June 14, 2022 

Phoenix Mercury came to DC with two missions

Mercury players and coaches focus on winning, bringing Brittney Griner home

WASHINGTON — As the clock hit zero in overtime, Tina Charles picked up Skylar Diggins-Smith and spun her in a circle to celebrate before being engulfed by the rest of her Phoenix Mercury teammates after a 99-90 win against the Washington Mystics on June 12.

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*record scratch*

You’re probably wondering how the Mercury ended up in this situation.

Backup point guard Shey Peddy credits Diggins-Smith’s and-1 on a three that would give the Mercury a two-point lead, after the made free throw, with 32.1 seconds left in regulation.

“We knew right there we killed their momentum,” Peddy said after the game. “You could see it in their faces. They were just down and struggling. And it was game over at that point.”

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Combo guard Diggins-Smith believes that preventing the Mystics from getting to the free throw line during overtime was crucial to the win, which was part of the team locking in defensively overall as the game came to a close.

The win pushes Phoenix to 5-8 after rattling off three straight wins, the team’s longest win streak of the season.

The Mercury bench needs to be more involved

As of June 11, the Mercury were second to last in points per game from the bench. Sophie Cunningham, who is expected to miss the next few weeks with an elbow ligament sprain, scored 27.7% of the team’s total bench points through the first 12 games, despite coming off the bench in just seven games.

Sunday night’s game was the Mercury’s first of four in six days, and Brianna Turner, Tina Charles, Diana Taurasi and Diggins-Smith all played at least 36 minutes. Taurasi may have played even more had she not fouled out 59 seconds into overtime. Diamond DeShields fouled out having played just under 22 minutes.

Despite the foul trouble for the starters and overtime period, Peddy was the only bench player to see significant minutes (27) off the bench. Megan Gustafson, Jennie Simms and Kristine Anigwe combined to play less than 17 minutes. Sam Thomas never entered the game.

“We got to get deeper in the rotation when the game’s close,” Mercury head coach Vanessa Nygaard said after the game.

While looking at the box score she noted, “You know, Skylar played [Diana Taurasi]’s age,” laughed and added, “Let’s not do that.”

In the future, Nygaard hopes to get to the bench sooner so the starters have more of a chance to rest.

Prior to Sunday’s game, Nygaard noted she hopes to see energy and execution, including making “little plays,” from the bench, something the team will need to continue to accomplish in order to continue its win streak and help give the starters more rest.

Jennie Simms stepped up

One player that has already begun to step up off the bench is Simms. She was in training camp with the Mercury and played in the team’s season opener on a replacement contract before having her contract terminated on May 9.

On June 9, Phoenix announced it was signing the off-ball guard to a hardship contract and while she did not enter the Mercury’s game on June 10, she made her presence known just two days later.

“Jennie Simms was fire tonight,” Nygaard said. “Came in — I think, a lot of times when players come in, they’re afraid to shoot. And Jennie is a great shooter. She was the MVP of the Israeli league this past season.”

Against the Mystics, Simms had 6 points (2-for-3 from three), one assist and one turnover in just over eight and a half minutes, but her impact went beyond what showed up on the box score.

Jennie Simms of the Phoenix Mercury shoots a three.
Jennie Simms of the Phoenix Mercury shoots a three on June 12 against the Washington Mystics. Photo Credit: Domenic Allegra.

“She came in and made huge plays, not just the shots she hit, but her physicality defensively, was big helping force a couple of turnovers,” Nygaard said. “So it was really great to have her out there today and we definitely needed her.”

Peddy noted that Simms “brought energy” and shot when she was open.

“It just looked like she just fit right in and that’s what we need,” Peddy said. “Like, just stay ready. You never know when your number’s going to get called. And she was and I’m glad she had the game that she did.”

Simms credited her team with the performance, noting how welcoming they were and the family atmosphere. “My teammates are my go-to’s,” Simms said. “They believe in me just as much as I believe in myself.”

As her tenure with the Mercury continues Simms wants to continue to be a sponge and learn as much as she can from her teammates. While her time in Phoenix may be limited by the hardship contract, she will continue to provide a spark to the team off the bench in the meantime.

Fighting for Brittney Griner

Though she is still detained in Russia, Brittney Griner’s presence was still felt in Entertainment & Sports Arena. A handful of people wore her jersey or a shirt with her number on it and shoes were collected as a part of BG’s Heart and Sole Shoe Drive. Nygaard also wore a “We Are BG” pin to her press conference after Sunday’s win.

Shoe donations in honor of Brittney Griner at the Mystics arena on June 12.
Shoes collected for BG’s Heart and Sole Shoe Drive at the June 12 Washington Mystics game at Entertainment & Sports Arena. Photo Credit: Natalie Heavren.

As a part of the trip to Washington DC, Nygaard wants to see progress towards getting Griner home.

“Hopefully being here in DC will amplify the message and bring in some additional attention to the plight of BG, and the urgency to bring her home,” Nygaard said before the game. “It’s really important that we keep the focus on that for every one of our games.

There was no immediate effect of the briefing — Russian state media announced Tuesday that Griner’s detention would be extended through at least July 2.

After the game Sunday night Nygaard said, “I hope [the meeting with the State Department is] not just a show to say they briefed us, which I’m afraid of. But hopefully, it’s something that shows positive progress, and we learn something new that helps us learn more about how we’re going to bring our teammate home.”

On the morning of June 13, Mercury coaches, players, and staff, as well as WNBPA staff met with members of the U.S. Department of State. After discussing Griner’s status, the Mercury and WNBPA staff met with congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (Texas) and congressman Greg Stanton (Arizona).

“We are on day 116 since BG has been wrongfully detained,” Nygaard said in a team-issued press release on Monday. “It was great to hear from the State Department that we should continue to amplify that message and that we should continue to press all those who have any influence or power to help bring BG home. She’s our teammate, she’s an American and we want her back home.”

Taurasi echoed her coach’s remarks in the team-issued video. “It was just nice to hear from the people at the very top knowing that they’re working relentlessly.”

She later added, “Now, knowing that the State Department and pretty much the whole world is on this, I think gives us a lot of confidence, knowing that they’re working on it and anything that we can do on our side, to amplify and to put BG first is going to be our number one priority.”

Written by Natalie Heavren

Natalie Heavren has been a contributor to The Next since February 2019 and currently writes about the Atlantic 10 conference, the WNBA and the WBL.

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