Mercury weather the Storm, advance to next round

By Brad G. Faye,
Posted: Aug. 28, 2007

Thanks to 13-for-31 shooting beyond the three-point arc, it was the Phoenix Mercury who made it rain against the Seattle Storm on Sunday, as the team won their first postseason series since 1998.

Phoenix’s red-hot shooting helped them to a 95-89 victory at home, wrapping up a two-game sweep and allowing them to become the first team to advance in the 2007 WNBA Playoffs. The team will go on the road to face the winner of the Sacramento-San Antonio series on Thursday, before returning home for Game 2 on Saturday and Game 3 on Sunday, if necessary.

“I’m just so happy,” Mercury forward Penny Taylor said. “I really felt like Seattle was our toughest opponent all year and the team that gave us the most trouble during the regular season. That’s what makes it all the more special being where we are.”

The Mercury, who closed out the regular season winners of 12 of their last 13 games, have shown no signs of slowing down in the postseason, averaging 98 points per game in their first two contests.

“When we came back from the All-Star break," guard Cappie Pondexter said, "we were all focused on winning and making it happen, and I think everybody bought into that. Since then, we’ve been rolling.”

Fellow All-Star teammate Diana Taurasi also looks at that All-Star Weekend as a defining moment in the season and a key reason why – unlike last season – Phoenix’s late-season surge earned them a postseason berth.

“When you have to depend on other people to win or lose games to get in the playoffs," Taurasi said, "you didn’t do your job and this year we didn’t want that feeling. When we got back from the All-Star Game, we challenged each other to step up and put everything on our shoulders. I think we’ve done that so far.”

Phoenix wasted no time setting the tone early with their offense in Game 2, jumping out to a 27-14 lead after the first quarter. With Taurasi battling foul trouble and Taylor often battling with Storm All-Star Lauren Jackson, the Mercury were led early by Pondexter, who eventually finished with a game-high 25 points.

“Cappie really stepped up,” Taylor said. “It was incredible the way she took the game into her hands early and attacked the basket. She did a great job getting to the free throw line and knocking down those shots which isn’t always easy in a big game.”

Pondexter hit all 10 of her free throw attempts, as the Mercury shot 28-for-33 behind the charity stripe overall. The ability to draw fouls indicative of the aggressiveness Phoenix exhibited throughout the contest, particularly in the early going.

“We definitely made a point of it to come out aggressive, especially early,” center Tangela Smith said. “In the past we’ve had a habit of coming out a little slow when at home and we didn’t want to do that. This is the playoffs and we wanted to pick up the tempo a lot more than we did during the regular season.”

What would prove to be the decisive game in the series did come with a mini scare in the fourth quarter. After leading 51-38 at halftime and as many as 22 in the third quarter, the Storm managed to overcome the deficit and tie the game late.

“We’re always an interesting team," Mercury Head Coach Paul Westhead said. "We never let you go home early. You’ve clearly got to credit Seattle for never giving up.”

The Mercury now await the winner of the Monarchs-Silver Stars series. Phoenix played well against both teams this season, finishing 4-0 against Sacramento and 3-1 against San Antonio. But despite the success, the team understands the postseason is indeed a whole new ballgame.

“Everything changes in the playoffs,” Westhead said. “No matter who wins that series, they’re going to be a real challenge for us.”

According to Taurasi, either opponent will look familiar to the Mercury and both will come out aggressive.

"We played Sacramento and San Antonio four times each this year," the All-Star said, "and in the playoffs everybody knows each other's strengths and weaknesses so well, it pretty much comes down to who wants to go out and go get it."