WNBA Today, 08/26/2011: Sun a little too hot for the Mercury

Some more split coverage for you with tonight’s action. Four-game fun for Friday in the WNBA, and due to time constraints you’re only receiving a taster tonight. You get the opening game of the evening in this piece, and the anticipation can build until tomorrow for the WNBAlien coverage of the other three. Good things come to those who wait.

The night began in Connecticut, where Phoenix were making their yearly visit. After arresting a brief slide (two consecutive overtime losses barely counts) with a strong win over Atlanta, the Sun are still only two games behind Indiana and retain hopes of catching the Fever to win the East. Their 12-2 record at the Mohegan Sun Arena illustrates just how important home court advantage could be for Connecticut in as many postseason games as possible. The Mercury started this game in the same position as the Sun in the standings – second in their conference – but with different problems. Minnesota are all but confirmed as the #1 seeds in the West, and Seattle have pulled into a virtual tie with Phoenix for second place. It’s looking more and more likely that Storm-Mercury is going to be the 2-3 first-round matchup, but home court advantage is up in the air. An extra game in Seattle’s Key Arena or the US Airways Center in Phoenix could make a huge difference in who progresses.

Significantly improving the Mercury’s chances in this game, Diana Taurasi returned to their starting lineup after missing two games due to back spasms. She also survived a potential suspension for her 7th technical foul, due to one being rescinded earlier in the season. Connecticut remained faithful to their established starting five. The opening quarter was a pure shootout. Phoenix were playing their standard game, charging from one end of the floor to the other and keeping the tempo high, but Connecticut were scoring right along with them. While Taurasi and Penny Taylor rained in shots for the Mercury, no one in a Phoenix vest could guard Tina Charles. When Charles wasn’t scoring herself down low or stepping outside for her reliable mid-range jumper, the amount of attention she drew was breaking everyone else open. Even Kalana Greene knocked down a pair of threes to contribute to the scoring. However, in the end, Connecticut couldn’t quite stay with a smoking hot Mercury team. Taylor closed out the period with a pair of threes – taking Phoenix to 5-9 from behind the arc in the first quarter – that gave the Mercury a 31-25 lead heading into the second. That would’ve been a high scoreline for halftime in some of the games we’ve had lately.

The pace dropped dramatically in the second quarter, and the rate of scoring fell through the floor right along with it. Turnovers broke the rhythm of the game, and the Sun eased their way back in once the Mercury were taken a little out of their element. Connecticut took the lead midway through the period on a Danielle McCray triple, but with Taurasi apparently determined to make up for the two games she’d missed, Phoenix made a run to close the first half. She had a jumper and a couple of free throws, Taylor broke out and beat the Sun defense down the floor for a layup, and the Mercury headed to the locker room up 47-44.

The third quarter started out tight, but midway through it looked like Phoenix might be ready to take the game away from the Sun. They were getting their transition game going, and everything Charles put in the air seemed to be coming up short. When Taurasi fed Alexis Gray-Lawson in the corner for a three, then drove in herself for a breaking layup, the Mercury had built a double-digit lead at 64-53. Kara Lawson responded for Connecticut by dribbling the length of the court and driving the baseline before the Mercury defense could react, feeding Charles underneath the hoop for a layup. It was a big bucket for the Sun to stop Phoenix’s momentum, although Mercury head coach Corey Gaines also helped them out by calling a timeout right after the Charles basket. No idea why he did that.

With the lead still at 11, Connecticut had an important run to close the third quarter. They recovered from a poor turnover when Renee Montgomery stripped Ketia Swanier to win the ball right back, and two smart passes on the move by Tan White led to two strong finishes by Kelsey Griffin and Montgomery. When Taylor missed a three on the penultimate possession of the half, Griffin was physical enough to grab the defensive board; then when Lawson missed a triple at the other end, Charles grabbed the offensive board and hit the putback. In barely a minute, the 11-point lead was down to five by the end of the end of the third quarter, which gave the Sun and their crowd a little extra faith that this game was still in the balance.

Connecticut carried their momentum into the fourth, and behind hustle plays from Griffin – a poke-away steal here, a taken charge there – and Asjha Jones’s jump shot, retook the lead. However, the Mercury still managed to force most of the fourth quarter to be played at their pace, and took control of the game once again. With center Nakia Sanford being utilised late in a game for once by Corey Gaines – and doing a solid job on Charles in the paint – Taurasi and Taylor took over the scoring. Either diving to the hoop for layups or knocking down threes, they had Phoenix back up by six with under five minutes to play. Only the long-range shooting of Montgomery and Lawson was keeping the home team in the game.

