Phoenix, AZ — In a matchup between the No. 3 and No. 4 teams in the league, the Mercury made it clear that they wish to emerge as challengers to the dominance of the Minnesota Lynx and Los Angeles Sparks duo that currently reigns supreme in the WNBA.
Leading the charge was arguably the most feared rim protector and inside scorer in the league in Brittney Griner. The double and triple teams she drew all night from a formidable Washington defense proved to be the catalyzing force in the Mercury’s hot shooting night and ultimate 88-80 victory over the Washington Mystics.
Belated fireworks were in store for Mercury fans as Griner’s presence inside opened up opportunities on the perimeter, allowing the Mercury to shoot a scorching 4-of-5 from three-point range to start the game. Two three-pointers each from Camille Little and Stephanie Talbot gave Phoenix an 18-11 lead midway through the first quarter.
“I think we just came out with a different mentality,” said Griner. “I’m tired of teams coming out and jumping on us so we just turned it around.”
Trailing by as many as 11 points, Tianna Hawkins gave Washington a lift off the bench with her jumper that sparked a 6-0 Mystics run with just over two minutes remaining in the first period. But the difference maker, Griner, continued to inflict damage on both ends of the floor, posting nine points three rebounds, and two blocks in the first frame alone.
The Mystics chipped away at the deficit off of a Natasha Cloud three-pointer with 16 seconds remaining to cut the Mercury lead to 27-24 at the close of the first.
In the second quarter, Phoenix’s hot shooting continued, but Washington’s strong play on the offensive glass, particularly by Elena Delle Donne, kept the Mystics within striking distance. What was an 11-point lead Mercury lead shrunk to five points with just over three minutes remaining in the first half.
Griner punctuated the second quarter with an offensive rebound followed by fade away jumper to put her team up by six points with 40 seconds remaining. With Griner commanding all of the attention in the first half, Diana Taurasi was content to play facilitator — tallying zero points but dished out four assists. The Mercury took a 44-39 lead at halftime.
There would be no let down for Phoenix coming out of the break as they clearly made a concerted effort to crash the offensive glass. Back-to-back finishes at the rim by Little and Taurasi’s first points of the night stretched the Mercury lead to 11 once again midway through the third quarter.
While the Phoenix frontcourt in Griner and Little shined early in the third, Delle Donne wasn’t going down without a fight — sinking a three-pointer that sparked another Washington run. Ivory Latta’s free throws tied the game at 63-63 near the end of the period.
Having twice let 11-point leads evaporate thanks to inconsistent play from their bench and much colder shooting, Phoenix squeaked out a narrow 65-63 lead at the close of the third stanza.
To start the fourth quarter, Washington showed signs of life thanks to their balanced scoring attack. However, Griner was in no mood for any fourth quarter Mystics’ heroics, posting back-to-back baskets to maintain the lead.
“It’s not fun being on the other end, she’s been having a great year and today she just showed her dominance,” said Washington’s Kristi Toliver. “Especially in the second half when they needed points and they needed someone to lean on, it was her. She’s been doing a phenomenal job, MVP caliber year and tonight she showed.”
On an off night by her standards, Diana Taurasi finally got in on the offensive fun. Her three enormous fourth-quarter baskets, the biggest of which came with 0:39 remaining, helped put the game out of reach.
The Mercury would hold on for a hard-fought 88-80 victory, only adding to the Mystics’ frustrations on their current five-game road trip.
Even though they came back twice from a double-digit deficit, Washington’s comeback effort was stymied by Griner’s dominance on both ends of the floor, the Mercury’s physicality on the glass, and a third consecutive game in which the Mystics failed to make more than five three-pointers.
Add to the equation that Phoenix successfully limited Delle Donne to 15 points and only four attempts at the free throw line, and it’s suddenly apparent why Washington struggled.
“I mean we had fight and we were in the right spot several times. They would either hit a key shot or get the ball exactly where they wanted to and they executed down the stretch, which is the sign of a great team,” said Delle Donne.
Greatness is often measured by how a player performs against the best competition. All eyes were on Griner, whose two lowest scoring totals of the year, 6 and 11 points respectively, had come against the league’s two preeminent forces in the Lynx and Sparks.
A 30 point, 14 rebound, three block performance against a Mystics defense that had forced 19 or more turnovers in three out of their last four games and had accounted for four or more blocks in each of their last four games went a long way in silencing any questions as to Griner’s ability to perform on the biggest stages.