchell running the court offensively, Brittney Griner was able to step up her defensive game. By the final period, Griner had six blocks against New York. Just as the fans suspected, Griner did what was expected of her and stepped up her game in the absence of Taurasi.
She not only kept Charles and Prince at bay, but she also scored the highest of any other Mercury player with 19 points and led the team in rebounds with six total.
Her determination, matched with that of the Talbot-Mitchell-Turner trio allowed Phoenix to tie the game at 67-67 with only seconds left in the game.
“We were finally able to get used to the referees and that sort of things and we got stops in the second half,” said Mitchell. “We got the open looks on offense we just couldn’t knock them down.”
Unfortunately, she was right. All of the willpower and focus that these four ladies could muster was not enough against none other than Epiphanny Prince.
“Getting the shot for Piph I think built up a great play. I set the screen and then Z (Shavonte Zellous) had me on the back,” said Tina Charles on the last play.
“But that’s Piph, just growing up with her she’s always rising in the moment. She loves taking the big shots, she wants it, she owns it, so I’m happy we have her on our team.”
With on final jump shot, New York capitalized on Taurasi’s suspension and won with a final score of 69-67.
“It would have been nice to win the game. We fought back; it shows a lot of character about this team,”stated head coach Sandy Brondello on her team’s effort.
On Friday, Diana Taurasi will be back to add to that fight as her team takes on the Dallas Wings in Phoenix.