Pondexter’s Heroics Lift Mercury, Force Game 5

Phoenix 77, Detroit 76

PHOENIX, Sept. 13 (AP) -- With the poor-shooting Phoenix Mercury on the verge of elimination, coach Paul Westhead decided to run the offense through Cappie Pondexter.

It was a wise move.

Pondexter scored a game-high 26 points, including a driving bank shot with 21 seconds to play, and the Phoenix Mercury defeated the Detroit Shock 77-76 on Thursday night to force a deciding fifth game in the WNBA finals.

The finale is Sunday afternoon in Auburn Hills.

"I'm a winner,'' said Pondexter, an All-Star in each of her first two seasons. "When the game's on the line, I feel like I can win every time.''

Now the Mercury will try to become the first team in WNBA history to win a title on the road.

Detroit, which won championships in 2003 and 2006, goes home to the Palace of Auburn Hills, where it is 5-1 this postseason. The only loss was a 28-point rout by the Mercury in Game 2.

Detroit coach Bill Laimbeer said his team was doomed by 18 turnovers, many against a zone defense.

"You have to be more focused than that,'' Laimbeer said. "If we had been taking care of the ball, we would be celebrating right now. But we didn't and we move on and play another game.''

Plenette Pierson, a former Mercury player, scored 23 points in a reserve role for Detroit.

Diana Taurasi added 20 points for the Mercury, who have not lost consecutive games since the two games before the All-Star break.

The Mercury used a run-and-gun attack to reach the finals. But when their shooting slumped for a second straight game, Westhead decided to go with a half-court offense.

And that meant putting the ball in Pondexter's hands - and the game on her shoulders.

"It was all going through Cappie's hands,'' said Westhead, whose team won despite shooting only 38 percent from the floor. "We made that decision because we have great faith in her ability to take the ball hard to the basket and make something happen. She's just a tireless player going to the rim. She's just a tenacious player.''

Pondexter turned in one big play after another as a tense, tight game moved into the final minutes.

With 1:55 to play and Phoenix trailing 74-70, Pondexter found Kelly Miller for an open 3-pointer to pull the Mercury within a point.

Detroit was still ahead 74-73 when Pierson turned the ball over with 51 seconds to go.

On the next possession, Pondexter hit a five-footer from the left baseline to put the Mercury up 75-74.

After Detroit's Deanna Nolan answered with a 16-footer, Pondexter barreled into the lane and scored to give Phoenix a 77-76 lead.

"She's a closer,'' Taurasi said. "She's been doing it all year.''

Pondexter said she welcomed the pressure.

"I just love having the ball and making things happen,'' she said. "And I just thank the Coach for just giving me the confidence to allow me to do that.''

The Mercury still hadn't survived until Detroit's Shannon Johnson missed a 12-footer at the buzzer, sparking a wild celebration on the floor.

It almost looked as if Phoenix had won the title. It only won a chance to keep playing. But that was good enough on this night.

"Any which way, we needed to win the game, because otherwise there is no other story line,'' Westhead said. "So in light of that, it was scripted about as good as you could.''

The Mercury finished fast, but they didn't start that way.

Phoenix shot 34.7 percent from the floor in an 88-83 loss in Game 3 - matching the worst shooting percentage in Westhead's two seasons as head coach.

The Mercury came out just as cold this time, hitting two of their first 11 shots and finishing the first period 5-for-18 (27.8 percent).

But Detroit was even more out of sync, and the Mercury went on a 14-4 run late in the first quarter and early in the second to take a 22-14 lead.

The Shock found their rhythm in the second quarter, hitting 9-of-19 shots to take a 35-33 halftime lead. But they had missed an opportunity to bury the Mercury.

Detroit guard Katie Smith said the Shock were "disappointed that it was right there and didn't quite seize the moment.''

Before the game, the WNBA assessed Pierson with a flagrant foul I for her Game 3 altercation with Phoenix's Penny Taylor. Pierson and Taylor were each assessed technicals and were fined an undisclosed amount after they squared off with eight seconds remaining in Detroit's 88-83 victory Tuesday night.

Taylor was off her game. The All-WNBA first-team forward was 1-of-9 from the floor in the first half. She finished with six points on 1-for-11 shooting from the floor.

With that confrontation as a backdrop, emotions ran high early in Game 4. Pierson drew another technical foul - along with Taurasi - in the second quarter. The players jawed at each other when they ran down the floor after Taurasi made a jumper.

Pierson, who was the WNBA's Sixth Woman of the Year, was booed heavily when she came into the game in the first quarter. It didn't seem to bother Pierson, who scored 12 points in her first 10 minutes on the floor.

Pierson hit nine of 10 shots from the floor and was 5-of-6 at the line.

"We played good,'' Pierson said. "We helped each other as a team playing defense. I don't know what else to say. There are a lot of positives we can take from this.''

Cheryl Ford, who scored five points and had a game-high 14 rebounds, left the game with an apparent knee injury with 42 seconds to play. Laimbeer said he does not expect her to play in Game 5.