By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru
NEW YORK – Look who’s dressing up as Cinderella with October approaching and Halloween four weeks away.
That would be the WNBA Phoenix Mercury, a team that many would categorize as a group of mean stepsisters in recent years in terms who exists among the dominant powers in the annual fight for the league’s holy grail.
But thanks to the new playoff structure and a struggle in the pre-Olympics break part of the schedule, Phoenix, carrying the bottom eighth seed designation, survived the one-and-done portion of the early rounds with a second road win Saturday night, holding off the third-seeded New York Liberty 101-94.
Playing twice on the road in the last week, Phoenix managed to extend the career of its legendary player Penny Taylor of Australia, who’s heading for retirement, by sending two other WNBA stars likewise on the same path a bit earlier than they desired.
First it was the sensational Tamika Catchings whose sterling career was concluded Wednesday night when Phoenix dispatched the Indiana Fever. The loss also sent coach Stephanie White on the way to her new job in the collegiate world handling Vanderbilt.
Then in a game that pulsated in front of a vocal home crowd of 10,227 in Madison Square Garden, Phoenix choked New York’s final rally attempt with a 10-2 run after the Liberty gained a 74-74 tie with 7 minutes, 23 seconds left in regulation.
The final score put former University Connecticut great Swin Cash on the way to undetermined duties with New York’s front office, per franchise officials comments during her recent retirement celebration.
Unlike the collegiate arrangement where NCAA tournament seeds are determined by a committee using several criteria, the best eight records determines playoff teams and seeds in the WNBA.
“That game had everything, didn’t it?” Phoenix coach Sandy Brondello said after the Mercury advanced to the new best-of-five semifinal round facing the top-seeded and defending champion Minnesota Lynx, who, along with the second-seeded Los Angeles Sparks have yet to play a minute in the postseason this time as a result of two-round byes in the new format.
The Sparks will host the winner of Sunday night’s game between the host Chicago Sky, playing without superstar and Delaware grad Elena Delle Donne (thumb surgery), and Atlanta Dream, which finished off the Seattle Storm and the sterling rookie season of UConn great Breanna Stewart.
“I was a little critical of the knockout games,” Brondello said. “But I kind of like it right now. I don’t want to go to war again with New York. It was a hard, competitive game.
“We just, we could hold on. We have the poise, we have a veteran team.”
Brondello then paraphrased the boast Hall of Fame UConn and Olympic coach Geno Auriemma used to utter in the early part of the last decade.
“Obviously, Diana Taurasi, it is always good to have her on your team. But we have had contributions from all our players tonight. I am very happy with that, so we will get some rest, and head back to Phoenix and get ready for Minnesota.”
Taurasi, one of the key stars of the gold-medal winning USA Olympic team in Brazil last month, had a game-high 30 points, hitting key shots when it mattered to continuously frustrate the Liberty and their fans. She nailed 4-of-8 three-point attempts and was 8-for-8 on free throw attempts.
“That’s why I say she is the best player in the world,” Brondello said. “She is such an unselfish player but she’s a player that her determination to win in those big moments exceeds anyone else.
“I have been in this game for a long, long time, so she’s special,” said Brondello, an Australian who also played in the WNBA. “She wants to take those shots, we want her to take those shots, and she makes those shots.”
Making shots was a way of life for the Mercury in the Garden, where they rallied to win a regular season game earlier in overtime in June. They hit on 51.5 percent from the field, connecting on 34-of-66 attempts from the field, sizzled from the line with a perfect 24-for-24, and hit on 9-of 20 three-pointers at 45 percent.
Taurasi shrugged off tense situation of these early round games, saying during the pre-game availability that it was silly to play scared. Besides, she had experience in college winning three straight NCAA titles with the Huskies.
And had she not had a terrible second half her rookie season in the national semifinals against Notre Dame, Taurasi might have won four straight, a historic feat later achieved by the newest minted UConn legend in Breanna Stewart, who proclaimed she was going after four straight after winning the first NCAA crown as a freshman.
Britney Griner, another USA Olympian, had 22 points and 10 rebounds, while Taylor had 20 points, Former Temple star Candice Dupree, who had to bypass halftime induction festivities into the latest Owls Hall of Fame class at her alma mater’s football win against Charlotte in Philadelphia, fortified the attack in the fourth quarter and finished with 14 points.
If anything, the Olympics steamroller attack by the USA squad gave Taurasi and Griner extra energy to build upon when they returned to Phoenix for resumption and conclusion of the regular season.
