Mercury Receive Rings But Fall to Sparks
Posted: May 17, 2008
Despite the end result, the start of the Mercury’s title defense still managed to have a nice ring to it on Saturday. Prior to the team’s afternoon affair against the Sparks, the team received their much anticipated championship rings in front of 13,749 screaming fans.
The attendance ranked second all-time in Mercury home openers, trailing only Phoenix’s first game in franchise history back in 1997. The large turnout helped make for an emotional and unforgettable afternoon.
“It was a great ceremony and you could see a lot of people worked hard to put it together,” Mercury General Manager Ann Meyers Drysdale said. “It’s always tough preparing yourself emotionally for something like that and I think the video was really, really well done.”
Center Tangela Smith agreed, “It was my first time involved in something like that and it was really emotional. It was tough because you’re experiencing all these emotions and have to keep in mind you’ve got a game to play in a little while.”
Smith appeared just fine in the early going for Phoenix, scoring the team’s first two field goals of the contest. The 2007 acquisition contributed 12 points overall, and was big underneath the boards pulling down seven rebounds. The effort wasn’t enough, however, as the Mercury fell on their newly laid hardwood, 99-94.
Cappie Pondexter led all Mercury scorers, finishing with a line of 32 points, seven assists and three rebounds. Like Smith, Pondexter also said the pre-game ceremony was an emotional one, but her focus is now on 2008.
“I was kind of nervous having never been in a situation like that before,” the All-Star told phoenixmercury.com. “To be honest, I’m kind of glad it’s over with because now we can focus on this season and bringing home another one.”
Pondexter then pointed to a framed poster next to her locker featuring two WNBA Championship trophies and the phrase: Double Vision.
“This is our motivation, this picture here. Double vision is what we have right now and we want to win another championship, that’s our goal.”
WESTHEAD RETURNS TO THE VALLEY
Among those partaking in Saturday’s ring ceremony was former Mercury Head Coach and current Seattle SuperSonics assistant Paul Westhead. Westhead began his career with the Mercury in 2006 and ended on a high note by coaching the team up until their 2007 WNBA Championship.
“It was a great experience,” Westhead said of his time in the Valley. “The first year we came up short and last year were able to put everything together, particularly in the second half of the season. They were a great group to work with and proved when you have very good players who play together, good things happen.”
No surprise that Westhead’s appearance was well received by the Phoenix crowd, who now hope the team’s new head coach and former Mercury assistant, Corey Gaines can enjoy similar success. One individual who’s certainly in his corner is Westhead, who Gaines has both played and coached under.
“I think Corey’s going to have a terrific year,” Westhead said. “It’s never easy to win a championship and it’s definitely not easy to defend one. I think everyone will be trying to knock off the reigning champs, but I think Corey knows how to coach and I think he has a good group of players who are going to be tough to beat.”
DEFENDING CHAMPS ON EVERYONE’S RADAR
Westhead is not the only one who believes teams will be giving the Mercury everything they’ve got this season. Players believe the team - whose fans are known as the X-Factor - will now have a big X on their backs thanks to their 2007 title.
Diana Taurasi's new jewelry will not go unnoticed by other WNBA teams.
“In any league when you’re the defending champions, people come out to prove a point when they play you,” Diana Taurasi said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt this year is going to be tough.”
Taurasi has worn that defending-champion bulls eye before, specifically in her time at the University of Connecticut where she helped the Huskies to three-straight NCAA Championships.
“It’s a different mindset you have to have,” Taurasi said. “You’ve got to take what you did last year and apply it while keeping the confidence you have in knowing you’re capable of beating the best teams in the league. We have the same core coming back for the most part and are excited and think we can do it.”
Fellow All-Star Cappie Pondexter agreed that the mentality of this team will have to be strong throughout the 2008 season if the team hopes to repeat as champions.
