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Saturday, July 20, 2019

Lynx Advance to their First-Ever WNBA Finals Series with 2-0 Sweep of Phoenix Mercury in West Finals

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Photo Caption: 2011 WNBA Coach of the Year Cheryl Reeve, who is also the general manager of the Minnesota Lynx, has put together a well-balanced, deep, talented roster who led the league in the regular-season and have demonstrated no visible flaws through the first two rounds of the playoffs. On Sunday, they won the first Western Conference title in franchise history with a dominating 103-86 win over the Phoenix Mercury, and now await the outcome of Tuesday’s winner-take-all Game Three between the Indiana Fever and the Phoenix Mercury to learn whom they will face in the WNBA Finals.

Photo Credit: Copyright 2011 NBAE (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)

By Sharon Crowson

In the end it was simple:  The 2011 version of the Minnesota Lynx is a better team than Phoenix. They may just be a better team than any other in the WNBA. They’ll get a chance to prove it, starting this coming Sunday, when they make their first appearance ever in the WNBA Finals, after sweeping their Western Conference Finals series against Phoenix, 2-0, with a 103-86 Game Two victory on the Mercury’s own home court.

This Sunday’s Game Two win showed why Minnesota’s regular-season record was six games better than any other team in the league. The Lynx definitively proved themselves the better of the Mercury—deeper, more talented and, on this night, at least, better coached. Surprisingly, given their youth, they also had more poise and composure.  As a result, the Lynx beat the Mercury at their own game, in a high scoring, run-and-gun scoring fest.

“We tried to up the tempo,’’ said Phoenix coach Corey Gaines. ``We just missed a little pop. I don’t know if we were run down. I don’t want to take anything away from them. They ran with us, they played half court with us.’‘

“They probably will win it,” said Gaines of Minnesota’s chances of going the distance against Tuesday night’s winner of the Indiana-Atlanta Eastern Conference series. “Not putting other teams down but they are tough and have a lot of scorers in every direction.”

The two teams traded punches in the early minutes, until Minnesota began to open a slight lead, riding an 10-2 run to a a seven-point lead (21-14) with two-and-a-half minutes left in the opening period. But Lynx turnovers and fouls allowed the Mercury to chip away, and by the early minutes of the second quarter, a Diana Taurasi trey, followed by a Tamika Johnson jumper, put Phoenix back on top, 25-24.

The Mercury extended that lead to six points, 45-39, by late in the second, as Penny Taylor knocked down a three-ball and the Mercury repeatedly and successfully drove the lane. But Lindsay Whalen, from whom Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve said she needed more in Game Two, answered that call with back-to-back jumpers in the closing minutes of the period to send her team to quash the Phoenix run and send her team to the locker room down by just two, 43-45.

From there, the game turned into a slug fest, with neither team able to maintain a lead of more than five-to-seven points, until the Lynx blew open the game with a 15-5 run in the fourth quarter to go up by as many as 17 points.  Phoenix had been 12-3 in elimination games, but proved simply unable to hold off the Minnesota surge.

Phoenix is an emotional team that feeds off the energy created by its loud crowd.  Yet Minnesota stayed with them early and never allowed them to build momentum. As the game went on, in fact, the faces of the Mercury players registered frustration and their heads began to hang.  Phoenix lives off the fast break, but Minnesota outran them.  Phoenix plays defense by simply scoring so much that their opponents can’t keep up.  But Minnesota, which is also a good defensive team, proved it could outscore any team in the league.  Phoenix prides itself on its rebounding and generates its fast breaks from rebounds, but Minnesota battled them on the boards to a 37-37 draw.

This game was not about what Phoenix did or did not do.  It was about what the Lynx did.  They shot 54.2 percent from the field and 57.1 percent from beyond the arc, while holding the Mercury to 43.4 percent and 35 percent, respectively.  The Lynx only turned the ball over seven times, though Phoenix also had good handles, coughing it up only nine times. The Lynx got themselves to the line more often, though they failed to take full advantage of their 10-shot edge at the charity stripe, as Minnesota shot just 70.8 percent from the line for 17 makes, while the Mercury netted a coolly efficient 92.9 percent of their 14 free-throw attempts for a total of 13 points at the line.

Rather, it was Minnesota’s ability to keep pouring in the points, and particularly the Lynx’s ability to outdo the Mercury at what they do best—the transition game, where Minnesota out-gunned the Mercury 16-11 in fast-break points—that kept the crowd of 8,617 relatively quiet for much of the game. Time and again, Coach-of-the-Year Cheryl Reeve countered the Phoenix adjustments and negated them.

After a scoreless first quarter, Diana Taurasi showed why she was once again the league’s leading scorer this season, knocking shots down with machine-like efficiency to finish with a team-high (tie) 22 points. Dewanna Bonner also put up 22 for the Mercury. Bonner, who has been starting throughout the playoffs after being named the league’s Sixth Player of the Year in each of her first three seasons, seems to like her new role, and made it a double-double, adding 10 rebounds. Candice Dupree bounced back from her almost nonexistent Game-One performance, notching a double-double of her own with 18 points and 10 boards.

But Penny Taylor, usually one of the team’s most potent offensive weapons, was saddled with foul trouble (as was Taurasi) and was held to just eight points, though she did contribute four boards and four assists. And no one else on the team scored more than six.

Still, the Mercury’s problem wasn’t inadequate scoring per se. Eighty-six points would typically be more than enough to win a WNBA game. Indeed, it would have been enough to have won 13 of the 15 WNBA playoff games that have taken place to date. But on Sunday night, it would not be enough to allow Phoenix to keep pace with a Minnesota team that had six players scoring double figures.

