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2021 WNBA Playoffs: Cunningham prolific and clutch as Mercury sneak past Liberty

Sophie Cunningham missed just one three and made six, five of them clutch, in the Phoenix Mercury’s first-round win over the New York Liberty. Brittney Griner added the game-saving close out on defense in the one-point victory.

New York Liberty v Phoenix Mercury - Game One
Sophie Cunningham was all energy on Thursday night.
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Sophie Cunningham altered the momentum of the Phoenix Mercury’s eventual first-round playoff win over the New York Liberty at Grand Canyon University Arena on Thursday night when she converted on a 4-point play that cut the Mercury’s deficit to three with 5:38 to go in the third quarter.

Cunningham had a 3-pointer called off after a review revealed a foul before the shot just 10 seconds earlier. She went for the home run, trying to get back the momentum that her team lost when the call was overturned, and she knocked it out of the park. It was the second of six threes for her on the night as she missed just one shot from beyond the arc en route to 21 points off the bench. She averaged just 5.6 during the regular season and her previous season-high was 17.

“The energy just wasn’t there in the second half,” Cunningham said. “You either win or you go home. Honestly my biggest thing was bring the energy and get the ball to Sky(lar Diggins-Smith) and BG (Brittney Griner) when they need it. But then I just found it. ... If I’m open I’m gonna shoot the ball.”

Cunningham’s next trey came came just under a minute later and gave Phoenix a two-point lead. She was called for technical foul for her celebration immediately afterwards, but made up for it with her fourth triple of the game 38 seconds later, a bucket that gave the Mercury a one-point advantage.

Cunningham didn’t continue to force her shot even though she had the hot hand, allowing Diggins-Smith (22 points, five assists) and Griner (16 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, three blocks), the team’s superstars, to get involved as well. Her next 3-point attempt was the miss at 6:13 remaining in the fourth. Her fifth make brought the Mercury within one at 3:39 to go and her sixth gave them a one-point lead at 1:13 remaining. Each three meant so much, especially that last one.

“She does a great job of reading off of us, does a great job of bringing energy on both sides of the basketball,” Diggins-Smith said of Cunningham. “It’s no surprise to us. If she’s open, we’re confident she ain’t gonna to miss two in a row. ... The next one was more important than the last one it seemed and it really got the crowd involved.”

Diggins-Smith followed Cunningham’s final three with a layup at 50 seconds to play, giving Phoenix a 3-point lead. However, Betnijah Laney, perhaps demonstrating that New York, at least for this season, was her team and not Natasha Howard’s or Sabrina Ionescu’s, confidently buried a three that tied the game with 2.7 seconds left. That brought her up to 25 points.

Diana Taurasi, who did not play due to her ankle injury, was seen frustrated on the sidelines after that, but Phoenix would come through in the end. Griner made a nice pass to Brianna Turner who went up for a layup and was fouled by Sami Whitcomb with 0.4 seconds remaining. Turner made one of two free throws and then Griner made the game-saving close out on Ionescu without fouling at the buzzer. Ionescu’s deep, desperation three fell short of the rim and Phoenix won 83-82.

The Mercury will face the Seattle Storm in the second round at 3 p.m. on Saturday (ABC).