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Friday, July 19, 2019

Phoenix-Seattle, As It Happened: A Live Journal of Game 3 of the Western Conference Semifinals

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Photo Caption: After Diana Taurasi fouled out early in the fourth quarter, Penny Taylor took over, willing the Mercury to a 77-75 victory over the reigning champion Seattle Storm in Monday night’s Game Three of the WNBA Western Conference semifinals behind a 19-point, 17-rebound individual effort. Phoenix moves on to the Western Conference Finals where they will face Tuesday night’s Game-Three winner in the other semifinal series between the Minnesota Lynx and the San Antonio Silver Stars.

Photo Credit: Full Court Press/Jeff Faddis©

By Matthew Zemek

PRELUDE: The last two WNBA champions are the Phoenix Mercury (2009) and the Seattle Storm (2010). Neither ball club is unfamiliar with the sweet taste of victory, making the pain of postseason defeat that much more poignant. Last year, Seattle completed an improbable Game-Two comeback to sweep Phoenix out of the playoffs in the Western Conference Finals,and dethrone the 2009 champions. The Storm went on to sweep Atlanta, the Eastern Conference champs, as well and take the 2010 WNBA title.

This year, Phoenix learned its lesson in a Game-Two situation. Coming back from an 80-61 beat-down at Key Arena on Thursday, the Mercury remained strong at home in the final six minutes of regulation Saturday to even the first-round series against the Storm at one game apiece. Now, it’s the Mercury who can topple the reigning title-holder in the WNBA.

Being able to do the deed in Key Arena, a house of horrors for visitors over the years, would give Phoenix an immeasurable boost heading into the Western Conference Finals. Seattle has been Phoenix’s worst match-up in recent seasons. In years past, the Los Angeles Sparks were the team that normally sent the Storm packing in the first round but this year, they floundered to a 15-19 finish and failed to make the postseason. If Phoenix can somehow play its best road game of the year in the Pacific Northwest, it would be able to play the West Finals on relatively even terms and eye an opportunity to roar back to the WNBA Finals.

Here’s how the decisive Game Three unfolded on Monday night in the Emerald City:

First Quarter

8:38 left: As Swin Cash blows an early layup, it has to be said that she’s the one Storm player who has not had a profound positive impact on this series; modest, yes, but not profound. If anyone on the Seattle roster needs to elevate her game tonight, it’s Cash.

8:04: Drives to the basket are being stopped cold on both sides – very rugged defense early on.

7:22: Seattle isn’t settling for jumpers tonight, a mistake they made in their Game Two loss. Hard takes to the tin on almost every trip. The three-ball is an exception, not the rule. Intelligent approach from the Storm, as you’d expect.

5:55: Seattle center Camille Little picks up her second foul. It’s hard to say that a series is decided by foul trouble, but when the series comes down to one game alone, the calculus shifts. Keep an eye on that development. As a side note, Little committed the foul while making a pass; it’s an early foul that could have been avoided.

4:51: At the first television timeout, the pace is all Seattle’s. This has been a grinding half-court game with Sue Bird setting low off-ball screens on Phoenix’s Candice Dupree to free up Lauren Jackson. Phoenix guard Temeka Johnson is trying to drive the ball to the rim and create opportunities for her teammates. She isn’t yet meeting with success, but she’s forcing the Storm to work on every trip. Perhaps the biggest single story at this point other than Little’s two fouls is that Phoenix’s DeWanna Bonner, the catalyst for the Mercury in this series, has just one rebound and no shot attempts. (Phoenix has netted only five points in the first five minutes.)

3:32: Both teams are very shaky against ball pressure. A total of 13 turnovers (eight for Phoenix, five for Seattle) in the first 6:30 of play.

1:09: The low off-ball screen under the basket by Bird is continuing to pay dividends for Seattle. Jackson is catching the ball within five feet of the rim, often in the middle of the lane with room to operate. Seattle got pushed to the wings and off the blocks in Game Two on Saturday night; they seem to have found a remedy.

0:49: Phoenix is doing a lot of standing and watching while Taurasi dribbles. Bonner is a spectator right now.

0:00: That last sequence, with Seattle’s Ashley Robinson hounding Dupree into a turnover (her third, and the Mercury’s ninth of the opening period) and creating a Tanisha Wright layup, typifies the entirety of the first period. Seattle is pushing around Phoenix, hounding the ball and taking away space from the Mercury. The visitors from the Valley of the Sun are being turned into passive bystanders while the Storm have taken control of the pace and created superior looks at the basket. Is this game headed for a rout?

