The Aces grab the No. 4 seed with the win, while the Mercury will head off to Chicago as the No. 8 seed.
PHOENIX — The season had its twists and turns for both the Phoenix Mercury and the Las Vegas Aces. The Mercury has seen injuries and suspensions leave them missing vital pieces since opening day. The Aces have been incorporating major new contributors for other reasons. Both head into the playoffs hoping all of that is behind them.
“The season kind of went like I expected it to,” Aces head coach Bill Laimbeer said after the game. “A lot of ups and downs. Trying to understand each other. Trying to learn how to win. We had our moments when we looked very good and moments where we looked very bad. So, for all-in-all, we get the four seed and have a bye the first round, have a home game? Okay, we’ll take it.”
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BG and Liz carry the load
It was a great battle inside between the two outstanding bigs. Brittney Griner won the scoring battle, but Liz Cambage and her team won the war.
Griner led the Mercury with 24 points on 10-15 shooting. Those points along with three assists, three rebounds, a steal and two blocks weren’t enough, though.
Cambage came on strong to lead the Aces with 21 points, 9 rebounds, an assist, a steal and two blocks in an inside match-up that she says she enjoys.
“The refs just let us do our thing when we play against each other,” Cambage said. “And we have big love for each other. So, it is a lot of fun playing against Brittney.”
As for the game and what it signals for the future of both clubs, who was missing was as relevant to Phoenix’s postseason prospects as who was playing.
When Diana Taurasi had back surgery prior to the season, her return timeframe was 10-12 weeks. After trying to come back against the Connecticut Sun on July 12, she was put back on the shelf. She didn’t re-emerge until Aug. 25.
That return didn’t last much longer. Taurasi was out again three games later–and didn’t return for the regular-season finale against the Aces.
Even when she’s able to play, Taurasi hasn’t been anywhere near her usual standards. In six games this season, she’s shooting only 10.3 percent from the field and averaging 4.3 points per game. Her assist numbers are keeping up with her career averages, but she’s struggling to be a scoring threat.
Taurasi went through warm-ups with her team on Sunday, but what can reasonably be expected of her even if she’s able to play on Wednesday? We’re unlikely to find out.
The foreboding Sky
While the Aces won’t know who they play in the second round until later this week, Phoenix is on their way to Chicago to face the Sky on Wednesday. The Sky swept the Mercury in three games this season, including both of the contests played in Chicago.
The Mercury didn’t appear concerned about either their record against a particular opponent or the nature of the WNBA playoffs.
“It doesn’t matter,” head coach Sandy Brondello said. “Chicago’s playing really well. They’re playing so well. They’ve got so many scorers, they’ve got physical post players, they rebound well, they’re athletic, they’ve got one of the best point guards in the league just controlling everything. In a one-game knockout situation, as long as we can limit what they want to do and make them feel uncomfortable, anything is possible. We didn’t win at Connecticut last year, and we went in there and won. We’ve been in these situations before, so we’re not looking at it like ‘Oh, we haven’t won,’ because you just go and play. We’re going to believe. We know we can do this. It’s not easy. No game is easy. Anyone can beat anyone in this league, so we just have to make sure that it’s our night.”
As for the nature of one-and-done, Griner likes the familiarity of it.
“It reminds me of college,” Griner said. “Reminds me of NCAA time. Win, stay. Lose, go home.”
The Aces fans make themselves heard in Phoenix
Phoenix was the second-biggest draw of any WNBA team over the regular season. The Mercury pulls in an average of over 10,000 per game, about 1,000 fans behind the LA Sparks. On Sunday, though, the most surprising group of fans were decked in Las Vegas gear.
A group of vocal Aces fans sat behind the team’s bench, making themselves heard from the tip until their team had sealed the 98-89 victory.
Camille Little plays her final regular-season game
Little announced her impending retirement early in the season. She has spent the summer stepping into whatever role is required as the team’s injuries have piled up around her. On Sunday, the team honored her after the game.
While there’s at least one more game in the season, Phoenix won’t play at home again unless they reach the semi-finals. Barring that, Little won’t play in front of the home fans again.
She’s not thinking about that, though.
“I just want to win games,” Little said. “That is it. It is not really a thing where I am worried about the last one. I do not even think about that. I just want to enjoy all of it. I am worried about us playing well and winning games.”
Asked if she had any second thoughts about retiring, she laughed and emphatically shot that down, “No, no, no!” Both the physical and emotional tolls of playing professional ball for 13 seasons have solidified the decision for her.
Her teammates hope to send her out on a higher note than Sunday’s game.
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