Phoenix coach Corey Gaines concentrated his defense on stopping Seimone Augustus, who has been spectacular so far in the playoffs.  He was only partially effective in that regard. Augustus still put up a healthy 16 points, but that was down from both her postseason average this year of 20.4 points per game and the 21 points she put against Phoenix in Game One.

Minnesota made up the difference by looking elsewhere.  They turned to their oldest and youngest players to lead them.

Taj McWilliams-Franklin, who will turn 41 soon and is the league’s oldest player, tied for the team lead in scoring with 21 points, to which she added six rebounds, seven assists and a block.  After the game McWilliams-Franklin explained how she uses the fact that she can out-slow any player in the league to her advantage. 

“I take advantage of my slowness, as funny as it sounds,” she said.  “There is no way I am going to get around (Bonner) so there is something to be said for those slow moves that lull you to sleep.  You think I am doing one thing and I do something else.”

No one should ever be surprised by what Rookie-of-the-Year Maya Moore does.  On this night, Moore knocked down six of eight three-point attempts and matched McWilliams-Franklin’s 21 points.  And like McWilliams-Franklin, Moore, too, played what can only be described as a complete game, tacking on seven boards, five dishes and a steal.

Point guard Lindsay Whalen used her seemingly endless array of spin moves to score 18 points to go with her seven rebounds and four assists.  Whalen’s contributions went well beyond her numbers, however.  She put on a clinic on how a point guard should run a team and control an offense.

Meanwhile, Rebekkah Brunson added 12 points and nine boards, and Jessica Adair came off the bench to put up 10 points more.

If Minnesota had any discernible weaknesses when the playoffs began, it was its relative youth and lack of playoff experience. Through the first two rounds, however, they have shown that is a deficit the Lynx have been more than capable of overcoming.

Perhaps it was an overstated flaw in the first place. While the team as a whole lacked WNBA playoff chops, many of its players have performed, and performed well, on the world’s biggest stages. Augustus, for example, has Olympic gold to her credit. Moore has not only played in multiple national championship games at the college level, she competed against the world’s best—most of them pros—at the FIBA Women’s World Basketball Championships last year. McWilliams-Franklin has made eight trips to the WNBA playoffs with various teams over the course of her 12 years of her well-decorated career and owns a WNBA Championship ring she earned with the Detroit Shock under the tutelage of Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve and the Shock’s Bill Laimbeer. Brunson won her ring with the now-defunct Sacramento Monarchs, and she is playing better now than she ever did then. And while Lindsay Whalen has never won a WNBA championship, she is certainly no newcomer to the postseason.

Reeve, who is also the team’s general manager, has put together a well-balanced, deep, talented roster.  More important, they are a roster without any prima donnas or players who are more concerned with their individual stats than with the welfare of the team. 

At the moment, they look to be the best team in the WNBA, as Gaines himself acknowledged somewhat grudgingly after the game:

“We got beat by a good team,” he stated. “They were the No 1 team all year and they played like it.  They’ll probably win [the championship].”

He’s right.  They will probably win the championship.  If they don’t, it will be because they didn’t play the way they played all season. 

Originally published Mon, September 26, 2011

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Week: February 7, 2012
1 Baylor (31) 24-0 1 1 1 775
2 Notre Dame 23-1 2 2 2 743
3 Connecticut 21-2 3 4 3 710
4 Stanford 20-1 4 5 4 685
5 Duke 19-3 6 8 5 650
6 Miami (FL) 20-3 7 7 6 604
7 Kentucky 21-3 5 15 7 584
8 Maryland 20-3 10 10 8 534
9 Wisconsin-Green Bay 20-0 9 24 9 530
10 Ohio State 21-2 11 NR-RV
10 483
11 Tennessee 17-6 8 3 11 476
12 Delaware 20-1 13 NR 12 434
13 Georgetown 18-5 15 11 14 379
14 Texas A&M 16-5 16 6 15 378
15 Nebraska 19-3 18 NR 13 309
16 Rutgers 17-4 14 12 17 372
17 Louisville 17-6 12 9 20 276
18 Gonzaga 21-3 19 NR-RV
19 234
19 Purdue 19-5 17 21 16 222
20 Georgia 18-6 20 12 21 202
21 Penn State 18-5 21 14 18 176
22 DePaul 17-7 23 18 NR-RV
23 Georgia Tech 16-6 22 NR-RV
22 104
24 South Carolina 18-5 NR-RV
NR 24 46
25 Vanderbilt 18-5 NR-RV
NR 45
Dropped Out: No. 24 North Carolina, No. 25 Kansas.
First-place votes: Total first-place votes received (if any) are indicated in parentheses following school name.
Others receiving votes: St. Bonaventure (22-2) 34; North Carolina (17-6) 19; California (17-6) 18; Florida Gulf Coast (21-2) 16; Middle Tennessee (19-5) 15; Texas-El Paso (20-2) 8; Texas Tech (16-6) 5; Brigham Young (21-4) 4; Fresno State (19-4) 4; St. John's (15-8) 4; Princeton (15-4) 3; Oklahoma (15-7) 2; West Virginia (17-6) 2; Kansas State (15-7) 1.
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Credit: Courtesy Women's Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA). The weekly Division I Top 25 Coaches' Poll, sponsored by USA Today and ESPN, is based on voting by a Board of Coaches made up of 31 head coaches at Division I institutions all of whom are WBCA members.