Photo Caption: Seattle’s Tanisha Wright would have to be the odds-on-favorite for MVP of the series for the losing side. Wright posted 17 points, to go with three boards, four assists and two steals in Monday’s Game Three, and her dogged defense of the Mercury’s Diana Taurasi in all three games undermined the effectiveness of the Phoenix star.
Photo Credit: Full Court Press/Jeff Faddis©

END OF FIRST QUARTER: Seattle 20, Phoenix 9.

Second Quarter

8:50 left, second quarter: The first few offensive trips for Phoenix in quarter number two are amazingly similar to their possessions in quarter number one. Corey Gaines calls a quick timeout, and rightly so, because his team is showing the same lack of appetite for combat that it did in the third quarter of Game One. It’s all Seattle unless Phoenix decides to take a stand. We’ll see if the Mercury can shift momentum before halftime. They have to if they want to play on Thursday in the West Finals.

7:33: For some odd reason, the Mercury are finding it necessary to fling off-balance 10-to-12-foot leaners instead of finishing drives or squaring up to the basket. The modern slang slogan possesses a double meaning: “That’s not a good look, Phoenix.”

7:05: Three fouls on Tanisha Wright. Will that hamper her (superb) defense against Diana Taurasi?

6:51: Taurasi hits a three, her first bucket of the period. Half of her four points to this juncture have come at the line. You do the math.

4:29: Cash and LeCoe Willingham have missed multiple layups in this game… and the Storm lead by 16. Katie Smith is missing shot after shot, too. This shows how dominant the Storm have been at the defensive end of the floor, where Phoenix isn’t making any visible adjustments. 

3:38: Phoenix finally makes a dent in Seattle’s lead. It’s coming at the defensive end. The Mercury have shifted to a zone and are no longer allowing the Storm to make low-post back-to-the-basket catches within five or six feet of the basket. Phoenix is taking away prime real estate at the defensive end of the floor. As a result, the Storm’s possessions are bogging down. Seattle’s crispness on offense has definitely evaporated in the past few minutes. The lead, once 18, is now down to 12. It’s still a slowdown game and the kind of physical battle Seattle likes, but for the first time all night, the Mercury are hitting harder than the Storm. It’s Seattle who seems to be flinching just a bit.

3:23: Out of the timeout, Seattle gets the ball to Lauren Jackson four feet from the tin. And-one. Three points. No further editorial commentary needed.

2:18: Off the ball, Katie Smith is doing a tremendous job on Taurasi, walling her away from the ball and not allowing her to catch or face at a spot on the floor where the superstar feels comfortable. Amazing job by one of the smartest players in the WNBA.

0:37: Seattle allowed just one offensive rebound in the first 17 minutes of the half. Phoenix has gotten three offensive boards in these last two and a half minutes, and guess what? The lead is down to nine points, as the Mercury have finally climbed out of a double-digit deficit. Sometimes, the flow of a basketball game is not very hard to figure out.

0:00: Phoenix got yet another offensive board on its final trip, but airtight defense from Seattle prevented Johnson from getting a particularly good look at the goal. Nevertheless, the energy of a pumped-up Seattle crowd has certainly been dented. The crowd knows that with the Storm’s lead being chopped to nine at halftime after the home team once owned a 32-14 advantage, it’s the Mercury who have the momentum at the intermission. The Mercury trailed 40-31 at halftime of Game One, but because of the racehorse pace in the first quarter of that contest, the Storm’s nine-point lead last Thursday felt a lot larger. This time, Phoenix’s second-quarter surge makes a 39-30 halftime deficit feel smaller than the spread might indicate.

HALFTIME SCORE: Seattle 39, Phoenix 30.

POINTS: Phoenix – Dupree 10, Taurasi 9. Seattle – Wright 13, Jackson 8, Bird 7.
REBOUNDS: Phoenix 21 (Taylor 8, Bonner 6). Seattle 18 (Cash 5).
SHOOTING: Phoenix 11 of 31 (35.5 percent). Seattle 14 of 35 (40 percent).
TURNOVERS: Phoenix 10. Seattle 6.
FOULS: Phoenix 10 (Taurasi 3, Dupree 3, Johnson 2). Seattle 11 (Little 3, Willingham 3, Wright 2, Bird 2).

SECOND-HALF KEY: This has not been a complicated series to assess. The team that doesn’t flinch, the team that owns the six feet near the rim, the team that wins more 50-50 balls is going to advance to the West Finals.