But Connecticut kept fighting, and they kept moving the ball. Even with the focus of their scoring so frequently being on two or three players, this is a very unselfish team. They make the extra pass most of the time, and it was one of those plays that tied the game up at 86. Charles fought for an offensive rebound off her own miss and could’ve forced up a second effort, but kicked the ball to Montgomery. She could’ve thrown up a three, but gunned a pass back in to Jones on the low block, and she completed the layup while being fouled. The free throw tied the game with 2:33 left on the clock. A couple of minutes of futility followed – Taurasi and Taylor missed threes, Jones missed a pair of open jumpers, then Taylor missed again on a jumper in the lane – before another pretty sequence from the Sun put them back in front yet again. Quick passes were exchanged by several players, eventually finding Greene deep in the paint before she kicked the ball to a wide open Lawson in the corner. Never afraid of the big shot, Lawson drilled the three for an 89-86 lead with 44 seconds left.

The play Gaines ran out of the timeout that followed left a lot to be desired. With that much time left you can work for any good shot that’s available, but the Mercury were clearly searching for a three to tie the game. The Sun defended it well, stayed tight on the threats from beyond the arc, and eventually Taylor forced up an effort that never had a chance. From there, Phoenix had to foul to stop the clock. Jones went 1-of-2 at the line, and when Taurasi missed from miles out and the Mercury were forced to foul again, the game seemed over. Lawson knocked down both shots, and took the lead to 92-86 with 13 seconds left.

But this is Phoenix. The fat lady warming up, clearing her throat, and opening her mouth doesn’t count. Taylor drilled a ridiculously difficult three with Greene right in her face, and they quick-fouled again. Montgomery went 1-of-2 at the line – and then Taurasi came straight down the court and nailed yet another triple. She was leaning into Tan White and desperately trying to draw the foul call when she took it, as well. There were only 4.1 seconds left on the clock, and Phoenix had no timeouts left, but they were somehow back within a point. Yet another foul followed, and after Lawson hit both shots, it was a three-point game with three seconds to play. A javelin pass from Bonner found Taurasi at over midcourt, and she got off a pretty good look from well within her range. But the remarkable finish didn’t quite have the storybook ending to send us to overtime. It hit the back of the iron, bounced away, and time expired. Sun win 95-92, but they didn’t half make their fans sweat along the way.

Sometime box scores can be misleading, but a glance at the Mercury’s for this game pretty much tells the story – Taurasi, Taylor, and not enough else. Those two players have been their mainstays all season, but they need a little help. Taurasi finished 10-22 for 26 points, while Taylor was 9-18 for 26 of her own. They got 10 points and 11 rebounds from Candice Dupree – along with miserable defense against Jones most of the night – and a more unusual double-double from Sanford as well, but the Big Two had too much to carry. They nearly pulled it off though, which shows you just how talented that duo is. Storm fans will be happy – they just moved into second place in the West without even playing.

It was a hard-fought, gutsy win for the Sun. Charles finished 8-20 for 17 points and nine rebounds, but had four teammates join her in double-digits. Jones and Montgomery are hardly surprising, but Kalana Greene and Kara Lawson stepped up as well. Greater depth and a wider range of threats just about got Connecticut over the line in this one, albeit by the skin of their teeth. In a week’s time, they host Indiana in a game that’s increasingly looking like it might decide the Eastern Conference regular season crown, or at least play a very important role in its destination. The top seed in the West might be decided for everyone bar the mathematicians – in the East there’s still a fight going on.


In other news…

Announced at halftime in the Sparks-Shock game tonight, Lisa Leslie has joined the ownership group of the Los Angeles Sparks. Exactly who owns what proportion of the Sparks is somewhat confused and shrouded in secrecy, but it’s good to see someone with Leslie’s savvy directly involved in the WNBA again. She may not always be the most likeable personality in the world, but she’s always been smart. This league can use as many smart people involved on the business side as it can get its hands on.


Today’s Games (already completed):

Phoenix @ Connecticut, 7.30pm ET

San Antonio @ Minnesota, 8pm ET

Washington @ Chicago, 8.30pm ET

Tulsa @ Los Angeles, 10.30pm ET


Tomorrow’s Games:

Atlanta @ Indiana, 7pm ET


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