Mercury Head to Olympic Break With Loss

By Stefan Swiat, PhoenixMercury.com
Posted: July 27, 2008

Normally a regular-season game at the end of July wouldn’t hold so much meaning. But when the Mercury were bested, 88-84, by the visiting Indiana Fever on Sunday evening, it marked the last time Phoenix would play until August 28.

Due to the upcoming Olympics in Beijing, the entire WNBA will take a month’s respite from competition as many of its players go for the gold for their respective countries. And unfortunately for Mercury fans, they’ll have to remain idle before waiting to see if their club can make a run for the playoffs.

If the playoffs were to start before Sunday’s matchup, Phoenix would be sitting two games behind the fourth-place Los Angeles Sparks. Indiana, the league’s stingiest defense, would occupy the last remaining slot in the Eastern Conference. But in a clash between opposing styles, the league’s most prolific offense couldn’t eke out the win, despite receiving 25 points from Diana Taurasi and 21 from Cappie Pondexter.

Taurasi showed her touch from deep, connecting on 5-of-10 from 3-point land to go along with seven rebounds and three steals. Pondexter, wasn’t as hot from outside, but made her presence felt by repeatedly slashing into the lane and drawing fouls. She finished 7-of-9 from the charity stripe.

Phoenix rallied from a nine-point deficit at the end of the first quarter to knot the game at 46 apiece heading into the half. The entire second half was a back-and-forth affair, with the Mercury pulling ahead on a mid-range jumper by Pondexter with 1:25 remaining in the fourth period. However, the Mercury couldn’t hold on, falling just short in the final minute.

“I would say they hit five or six (shots) with one second left on the shot clock,” Mercury Head Coach Corey Gaines said. “It was good defense but they hit five or six of them.”

The story of the game was the Fever’s Tamika Catchings. Catchings, who was bothered earlier this season with an injured Achilles heel, showed no ill effects, totaling 25 points and six assists on 7-of-11 shooting.

“It seemed like everyone was on fire,” Taurasi said. “Did they miss?

“Everywhere I looked Tan White was hitting one, Ebony Hoffman was hitting 3s. I expect Catchings to make them. That didn’t surprise me.”

The Mercury head into the break with a 12-15 record, putting them three games behind the Sparks for the final playoff spot. The defending champions only have seven games remaining when they return from their hiatus to earn a slot in the postseason.

However, the Mercury have shown an ability to defeat the premier teams in the league, boasting a victory over the second-ranked squad in the West, the Seattle Storm, on Friday. But with only four teams possessing the ability to make the postseason and the Mercury sitting in last place, they will have to make up ground quickly as play resumes.

Coach Gaines hopes that the time off will benefit his squad.

“We have practice starting the seventh,” Gaines said. “For us, we need a little break. We didn’t have a training camp so it would be like a training camp for us.”

Olympians

Four Olympians were involved in Sunday’s matchup. Phoenix’s Taurasi and Pondexter will both take part in the upcoming festivities, as will Indiana’s Catchings. Catchings’ teammate, Tully Bevilaqua, will also participate in the Olympics, already having left the Fever to join the Australian National Team. She will join last season’s All-WNBA forward and Mercury fan-favorite Penny Taylor in their country’s pursuit of an Olympic medal.

Needless to say, for both Taurasi and Pondexter, being selected to represent the United States was an honor.

“When you’re standing at opening ceremonies, it is the most electric feeling you’ll ever have,” Taurasi said.

Although Team USA is still the defending gold medalists from the 2004 Olympics, they were defeated by Russia in the 2006 FIBA World Championships. Russia, who brought home the silver, was defeated by a tough Australian team, which is comprised of All-WNBA players Lauren Jackson and Taylor. Because of those recent setbacks, Team USA would like nothing more than to vault back to the position as the world’s best. At least two Americans like their chances.

“The good thing about us is that I think we have 12 humble individuals,” Pondexter said. “We’re going to put the team first and not ourselves individually. We know that when we come together we are the best of the best.”

The women’s team is going to train at Stanford University over the next four days before heading to the 2008 FIBA Diamond Ball Tournament in Haining, China. The squad will open against Japan on August 3 and then Russia on August 4. Should the US advance, they could take on Australia, Mali or China.

“I think USA Basketball has done a great thing by putting together training segments a couple weeks here and a couple of weeks there,” Pondexter said. ”We’ve grown together in the two years since the World Championships.”

Since this is the second time around for Taurasi in the Olympics and in China, she doesn’t believe she’ll be as overwhelmed as before.

“I plan on looking for bootleg DVDs,” she said. “I heard Titanic 9 is out there.

“Beijing is an amazing city. We’ll get to spend some time at Shanghai which is like New York on steroids.”

The women’s Olympic basketball competition tips off on August 9 with the US taking on the Czech Republic at 8:00 p.m. (8:00 a.m. EDT), followed by a matchup with host China on August 11 and a clash against Mali on August 13. On August 15 the US will face Spain before closing preliminary-round play against New Zealand on August 17.

One thing is for sure, Taurasi is not going into the Olympic Games overconfident.

“You have to go into every game a little bit scared knowing that if you don’t play well you are going to get beat,” the one-time gold medalist said. “That’s the only way to go about it.”

Stat Facts

The Mercury is the only club that hasn’t been held under 70 points in a game this season…

The Fever came into the contest losers of three straight, 3-9 on the road and winless against the West (0-5)...

Coming into Sunday, Phoenix has held opponents to 35.7 percent shooting, 7.4 percent under its season’s average. Indiana, however, shot 47 percent from the floor Sunday...

There is one silver lining in the seven games that the Mercury have remaining when they get back from their break. In terms of the winning percentage of the teams the Merc will face when they return, they have the second-easiest schedule of all the team’s in the WNBA...

Speaking of STATs, Suns All-Star Amaré Stoudemire was on hand to watch the Fever game. The former Rookie of the Year sat courtside and signed autographs for eager fans...

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