Third Quarter

9:22 left: Taurasi picks up her fourth foul on a charge against Camille Little. No, not a big deal at all!

8:04: Sue Bird absorbs contact in the middle of the lane away from the ball and falls to the ground in obvious pain. (The replay shows that in the process of colliding mid-air with DeWanna Bonner in an effort to intercept an incoming pass and thereby picking up her fourth foul, Wright, on her way to the deck, has planted her knee squarely in her own teammate’s gut.) In any case, Bird needs a good 45 seconds or so to get up, very slowly and aided by teammates. She then sprints to the locker room, grimacing. It’s hard to know what’s going on at the moment. In real time, Bird emerges from the tunnel before the resumption of play; she’s on the bench, not on the floor, though.

6:03: Phoenix has more spring in its step than was evident in the first half. The Mercury are jumping higher and running harder at the moment. Bird has just re-entered the game, but the Storm lead is down to five and there’s a discernible sense of unease at the Key. Phoenix is doing all of this with defense. Seattle is not shooting with any confidence at all. It’s not as though the pace has picked up. Phoenix is grinding, and that’s the will of the 2009 WNBA champions at work. This isn’t an untested Mercury team; it’s been through the wars, even if Cappie Pondexter is now in New York and LeCoe Willingham is now a member of the Storm. The Phoenix roster still features competitors who have achieved at the highest level, and not every WNBA team can say that.

4:03: On occasion, the Storm are getting a wide-open three (it’s not dropping), but when Seattle takes the ball to the rim, the Mercury are up to the challenge. The sweet spot the Storm attained on offense in the early stages of the second quarter is a distant memory. Phoenix is controlling the action without running and gunning. Not many observers thought such a trajectory would grace Game Three.

1:44: Penny Taylor and Lauren Jackson are both running on fumes … and showing a lot of grit. Their breathing is labored, and Taylor has been grimacing the past few minutes. Neither one is getting up and down the floor very easily.

0:59: Jackson is whistled for a very tired and totally unnecessary foul on DeWanna Bonner a good 55 feet from the basket; with the Mercury in the bonus, that gives Bonner two foul shots. What once looked like a runaway in favor of the Storm has turned into a battle royal, albeit one conducted at Seattle’s preferred pace, so why does it seem as though the Mercury are in control right now? Suddenly, this series isn’t so easy to figure out – who would have thought?

Photo Caption: Seattle’s Lauren Jackson (White, No. 15) battle’s the Mercury’s Nakia Sanford (Purple, No. 43) for a rebound. Despite showing the lingering effects of the hip surgery she underwent earlier this season, Jackson put up a valiant effort, contributing 18 points for the losing cause. Her typical dominance on the backboards was limited by her injury and conditioning, however; she pulled down only two rebounds in her 35 minutes on the floor.
Photo Credit: Full Court Press/Jeff Faddis©

0:00: Bird hits a three to give Seattle some good energy, but the zone defense the Mercury has used throughout the third period was a game-changer. No, not a pace-changer, but a game-changer. Gaines has been working on the 2-3 zone defense, which he later describes as “something crazy” for the past “two, three days.” It has worked. The Storm have been knocked off balance, and the Mercury have landed many more blows.

“In all honesty, at times we had some open shots and missed,” explains Seattle coach Brian Agler afterward. “We were taken out of our rhythm in the third quarter and we had to substitute a lot.”

It’s a coin-flip heading to the final quarter. The Storm look a little weary and will need the crowd to help them across the finish line.

END OF THIRD QUARTER SCORE: Seattle 57, Phoenix 54.

Fourth Quarter

8:10 left: This has become a pure slugfest between two prizefighters who, having given their all, are struggling now to remain on their feet. The fightback of the Mercury from an early deficit of 18 points is making this game a delicious piece of competitive theater. Phoenix Coach Corey Gaines later explains that he has counted on the fatigue factor to cut in his team’s favor: “We felt that the game alone would wear them down. The first game (in this series), they were waiting for us for six days, but then they had to fly down to Phoenix and then fly back.”

8:00: Does Jackson have any legs left? As she misses a pair of foul shots, it’s worth noting that Seattle is just 10 of 16 at the line, Phoenix 16 of 17.

7:08: Cash hoists a wide-open corner three that doesn’t drop. Seattle will have to hit a few of those if it is to break the Mercury’s zone. Cash has rebounded and defended quite well tonight, but she was the meal-ticket scorer for the Storm in last year’s playoffs, a lethal shooter who did not miss many of her open looks. This season, she’s struggled a lot more with her shot. In the final seven minutes, she will likely need to score to lift her team to victory.

