Rookie Kristine Anigwe got the wrong side of Brittney Griner as Dallas’ physical style unfurled into a physical altercation in Phoenix.
PHOENIX – When a must-win turns into phone calls with the league office, something has gone very, very wrong.
The usual pushing and clawing in the post turned ugly Saturday night between Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner and newly acquired Dallas Wings rookie center Kristine Anigwe, resulting in six ejections and the momentum turning Dallas’ way as they pulled out a comeback win, 80-77.
Intertwined on the block while Anigwe looked for an entry pass, about 6:30 to go, Griner and the rookie began jarring as Wings guard Allisha Gray launched a three. Griner ripped around, Anigwe yanked Griner’s arm down to get loose and then threw a punch as she walked away. Sensing Griner’s sudden anger, Anigwe darted away, but continued yelling as she fled. Soon, both benches cleared, with Griner at the center of it all, incensed by Anigwe’s initial swing and perhaps something that was said.
As after most high-stress situations, the usual hearsay broke out in each locker room following the game. Phoenix players claimed Anigwe had crossed the line with her aggressiveness dating back to when the Mercury played Anigwe’s Sun prior to the trade on Aug. 6. The Wings locker room had less to say, more content to talk about the win.
Both parties, however, agreed nothing in particular on Saturday sparked the altercation. “That’s why nothing happened and there’s nothing to talk about,” said Kayla Thornton, one of the three players ejected specifically for fighting, along with Griner and Angiwe.
In addition, Diana Taurasi (who was inactive), Kaela Davis and Briann January were ejected for leaving the bench. Mercury players and coach Sandy Brondello were also concerned that the referees didn’t do enough to corral the physicality between January and Wings guard Arike Ogunbowale throughout the night. Pushing the limitations of acceptable physicality and using their size and length advantageously is Dallas’ recipe for winning. They are not a great offensive team, so crossing those lines can work to their benefit some nights.
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Said veteran center Imani McGee-Stafford: “That’s our style. Sometimes, we can get away with that, play aggressive and physical, and other times we can’t. This was one of those games we can’t, but that’s going to be our style, that’s our bread and butter. We can’t play that way regardless, we have to know when we can and can’t.”
These are not the best circumstances for team bonding, with suspensions potentially on the way, but the Wings seemed galvanized by the events in their locker room after the game.
Thornton wanted to focus on the win.
“That’s the best part. Stuff happens and things happen like that, but I’m glad my team got together and pulled out the W.”
She was proud of her team for staying focused through the dust-up and executing down the stretch to move to 7-17 on the season.
“It’s been a long road for us, so this road win is a good one for us.”
Thornton in particular is the lifeblood of this team, the embodiment of that rough, frustrating style. She finished with an inefficient 11 points but showed a fellowship with new teammate Anigwe on the court during the altercation and in the locker room postgame, where Anigwe was by her side.
“If I learned nothing else tonight, I learned KT (Thornton) a real one,” said veteran forward Glory Johnson after the game.
Taurasi, who was not active for the game but still earned an ejection as she played the role of peace-maker near center court, made herself available in the locker room postgame for the first time since she played on July 12, clearly frustrated on behalf of her teammate.
“When you have referees that can’t handle situations and let situations get to that point, I mean, BG pretty much gets beat up every single game. The minute she steps on the floor she basically gets physically abused, and a person can just take so much. … When you get hit in the face and the refs aren’t willing to protect you night in and night out, you’ve got to protect yourself. They definitely don’t pay you enough money to not protect yourself in this league, and BG has a lot of stake playing all around the world and if this league feels like it shouldn’t protect their players by letting a lot of things go during the game … and then you see people just physically hitting each other the whole game throughout the year, things like this will keep happening.”
Griner left the locker room postgame just as media entered.
With Thornton, Davis and Anigwe gone and McGee-Stafford carrying five fouls over from the first half, it was a wonder Dallas was able to close the game. They are young and inexperienced, transitioning from a top-heavy roster last year to more of a balanced, developmental philosophy under new coach Brian Agler.
Though a case could be made just about every player on either roster warranted an ejection as benches cleared, Ogunbowale was lucky enough to stick around and closed the game for the Wings. Her ability to get to the line, even as the referees let so much go, clinched an impressive victory for Dallas after two close games against the Mercury earlier in the season.
Phoenix tried trapping Ogunbowale on the perimeter more as the game went along, but she did most of her damage in isolation.
Said Brondello: “It wasn’t even pick-and-roll, it was one-on-one, it was transition. We tried to get the ball out of her hands, but (she’s a) great player. She can change you up on a dime, she can go right to left and go again, she’s a physical presence.”
Even facing a deficit with three key players in the locker room, the Wings stuck with their bread and butter. Ogunbowale plus a dose of aggressiveness can win games. That’s the caliber of player the rookie already is, and the type of team Agler is carving out of this young Dallas roster.
“This was just us showing that we can finish down the stretch and right now, our goal is to get better every game,” McGee-Stafford said. “Obviously, we’re still trying to make the playoffs because we’re not statistically out of it, but at the end of the day, we have to figure out how to close games, and that’s what we did today.”
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