The power couple of Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner is all it’s cracked up to be. On Saturday night, D&B took charge early and led the Phoenix Mercury to a 89-70 victory over the Connecticut Sun before a near-capacity crowd of 9,110 at the Mohegan Sun Arena. The game was also televised live throughout the state on CPTV Sports.
The Mercury were in the position to draft Griner, a 6-8 center, the first woman player to routinely be able to dunk at will and a truly transformative player in the women’s game, because Taurasi, one of most talented players ever produced out of UConn, was injured for most of the 2012 season. Together, they are billed as the women’s version of Bird and McHale. Or perhaps Magic and Kareem. Whatever your pleasure, the partnership between one of the most prolific scorers and one of the most prolific rebounders in women’s college basketball history is yielding immediate dividends.
Last season, the Mercury finished dead last in the WNBA Western Division with a 7-27 record, 20 games off the pace set my the Minnesota Lynx, who are led by another UConn legend, Maya Moore. After Sunday’s win, the Mercury, who started the season with three consecutive losses, have won seven of their last eight (including five straight on the road), are just one game behind the division-leading Lynx, a shoo-in for the postseason and legitimate contenders for the title.
The Sun, meanwhile, who currently resemble a M*A*S*H unit more than a basketball team, have now lost four straight and fall to 2-7. Last season, Connecticut won the WNBA regular-season Eastern Division championship. But after dismissing Mike Thibault, who has gone to D.C. and completely reversed the fortunes of the Washington Mystics, the only team in the league with a worse record than Phoenix last year, while the Sun are in very real jeopardy of missing the postseason, falling to 2-7, tied with the defending WNBA Champion Indiana Fever for the worst record in the league.
What a difference a year makes, huh?
Last night it was all Phoenix from the very beginning. The Sun, playing without three of their core players—Renee Montgomery, out with a sprained ankle, Tan White (broken finger) and Kara Lawson (knee)–could not match up against the more talented Mercury, who also feature former Temple star Candice Dupree to form Phoenix’s “Big Three.” In addition, Australian star Penny Taylor has returned to the lineup for the Mercury after missing last year with a knee injury.
The Mercury sprinted out to a 25-18 lead after the first quarter—on pace for a 100-point game, something that just doesn’t happen in the WNBA—and were leading 38-34 late in the second quarter when the Sun ended the period with an 8-0 run to close within six, 38-32, at intermission. But Phoenix came out of the locker room and opened the third period with a 12-4 run to open up a 15-point advantage and never looked back.
Sun superstar Tina Charles led all scorers with 25 points, but was abysmal from the field, shooting just (3-18) from the floor. She also grabbed 13 boards for her customary double-double. Her 19 points from the charity stripe was the second-most prolific free-throw-shooting performance in WNBA history, just a notch behind the 22 freebies dropped in by Cynthia Cooper of the Houston Comets vs. Sacramento in 1998.
According to Mercury head coach Corey Gaines, Charles might be the beneficiary of some coddling in the paint by the WNBA referees.
“[LeBron James] doesn’t even get calls like Charles did,” said Gaines after the game, reaching for something to complain about. “Has he ever shot 24 free throws in a game? And he goes to the hole hard.”
As if Charles does not.
“Most of their fouls were hard fouls, [but] I was surprised how many times I got to the line,” noted Charles after the game. “I had a feeling it had to be some kind of record.”
Ally Hightower added 13 for Connecticut, which shot just 26.9 percent from the field (18-for-67, including just 2-for-11 from beyond the 3-point arc).
Taurasi and DeWanna Bonner led the Mercury with 19 points apiece, while Dupree added 18. Griner scored nine points and grabbed five boards before fouling out. She also had two blocked shots. Bot perhaps more importantly, her 86-inch wingspan affects shooting and passing angles the likes of which the WNBA has never before seen.
“I told Brittney [who fouled out] that this was a learning experience, and to start throwing your body into people,” said Gaines.
“It’s very disappointing,” said Charles of her team’s 2-7 start out of the gate. “I’ve been here before [and] t’s not how you start; it is how you finish. We just have to keep playing hard and keep approaching practices the way we have been doing and see if we can come back from this.”
The Sun hope to get back on track Tuesday night when they host rookie Skylar Diggins, the long-time UConn nemesis out of Notre Dame, Candice Wiggins and the Tulsa Shock. The game was originally scheduled for 8 p.m., but tip-off at the Mohegan Sun has been pushed up to 7 p.m. There will be no live television, but the game will be streamed live at WNBA Live Access.