6:45: Phoenix. Takes. The lead. The score—a relatively low-flying 60-59.

6:38: Taurasi. Takes. A seat. The superstar, who picked up her fifth foul just a few minutes earlier, fouls out—her vehement protestations about that sixth whistle earning her a technical (her seventh foul?). Taurasi’s absence has to dramatically change the complexion of the stretch run.

Photo Caption: Seattle fans salute the departure of Diana Taurasi as she fouled out of the ball game. Taurasi’s reaction to the call cost her a technical. Taurasi contributed 19 points, plus three assists, for the winning side, but on atypically weak shooting.
Photo Credit: Full Court Press/Jeff Faddis©

6:32: Just six seconds later, Little fouls out on a charge. Nakia Sanford took it. Sanford, who missed Game One entirely with a sore knee and played limited minutes in Game Two, has definitely been a part of Phoenix’s resurgence in the second half of this contest. Taylor credits Sanford’s “monster screens” for her own seeming ability to score at will.

5:50: Penny Taylor has produced a very brave effort tonight. She’s leading all players with 14 rebounds, and she just tossed in an ice-veins three to break a tie for Phoenix. Taylor is pushing through so much pain on the court and is arguably the best player on the floor. Seattle’s defense is good at stopping the first play, Taylor explains afterward, so she and her teammates have had to be resilient and find a way to win. Phoenix needed an “above-the-mean” kind of performance from someone to win this game on the road. Taylor is delivering precisely that breakthrough for Coach Corey Gaines.

3:58: Incredibly intense sequences now. Seattle seemingly forfeited momentum when Tanisha Wright, following a remarkable blocked shot by Ashley Robinson against Dupree underneath the basket, missed a layup in transition. Taylor beat the rest of the Storm down the floor at the other end for a layup. Bird, however, responded with a three to give Seattle a one-point lead. Back and forth, and no one knows how this will end.

3:08: Bonner and Taylor play volleyball on the glass. That’s been a theme in this second half.

2:02: Phoenix by three at crunch time. The Mercury still look fresher while the Storm are squeezing off their shots and not releasing the ball fluidly. Phoenix has more legs, and those second-effort rebounds are going to the players in purple, as was the case in Game Two. The defending champions need to dig deep if they’re going to escape. The upset is a better than even-money bet at this point… even with Taurasi sitting out.

1:36: Going to the timeout, the referee had ruled that Phoenix was in control of the ball. When the teams gathered on the court, Seattle was awarded the ball. That was a mysterious sequence. Jackson, showing extraordinary resilience, drains a three, and it’s tied. Holy cow!

1:19: Score still tied at 73, and multiple players, Jackson and Dupree among them, hit the deck in pursuit of a loose ball. THE NORMALLY CO-PACETIC CANDICE DUPREE HAS ENOUGH TO SAY ABOUT THE JUMP BALL CALL TO GET BLOWN FOR A TECHNICAL FOUL?! AT THIS JUNCTURE!?! WHAT COULD SHE HAVE BEEN THINKING?!?

Photo Caption: All hands hit the deck in pursuit of a loose ball with Seattle’s Lauren Jackson and the Mercury’s Candice Dupree at the center of the scrum. Dupree’s reaction to the referees’ jump ball call resulted in a technical that could have cost her team the game had Seattle’s Tanisha Wright netted the free throw.
Photo Credit: Full Court Press/Jeff Faddis©

1:19: Wright misses the technical for a Storm team that has cracked at the charity stripe in this half. Agler points to the disparity in foul-shooting in the post-game presser. “There were things tonight that were very uncharacteristic about our team, (specifically) the missed free throws.” Seattle finishes 11 of 20 at the line, Phoenix 22 of 23.

0:42: Swin Cash misses yet another chippie after a terrific offensive rebound.

0:34: Taylor, the alpha dog for Phoenix, goes strong to the rim – she doesn’t miss her layup attempt and puts the Mercury on top, 75-73, as the clock winds down to the game’s final seconds. Taylor and Jackson have owned the last minute. Jackson’s board work put Seattle in position to take the lead, but Cash couldn’t convert at the other end. Taylor continues to tower above the proceedings in an all-time great performance, considering her physical condition.

0:14: Sue Bird. Of course. Her jumper ties things up. However, that wouldn’t have happened happen if Lauren Jackson hadn’t kept the ball alive and Katie Smith hadn’t run it down. Now, as Phoenix calls timeout, could the game be headed to OT? If it does, will either side have any gas left in the tank?

