Mercury Rally to Defeat Comets

By Stefan Swiat, PhoenixMercury.com
Posted: July 8, 2008

When you think of the Phoenix Mercury, you think Diana Taurasi.

It's not just that she is the league's leading scorer and one of the most colorful women in the game, but she always seems to put an imprint on every game. And Tuesday was no different.

The First Team All-WNBA guard exploded for 15 points in the fourth quarter to lead the Mercury to a 99-94 comeback victory over the Houston Comets in the sixth annual Mercury Matinee. Taurasi finished with 30 points on 9-of-19 shooting to go along with her five rebounds, six assists, three steals and three blocks.

But where Taurasi stepped up the most was during crunch time, making a series of pivotal plays in the final minute to secure Phoenix's first win in three games. First, the former Husky drilled a 3-pointer with 42.6 seconds remaining to put the Mercury up by three.

Then on the next possession, Taurasi blocked a Comet player's drive to the hoop, grabbed the rebound and made a full-court pass to teammate Cappie Pondexter for a layup with just 25.6 ticks left on the clock. The play broke Houston's spirit and gave the Mercury the cushion necessary to hold on for their ninth victory of the season.

"I told the players at the beginning of the year that we have two dragons on our team with Cappie being one and Dee (Taurasi) being the other," Mercury Head Coach Corey Gaines said. "She comes through and I just try to give her enough rest so she can do that at the end."

Taurasi humbly deflected the praise, instead crediting her teammates for their heroics.

"Everyone came in and made winning plays," Taurasi said. "And that's how you win games."

Her stellar play is nothing new for Mercury fans, who have watched her torch opponents for four previous seasons. In fact, Taurasi set yet another milestone in her short, yet illustrious tenure in Phoenix on Tuesday, scoring the 3,000th point of her career, while becoming the fastest player in the WNBA to reach that total.

Taurasi reached her 3,000th point on a free throw with 6:43 left in the third period. The former No. 1 pick was the second fastest to 2,000 points, taking slightly longer than Storm forward Lauren Jackson. However, Taurasi reached the 3,000 milestone in her 151st career game, while it took Jackson 161 games.

Her 30-point outburst marked the 16th time she has totaled that amount in a game, tying her with Cythia Cooper for second on the all-time list. Taurasi only trails Jackson (20 times) for the most 30-point games in WNBA history.

While Taurasi keeps etching herself further into the record books, it is the idea of repeating as champs that fuels her fire. The three-time All-Star was named Western Conference Player of the Week for the third time in 2008 a week ago, making her the only player to win the award multiple times this season.

And from the way that she has started this week, it looks like her fourth award might be heading her way shortly.

Matinee Idols

The defending WNBA Champions, a come-from-behind victory, two Olympians, a meal deal and a mascot’s birthday were just some the reasons fans turned out in droves to see Phoenix host Houston at 12:30 p.m. on Tuesday.

The franchise’s sixth annual Mercury Matinee was a tremendous success, luring approximately 11,000 children from the Valley to the game. The lower-level tickets were reportedly sold out, making it the third consecutive year that the Mercury were able to accomplish that feat.

The contest offered a special meal deal that included a hot dog and a soda with the purchase of a ticket to the game. The day also commemorated the birthday of Scorch, Phoenix’s eight-foot tall mascot. Fans were invited to sign Scorch’s card in the Casino Arizona Pavilion and enjoy the day with him.

Le'coe On a Roll

When the word leaked out that All-WNBA forward Penny Taylor would miss at least the first half of the season to train for the Australian National Team in the Olympics, gasps could be heard from Mercury fans everywhere. The team not only lost its second leading scorer and rebounder, but also the sixth-best shooter in the league from the floor.

So the Mercury front office and coaching staff received the daunting task of replacing Taylor, while also leaving room for the possibility that she may re-join the squad after the Olympics.

Enter Le’coe Willingham. The fifth-year veteran was signed as a free agent after playing her first four seasons with the Connecticut Sun. After averaging two points, two rebounds and 8.1 minutes a game in Connecticut, Willingham has erupted in Phoenix, collecting 6.5 points and 6.7 rebounds in 25.8 minutes. She even recorded her first double-double, posting 12 points and 12 boards in a game earlier this season against the Sparks.

“I know it’s tough for her replacing one of the top 5 players in the world, but she’s giving me all that she has got,” Gaines said. “She does all of the dirty work. “

The reason the Mercury went after her was because of her ability to rebound and to get up-and-down the floor. A former track star in high school, Willingham loves to run and frequently beats opponents down the court. She is also an incredibly efficient shooter, leading the league in field goal percentage.

But one of her most valuable traits resides in her ability to grab offensive rebounds, ranking third in the WNBA in that category. Her talent was on display Tuesday, securing an offensive rebound with 48 seconds left in the Mercury’s nail-biter with the Comets. With the game knotted at 90 apiece, her offensive carom led to a wide-open 3-pointer from Taurasi who hit a backbreaking trey.

“I told myself that if this ball comes off I’m going to get this rebound,” Willingham said. “It happened to come off and I got my legs up under her and I was able to get it.

“It allowed Dee to hit a big shot and that was big for us.”

As the second leading rebounder on the team, Mercury fans can expect more of that from the former Auburn Tiger.

"It's not that hard to adjust to a starting role with all of these great players around me," Willingham said. "Every day that passes I get better and better and feel more comfortable."

Any questions or comments for Suns.com's Stefan Swiat? Click here to send him your comments by e-mail.