Fast Start Gives Phoenix WNBA Title

By Mark Heller
East Valley Tribune
Sept. 17, 2007

After 19 years of basketball and three NCAA Tournaments gone sour, Cappie Pondexter couldn’t put a plug in her emotions any longer.

The Mercury’s second-year guard let out years of frustration with a scream. She jumped atop the scorer’s table and shouted back to the few remaining Detroit faithful, pumped her fist three times, and let out one more bellow of jubilation.

In a small way, the Valley can scream with her. Phoenix returned to its high-wire act and steamrolled defending-champion Detroit in a 108-92 victory in Sunday’s deciding Game 5 of the WNBA Finals at the Palace of Auburn Hills.

Perhaps “The Curse,” an unhappy correlation between Phoenix basketball teams and championship trophies, is no more.

At least the Mercury thought so. They popped beer and champagne bottles in their cramped locker room.

“Everything happens for a reason,” Pondexter said. “It’s been a long time coming.”

From grand experiment two years ago under Paul Westhead, to grand celebration planned for Tuesday at US Airways Center, Phoenix altered the landscape of the women’s game — at least for one year — as a determined group of perimeter shooters and sprint specialists stood up to the physicality and head games, and ultimately won with the winning style that got them here.

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“Full circle,” is how a bubbly-soaked Diana Taurasi described it. The team’s emotional leader has now won championships at every conceivable level of play, a prospect which was puzzling to ponder in mid-July as the squad limped along as a .500 team entering the All-Star break.

“Two months ago we were 7-7 (actually 11-9) and asking each other if we could make the playoffs?” Taurasi said. “We challenged each other.”

The result was a 17-2 stretch in the second half of the season and the team’s first playoff berth since 2000, followed by home court advantage.

But there were still questions, internally and externally, about whether Westhead’s radical run-and-gun style could work in the women’s game.

Westhead won an NBA championship with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1980, and has employed this style of play for more than 30 years with varying success.

For a second time in his career, success was measured by sprayed champagne.

“At least my players 27 years ago didn’t worry about getting me, you know, sprayed,” Westhead said. “These players were gunning for me.”

As he’s often done this season, Westhead went back to his standby song of influence: “Drift Away.”

It worked again.

Following consecutive games of sub-standard shooting, Phoenix shot 73 percent in the first quarter in taking a double-digit lead it never relinquished. The Shock tried to start runs in the third and fourth quarters, but Phoenix was too proficient shooting and at the free throw line (29 of 30) to give the Shock a chance.

“They played better, flat out,” Detroit guard Katie Smith said. “The energy, just a pep in their step. They were making shots. They looked like they were just clicking.

“... They obviously, you know, kind of tasted what they wanted and they went for it.”

Pondexter (26 points, 10 assists) was named the Finals Most Valuable Player, by a wide margin. In just her second year out of Rutgers, the explosive guard averaged 22 points, three rebounds and nearly six assists per game.

The Penny Taylor of old returned, as she racked up 30 points (18 free throws). Taurasi had 17 points, seven rebounds and six assists, and Kelly Mazzante had 12 points off the bench.

Some, like Taylor, capped off an impressive year of championships, domestic and overseas.

Others, such as center Tangela Smith, have tasted sour Septembers before, and after a rough start to the season, she found a decade in the WNBA worthwhile Sunday night.

“Oh my God, yes,” she said. “I’m loving this right now.”

COPYRIGHT 2007, EAST VALLEY TRIBUNE. Used with permission.