October 9, 2021
Shey Peddy sends Phoenix Mercury back to WNBA Finals
Peddy's clutch free throws, Griner's block lift Phoenix to first Finals appearance since 2014
LAS VEGAS — Shey Peddy has perhaps the greatest story of resilience in the WNBA—and maybe even in all of sports.
And now, you can add another chapter to that story: making the game-winning free throws to send the Phoenix Mercury to the WNBA Finals.
With Game 5 of the WNBA semifinals tied at 84, Peddy collected a loose ball with seven seconds left and three on the shot clock, turned to the basket and got fouled attempting a 3-pointer with 4.8 seconds remaining.
After missing the first free throw, Peddy calmly sank the second and third, and Brittney Griner blocked A’ja Wilson’s shot on the other end to seal the Mercury’s 87-84 win over the Las Vegas Aces and send Phoenix to the WNBA Finals for the first time since 2014.
“We call her Playoff P for a reason. Her story, you know … I’ve got so much respect for Shey,” Mercury guard Skylar Diggins-Smith said as she fought back tears. “Her story is just so inspiring. She just works so hard. We’re in the gym every day, and even when my confidence is down, she just pushes me. She’s just a great teammate. She already knows how I feel about her.”
Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello added, “I think the biggest part of her game is the hustle points. That’s why we won the game. We could’ve gave Vegas some easy baskets there, but Shey just, she just out-hustled them. She got on the floor, got us the ball and gave us extra possessions. She just made plays.”
On their final possession, the Aces gave the ball to the 2020 WNBA MVP Wilson, who drove toward the basket with Griner on her right and Peddy helping in on her left. As she went up for an attempt, Griner blocked her shot cleanly and snatched the rebound before getting fouled with 0.7 seconds left. Griner made a free throw to finish her night with a game-high 28 points and cap off the Phoenix win.
“This is a superstar,” Diggins-Smith said of Griner. “Respectfully, played like the MVP all year, played like the MVP at the Olympics, just been balling her ass off for us. And she does thankless jobs for us. It’s only right that she gets this game-sealing block and rebound for us. We’ll take it. That’s my dog.”
Phoenix struggled from deep for most of the night, only making 2-of-15 3-pointers in the first three quarters. But their 39-year-old legend Diana Taurasi stepped up with three vital 3-pointers in the fourth quarter and mixed in aggressiveness in drawing fouls to score 14 in the final frame. She finished the night with 24 points—and a quick escape back to Phoenix to attend to the birth of her second child with her wife, Penny Taylor.
“Hold it in, babe, I’m coming,” Taurasi told Taylor in a postgame interview with ESPN’s Ros Gold-Onwude.
Brondello added, “The job’s not done yet, but obviously in the fourth quarter, we have Diana Taurasi and they don’t—I’m stealing that off of [UConn head coach] Geno [Auriemma]. But that’s what it comes down to. She was … I mean … wow. She’s done it many, many times. I’ve seen that and coached her for a long time. She was dead tired; they were all dead tired. But we were able to come up with stops and Diana [made] shots, and that’s what it came down to.”
There was a point where it looked perilous for Phoenix in the second half. After taking over Game 4 with a 24-0 run in the third quarter, Las Vegas came out with a 14-0 run in the third on Friday night to turn a four-point deficit into a 10-point lead. They kept Phoenix at bay for most of the quarter, trading baskets and heading into the fourth with an eight-point lead.
But the Mercury responded with a 12-0 run of their own to start the fourth quarter and give them a two-point lead, the kickoff to the ultra-intense final minutes. They ended up only playing seven of their nine available players, but they got exactly what they needed from those seven to beat an extremely talented Vegas team.
It’s a Phoenix team that saw Taurasi miss 16 of 32 regular season games and the first-round playoff game against the New York Liberty. Griner missed two games. Backup big Kia Vaughn was out for the first four games of the regular season. Bria Hartley only came back from her torn ACL from a year ago in September. Now, both small forwards—Kia Nurse (torn ACL) and Sophie Cunningham (left calf strain)—have missed two games.
They even had a 7-9 record at one point, fresh off of a 31-point embarrassment at the hands of the Minnesota Lynx, questioning just about everything about their team. Now, they’ve reached the final stage of the competition, with only three wins needed to get to the sport’s pinnacle.
“I’m just extremely happy,” Griner said. “I’m happy for Sky. I’m happy to have her on this team; she’s helped us so much. Shey as well. Everybody. Throughout the course of this season, we’ve had adversity, and everybody has stepped up at some point. It’s been collectively.”
The fifth-seed Mercury will face the sixth-seed Chicago Sky, which is not only the first time that a team that had to play a first-round single-elimination game in this playoff format will reach the WNBA Finals, but it also guarantees the first WNBA champion that had to play in the first round. And though Taurasi has been in the Finals thrice before and Griner once, it’s every other player’s first trip to the championship round. (Peddy won a championship in 2019, but as a member of the Washington Mystics’ coaching staff.)
“It’s a lot. I haven’t actually processed that, but this feels good,” Peddy said. “I love this team. We’ve been through a lot—this is a long season, and we stayed together even when we were down. We never gave up. We always knew we had a chance. The fact that we’re in the Finals … man, that’s amazing. I can’t even.”
It also sets up a rematch of the 2014 WNBA Finals, when Phoenix swept Chicago in Brondello’s first season. But this time, there’s an added layer of intrigue for the Australian head coach: Her husband, Olaf Lange, is an assistant with the Sky. After Friday’s win, Brondello agreed that this was always the dream for the two of them.
“We had two good teams and that’s everyone’s goal,” she said. “We’re professional coaches. You want to play in the big games and we’re playing in the big games.”
While many have joked that Lange and Brondello will have to find an amicable living situation at their recently purchased home in Phoenix, they actually won’t see each other much outside of the games themselves, with Brondello saying they’re both “always working on the next scout and preparing our team and getting the rest.” Lange will stay with the Sky in the team hotel when he comes to Phoenix.
But easily the coolest part of the wife-versus-husband storyline to Brondello is the chance for her children to experience it this week. And she’s hoping that she can convince her children to pick a favorite for this week.
“Our kids are going to be a part of this journey,” Brondello said. “I’ll have to get them out of school this week. They’ll definitely be coming in to Chicago as well. It’s pretty cool. It’s pretty cool for them. They kind of get a little conflicted, but I think they’ll be cheering for the Phoenix Mercury.”
Every person involved in a WNBA Finals has had a journey to get here, and there’s no questioning how special this moment can be for everyone involved. But a subtle gesture from Peddy—who finished the night with 15 points, five rebounds and three steals—truly showed why she is so beloved in the basketball community.
Peddy chose to wear Nurse’s Jordan brand player exclusive shoe tonight, with the red-and-white color scheme that represents Nurse’s home country of Canada. She wanted Nurse, who remained in Phoenix after tearing her ACL in Game 4, to feel like she was with the team in some way, and she used the shoes to do just that.
“When Kia’s with us, she brings that energy, that tenacity,” Peddy said. “We obviously miss her, and I know it’s a tough time for her right now. We miss her here and I wanted to represent for her and just know that, even if she couldn’t be with us physically, I wanted to represent her with her shoes and know that she’s always in my heart. I hope that I made her proud.”
It’s safe to say Peddy did just that.
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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