September 24, 2021 

Behind Cunningham’s supernova, Phoenix Mercury escape with win over New York

Cunningham drops a career-high 21 points, Turner hits a clutch free throw to send Phoenix to the second round of the WNBA playoffs

PHOENIX — It’s about as close as you can get to crashing out of the playoffs on your home floor … that isn’t your home floor … but still had a raucous crowd supporting your team.

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But behind an all-time playoff performance from Sophie Cunningham and a clutch free throw from Brianna Turner with 0.4 seconds left, the Phoenix Mercury escaped the first round of the WNBA playoffs with an 83-82 win over the New York Liberty on Thursday night.

It was a night that, once Skylar Diggins-Smith took a look at the box score, led to her to turn to Cunningham and say, “Damn, Sophie.”

Cunningham’s response? “It’s about damn time.”

“Sophie was amazing from the three, though,” Brittney Griner said. “We really needed that. Anybody on this team can step up and knock down shots like that.”

Griner then turned to Cunningham on her right and said, “Keep doing it.”

The game—which took place at Grand Canyon University Arena because the Mercury’s usual downtown home, the Footprint Center, was hosting a concert by Colombian pop singer Maluma—looked like it was going to be a Liberty upset midway through the third quarter, with New York leading by as many as seven.

But at that point, Cunningham went supernova, making three 3-pointers in a row—and a fourth that was waived off after video review. Including the free throw she made after getting fouled on the first 3-pointer, Cunningham accounted for 10 points on just three shots in a 94-second span.

“I just think that my first half sucked and that the energy just wasn’t there,” Cunningham said. “Honestly, my biggest thing was to bring the energy, get the ball to Sky or BG when they need it. And then I just went out there and said, ‘Screw it, I’m open and I’m shooting the ball.’ I’m just lucky mine were going in tonight.”

She finished the night with a career-high 21 points while making six of her seven shots from 3-point range, perfectly fitting into the role that the injured Diana Taurasi (left ankle) has played so many times for the Mercury over the years. She even picked up a technical foul, too.

“If everyone didn’t realize that Sophie Cunningham’s a good player, I think they did tonight,” Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello said. “On the stage that we had, it’s not easy coming into the playoffs. Everyone probably expects us to win. But Sophie, there was no fear—I think some of our other players were hesitating way too much. We got in our head, we’re missing too much. Sophie, she’s got a short-term memory. It’s what I love about her. And she’s not afraid, so that was great.”

In the back-and-forth affair, the lead changed 13 times and there were 10 ties. The Mercury led by three and had a chance to close out the game in the final 30 seconds. But Kia Nurse air-balled a shot from deep with about 12 seconds left and didn’t get in Betnijah Laney’s face on the defensive end, allowing Laney to hit a game-tying 3-pointer with 2.7 seconds left.

After a timeout, the Mercury had Cunningham inbound to Griner just inside the right corner, and when two Liberty players crashed on Griner, she found an open Turner under the basket. Turner caught the ball and was fouled by Sami Whitcomb in her shot attempt with 0.4 seconds left. Her first free throw rolled around the entire rim and did not go down, but she made her second to seal the victory.

“It’s a play that we definitely went over a bunch, and we went over the other day in practice,” Griner said of the action out of the timeout. “We knew what the options were, and when I caught it, I turned and saw 2.7 [on the clock], I saw Breezy [Turner] and was like, ‘Oh, she’s open. I got to throw that in to her.’ And she did what she did.”

When asked what she was thinking when Turner was at the free-throw line, Brondello said, “’Please make it.’ That’s what was in my mind. She missed the first one. That’s big—for her to make that second one in that kind of moment, that’s big time. I was a bit nervous there for a while. I didn’t want to go to overtime.”

New York’s defensive strategy was very clear: Prevent Griner from getting any shots inside and let Phoenix’s 3-point shooting beat them. In the first half, it worked, as the Mercury only shot 4-for-17 from deep and were held to their lowest point total in four weeks—since their last game against the Liberty.