Photo Caption: Sue Bird came up big for the Storm, leading all scorers with 22 points to go with four boards, three assists and a steal. Her game-tying jumper in the game’s waning seconds briefly looked like it would send the contest into overtime.
Photo Credit: Full Court Press/Jeff Faddis©

0:02: After her performance in this game, the play Gaines draws up in the huddle has to put the ball in Taylor’s hands. Katie Smith plays Taylor tough, and the Aussie’s jumper is off the mark. But after a furious loose-ball scramble underneath the basket, Taylor tips her rebound out to Candice Dupree, who grabs the orange and tucks it into the net from four feet away. 77-75.

Photo Caption: The other hero for the Mercury was Candice Dupree, who reacts after dropping in the game-winning jumper off an offensive board in the final two seconds of the game. Dupree led Phoenix with 20 points on 10-of-15 (66.6 percent) field-goal shooting.
Photo Credit: Full Court Press/Jeff Faddis©

Seattle doesn’t have a timeout left, so the Storm aren’t able to get the automatic advance after the basket. The Storm can’t get a shot off, and the buzzer sounds as Wright dribbles the ball up court. Phoenix pulls off the shocker. DUPREE WINS GAME THREE AS TAURASI CHEERS THE TEAM ON FROM THE BENCH!

FINAL SCORE: Phoenix 77, Seattle 75 – Mercury win series 2-1.

POINTS: Phoenix—Dupree 20, Taylor 19, Taurasi 19. Seattle—Bird 22, Jackson 18, Wright 17.
TOTAL REBOUNDS: Phoenix 39 (Taylor 17, Bonner 8, Sanford 6). Seattle 35 (Cash 10, Smith 6).
OFFENSIVE BOARDS: Phoenix 7. Seattle 7.
FIELD-GOAL SHOOTING: Phoenix 26 of 61 (42.6 percent). Seattle 28 of 70 (40 percent).
THREE-POINT SHOOTING: Phoenix 3 of 18 (16.7 percent—but still won!). Seattle 8 of 27 (29.6 percent).
FREE-THROW SHOOTING: Phoenix 22 of 23 (95.7 percent). Seattle 11 of 20 (55 percent!).
ASSISTS: Phoenix—only 7 assists (on 26 makes). Seattle—14 assists (on 28 makes).
TURNOVERS: Phoenix 15 (The Mercury did an excellent job of protecting the ball in the final 25 minutes after coughing it up nine times in the early going). Seattle 15.
FOULS: Phoenix 19 (Taurasi 6). Seattle 28 (Little 6, Jackson 5, Wright 5).
FAST-BREAK POINTS: Phoenix 12. Seattle 10.
SECOND-CHANCE POINTS: Phoenix 10. Seattle 7.

PLAYER OF THE GAME: Phoenix—Taylor, 19 points and 17 boards, 15 of those boards on defense; Dupree, 20 points; Taurasi, 19 points but on six of 16 (37.5 percent) from the field and one of six (16.6 percent) from the arc. Seattle—Bird, 22 points (game-high), four boards, three assists; Jackson, 18 points but just two rebounds; Wright, 17 points, three rebounds, four assists, two steals.

The Bottom Line

It’s not hyperbole to call this one of the most improbable upsets in WNBA history. Can you really argue otherwise?

The Phoenix Mercury might have two WNBA titles to their credit, but this win quickly and unquestionably enters the pantheon of the franchise’s most satisfying triumphs. A gut check of enormous proportions was forged from the rubble of an 18-point Game Three deficit, not to mention the utter humiliation of a Game One blowout in which the Mercury barely competed. This was Phoenix’s worst match-up, on the road, against a defending champion with every intangible advantage on its side. The most brilliant shotmaker on the planet, Diana Taurasi, was missing from Phoenix’s line-up over the final 6:38.
And the Mercury won.

Dupree, one of the newer additions to the Mercury roster, wasn’t there when Phoenix won the WNBA title in 2009. She’s now a true believer. “It wasn’t easy adjusting to the system, but there’s a method to the madness,” says Dupree of how she’s fit in at Phoenix.

Sue Bird, on the devastatingly abrupt end to the season: “I feel like we should be playing a game in two days.”

Instead, it will be Dupree, Taurasi, Taylor and Co. advancing to the Western Conference Final where they will meet the victor of Tuesday night’s Game Three between the Minnesota Lynx and the San Antonio Silver Stars on the opposite side of the bracket.







Originally published Tue, September 20, 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
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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.