“Before the Olympics I wasn’t playing my best basketball, and after the Olympics I really got into a grove,” Griner said. “I was glad I was able to keep it going. The Olympics gave us both a boost.”
Taurasi said during the international wars in Rio she and Griner discussed returning to the desert and continue the same vibe with the Mercury.
She also compared the Mercury’s woeful start and eventually righting of the ship which said to a WNBA crown in 2014.
“We have just been in a such a weird situation all year with the bad record,” Taurasi said. “We lost a lot of bad games, a lot of close games, but I feel like this is a game we should have won. On the road with this team that had been there before.
“So it was kind of a happy moment but there is more.”
Not so for New York that in one hand benefitted from the new format, getting a week off while being what is now the mythical East regular season champion. Under the old divisional instead of combined format, the Liberty might have been able to outlast their Eastern rivals into the finals.
And one-and-done has its perils as Griner observed, “.. We had to kick it up a notch. There is no series. There is no if we let this one slip away, we’ll get the next one. We can’t let them slip away so this really made us gel together. We see the prize. It’s right there. We just have to go and get it.”
But signs in the final weeks indicated Saturday night’s upset was possible with Phoenix playing well after the break while New York, with the third seed well in hand, dropped a bunch of games down the stretch.
During that period, Laimbeer was asked if he foresaw a switch to a best-of-three in an early round if one of the higher seeds fell.
He answered in the negative, saying that TV was a factor, though there is room to accommodate a further postseason expansion because the league will get back the month off they lost on the real calendar during the Olympics.
“I told the players after the game, which is the toughest part, coming off a lost that ends the series in the playoffs, ‘they work all year to give themselves an opportunity and tonight it just didn’t get done,’” said Laimbeer, who was limited down the stretch by a slew of injuries, including Kiah Stokes, a top defensive player who did return to the lineup Saturday.
“I give Phoenix a lot of credit, they play very, very well,” Laimbeer said. “We didn’t play badly. We played solid basketball. Little things got us like second chance points. We’re not a second chance team. We had a lot of blown assignments on defense.
“They made all their free throws and we didn’t (15-20). All those little things add up to a loss in a game and that’s what happened.
“They made the plays and we didn’t make the plays,” he said of the final minutes.
Former UConn star Tina Charles, another USA Olympian, had her usual solid game scoring 19 points, grabbing nine rebounds, and dealing five assists.
Veteran and former Penn State star Tanisha Wright fueled several Liberty rallies, matching her playoff career high with 21 points. Carolyn Swords had her best postseason performance with 14 points, former Rutgers star Epiphanny Prince, who missed the front part of the season rehabbing, had 12 points, Sugar Rodgers had 11, and Shavonte Zellous scored 10.
The 101 points by Phoenix were the most ever in the playoffs allowed by New York but the Liberty’s 94 points were two short of their all-time playoff high.
New York had 21 wins in the regular season and had 20 a year ago and were on the cusp of getting to the finals until blowing a big lead against Indiana in Indanapolis, and then falling at home in game three to the Fever, Laimbeer saying later the team ran out of gas.
The Cash exit to retirement ends a long hot and cold relationship with Laimbeer, who upon taking the coaching job of the former Detroit Shock early in her rookie season, built the team around her and next year the Shock produced a dramatic worst-to-first turnaround, upending the defending Los Angeles Sparks 2-1 in the finals.
“I told Swin in front of the team I appreciate all the effort she put forth in New York. Especially all the years we’ve been together, the ups and downs we’ve gone through,” Laimbeer continued.
In the latest action involving protest actions during the national anthem at games in different sports around the country, New York players and the coaches stood, but locked arms in this one.
Laimbeer said the players informed him of their move ahead of the anthem and he said “I joined them and so did the coaching staff. We wanted to support them. I still stand for the national anthem. It’s the right thing to do.”
The Liberty has a roster on the youth size.
Charles won peak performance awards as the top scorer and rebounder in the league, which may be a first. She also led the WNBA in double doubles.
“You know, when I play to me success isn’t deemed by the rewards you receive, it’s the impact you have on people,” Charles said. “I had an impact on this organization and the teammates around me, so to me there was success.
“We did get better, we fought through adversity, and we didn’t make excuses for ourselves so aside from what happened tonight, I can’t cry. I’m going to hold my head up and try to set the example for there's around me. “