“I thought we had some very good shots in the first half. We missed them,” Brondello said. “It’s very similar to what happened at the start of the season. We’re getting good shots, we’re missing them, but I felt like we didn’t move the ball enough.

“We got stagnant a little bit because we hadn’t seen a defense like that for some time, so we can learn a lot from that game. But once we started moving the ball and being a little bit more aggressive with some penetration, that helped us open it up.”

With the focus on taking away Griner’s scoring, the 6’9 center showed off her passing ability, tying her playoff career high with six assists to go along with 16 points and 10 rebounds.

“The last few years, she’s really gotten better and better. She’s seen so many different coverages; she makes good decisions,” Brondello said. “BG, she’s a playmaker for us. It’s nice that we can get the ball in her hand and [she can] make and create plays for us and get easy baskets.”

It was also the first career playoff game for Diggins-Smith in front of home fans, and she shined brightest in the fourth quarter, when she scored 10 of her team-high 22 points. To her, the night was a culmination of the many reasons why she left her longtime WNBA home in Dallas after the 2019 season to come to Phoenix.

“Just having that opportunity to be on a playoff team, having a lot of talent,” Diggins-Smith said. “Obviously, the X-factor and the culture that’s been derived here since way before I got here, it’s most of the reasons why I came here, came to play with BG, why I came to play with [Taurasi]. And have an opportunity to win a championship. I wanted to be around champions no matter what that meant for my role—I didn’t know what that was going to mean for me.

“But yeah, this is why I came here, to be a part of this franchise.”

She also played the final 4:25 with five fouls and sat on the bench for the only time after picking up her fifth foul with 7:10 left. She was visibly bouncing on the bench and even acknowledged she was hoping she wouldn’t get subbed out. But her response is what impressed Brondello.

“I think that you’ve seen the development of Skylar Diggins[-Smith] this year,” Brondello said. “Usually, in the past, that would affect her, like she would get kind of nervous. But it actually made her more determined. Super proud of her—we needed that. She got that big foul, but we couldn’t keep her out too long, to be quite honest.

“And she came in and just made really big shots. That’s what great players do, and she’s had a great season for us. We needed that. I’m glad she gets an opportunity to play another game in the playoffs.”

Given that the Liberty entered Thursday night with the worst regular-season winning percentage (.375) of any playoff team in WNBA history, there’s surely trepidation over how poorly Phoenix played. But in the knockout-style first and second rounds of the playoffs, all that matters is getting the win — no matter what needs to go your way.

“I thought the way [New York] came out and wanted to defend BG, they were daring us to shoot and they were very active,” Brondello said. “They guarded us extremely well and we didn’t handle it so well. But sometimes, in the playoffs, you’ve got to win ugly. We had to grind it out. They made us work for it. And you need a bit of luck. We had a bit of luck go our way. I’m just happy that we were able to survive that. This is a team that’s going to get better and better with the players that they have.”

It’s the third-straight one-point playoff game for Phoenix, which won in the first round against Washington but lost in the second round to Minnesota in the WNBA bubble last year. Next up, the Mercury will face the Seattle Storm on Sunday at 3 p.m. Eastern/noon Pacific. The matchup will air nationally on ABC.

It’s unclear whether both Taurasi and Storm forward Breanna Stewart (foot) will play, but these two teams played only nine days ago in Seattle without either of them. Behind Jewell Loyd’s 37 points, the Storm beat the Mercury 94-85 to earn a first-round bye and a second-round home game.

“I don’t know why we keep doing it to ourselves,” Griner said of the one-point playoff games. “But we handled it well, so now we need to go do the same thing again. We have to go out there in Seattle and make the the game different. Whatever they do, we have to do something different than the last time the other day.”

Diggins-Smith added, “Even if we won by half a point, we in there.”

Written by Alex Simon

SF Bay Area native, 2x grad (Elon, ASU), adjunct professor at ASU's Cronkite School, editor & journalist always looking to tell unique stories.

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