“We’re the defending champs with the x on our backs and teams are going to be out to get us,” the guard said. “The West is going to be competitive but we have to focus on us and not what everybody else is doing. If we do that, we’re going to give our best performance.”
MERCURY BATTLE ADVERSITY IN LOSS
Although Taurasi and Pondexter did not have it easy in the week leading up to Saturday’s Opener, the final boxscore won’t show any signs of fatigue for either all-star.
Pondexter had been playing overseas in the Women's EuroLeague, and didn’t return to the Valley until late Friday night. Despite not enjoying a single practice with the team, Pondexter still finished with an impressive 32 points and seven assists.
“I actually didn’t meet with Cappie until 9:30 this morning,” Mercury Head Coach Corey Gaines said following the team’s 12:30 game. “I wasn’t worried with Cappie though, she’s a trooper. I showed her a couple of plays this morning and she told me she was ready. She scored 32 points tonight and I can’t wait to see what she does with a couple hours worth of sleep.”
Pondexter had trouble departing Turkey late Friday night, but said before the game she didn’t expect it to be an issue.
“I’m working on three hours of sleep but I’m sure it won’t be a problem,” Pondexter said just before the contest. “My trip overseas was a lot of fun and right now I’m just glad to be back in Phoenix.”
As predicted, the frequent flyer miles acquired by the former Rutgers standout were not a problem, although the guard does expect it to catch up with her.
“I’m probably going to feel it tonight,” Pondexter said. “I rode all the adrenaline through the game today and am glad coach already told us we’ll have tomorrow to rest up. I have a feeling I’m going to need it."
Taurasi’s week meanwhile wasn’t much easier and included a brief stop at the hospital to handle a quick scare.
“I had a little stomach virus so spent Thursday night in the emergency room,” Taurasi said. “That was kind of a setback but I’m starting to feel pretty good again.”
Unlike Pondexter, Taurasi didn’t get off to the strongest of starts, missing her first six shots from the field. The All-Star did manage to bounce back, however, and finished with 24 points in the losing effort.
“I think we have a lot of things to work on still but I was really glad with our performance today,” Taurasi said. “I thought we played really well together and we definitely have something to build on.”
CELEBRITY SIGHTINGS APLENTY AT OPENER
Although it was an afternoon game, the stars were shining for the Mercury on Saturday. Among those in attendance were Suns All-Star Amaré Stoudemire, former Suns Dan Majerle and Mark West, boxing legend Muhammad Ali and Eagles Pro Bowl quarterback Donovan McNabb.
Donovan McNabb was among the celebrities in attendance for Saturday afternoon's Mercury game.
McNabb, who makes his home in the Valley, said although he missed the ring ceremony which opened the game, he was glad the team was recognized for its efforts.
“I can only imagine how that felt for them,” McNabb said. “Congratulations to them, they had a great season and when their two main scorers play well they’re a hard team to slow down. I’m excited for the team and Arizona in general.”
Former Phoenix players turned current broadcaster and Vice President of Player Programs, Majerle and West also enjoyed the game from the comfort of their courtside seats.
Like McNabb, West also missed the ring ceremony but said he was proud of the Mercury and glad to see such a large turnout for the opener.
“I think it’s been very exciting and I think it’s a carryover from last year’s championship,” the former center said. “They won the championship on the road but throughout the playoffs last season you definitely saw how this city took to this team and I hope that continues.”
Majerle was also glad to see the 13,749 fans which showed up to cheer on the Mercury, and said this team is one he’s grown close to over the years.
“I’ve always been impressed with this team,” Thunder Dan said. “I’ve had the opportunity to work out with them and practice with them in the past and have always been impressed with their skills and think they’re great players.”
As far as which Mercury player best reminds the All-Star sharpshooter of himself, Majerle went with the former UConn Huskie herself, Diana Taurasi.
“I tried to play that all-around outside-inside game which she does so effectively. What’s always impressed me most with Diana though is her court awareness.”