As Mercury beat Fever, Cunningham the unexpected standout in battle of rookies

Sophie Cunningham scored 19 points on six shot attempts to help the Phoenix Mercury to a 91-69 victory over the Indiana Fever.

PHOENIX — It was a big bet on draft night for the Phoenix Mercury to walk away from the 2019 draft with three rookies – a potentially franchise-changing evening. But soon after, injuries to key veterans roster cast third-round pick Sophie Cunningham’s future in doubt, leading the rookie to contemplate her WNBA future in preseason interviews.

By trading third-year forward Stephanie Talbot days later, the Mercury cleared room for Cunningham and made it clear they would need her to contribute immediately, with Diana Taurasi projected to rehab a back injury for at least 10 weeks.

Through the early part of the year, Cunningham was able to give Phoenix solid minutes off the bench by executing defensively and making smart plays. Her offensive breakout came Friday night in Phoenix, as her 19 points helped the Mercury to a 91-69 victory over the Indiana Fever.

“When you’re on the big stage and you’re just waiting for your time and it happens, it feels great,” Cunningham said after the game.

Despite injuries to veterans Camille Little and Sancho Lyttle along with Taurasi, Phoenix’s other rookies have been unable thus far to take advantage of the opportunity. Cunningham has been the quickest to adjust to the speed and physicality of the pros. Until Friday, however, the sharpshooting that made Cunningham a fan favorite at Missouri had not cut through in Phoenix.

“If she’s in the game, she always gives 100 percent,” Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said. “Just running the lanes, blocking out and moving her feet on defense, but tonight, it was good for her to see the ball go in.

“That’s the Sophie that I know from college, and it’s all about confidence, just getting out there. She had to ask for a sub she was playing so hard, just dying out there.”

Cunningham stuck out among Phoenix’s rookie trio, but she also outplayed her counterpart on the opponent’s bench. The defensive domino effect for the Fever that led to Cunningham’s big night began with the attention Indiana had to devote to Brittney Griner inside. After 17 first-half points for Griner, Indiana sent extra help to try to make life easier for rookie Teaira McCowan, who could not contain the veteran by herself.

McCowan, the third overall pick in the 2019 draft, scored just six points on seven shot attempts and was visibly frustrated by the end of the game after dealing with Griner’s physicality all night.

“I thought we allowed Phoenix to get comfortable offensively really early,” said Fever coach Pokey Chatman postgame. “Then I thought their bench came in, specifically Cunningham, and once people get a little bounce in their step, it gives them momentum.”

Phoenix shot 59 percent from behind the arc, but Cunningham was the main beneficiary.

“We give her that confidence,” Brondello said. “If you’re open, you play to your strengths and that’s what we need to do. Sometimes as a shooter you just need to see that first one go in.”

Added Cunningham: “Until this game, on offense, I just didn’t want to mess up. I just wanted to get the ball to (Griner), to the people who are scorers on this team and I still am going to do that but tonight they left me open and I was confident in my shot and let it fly.”

The four-year Missouri standout missed just one shot against the Fever, returning to the shot-making swagger that made her an appealing draft pick to Phoenix in the first place.

Before the season, Taurasi called Cunningham a “breath of fresh air.” That sense of relief had to be there for Taurasi watching from the sideline as the rookie went off.

“She does not see an opponent, she just sees a wall and goes right through it,” Taurasi said then. Rarely had that attitude manifested in high-level production for Cunningham until Friday. Taurasi was there for encouragement throughout the night, pushing Cunningham to keep shooting and to maintain her confidence.

“No pressure,” Cunningham joked when asked about the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer telling her to let it fly.

Phoenix is clawing its way back to a .500 record with two home wins in the past five days, but there is indeed plenty of pressure for Cunningham to continue giving Phoenix serviceable play off the bench. Taurasi is still out, and starting guard Yvonne Turner is overseas competing in the Eurobasket tournament for Hungary. The Mercury are thin.

“Sophie’s just been ready and waiting for her time, and with Vonnie (Turner) gone, she gets the chance to play, and she knocked down shots,” said forward DeWanna Bonner. “She was aggressive, and that’s what we need right now.”

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