Penny Taylor scored 18 points off the bench for Phoenix in Game 1.
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In a series of stars, Phoenix’s Diana Taurasi shined the brightest on Wednesday night in Los Angeles. The Southern California native scored a team-high 28 points and was the catalyst for Phoenix throughout the game, leading the Mercury to a 103-94 Game 1 win on the road in the Western Conference Finals.
It’s not like the other stars didn’t come to play. L.A.’s Candace Parker equaled Taurasi’s 28 points (on 11-16 shooting) and added 10 rebounds; Tina Thompson, who has played in 38 playoff games in her career, scored a playoff career-high 25 points; Lisa Leslie added 19 points, eight assists and three blocks; and Cappie Pondexter scored an efficient 15 points on 6-of 9 shooting from the field.
As great as the stars played in Game 1, it was the contributions of role players in key moments that helped the Mercury emerge with the win and a huge advantage in this series as it shifts to Phoenix for the next two games.
In a game that was tightly contested from start to finish, L.A. did not lead after Lecoe Willingham put the Mercury up 9-8 at the 7:16 mark of the first quarter. While the Sparks were able to tie the game on numerous occasions, every time they made a run, Phoenix had an answer. And many times the answer came from a player not named Taurasi or Pondexter, the Mercury’s All-WNBA First Teamers.
It was players named Taylor, Smith, Johnson, Willingham and Swanier – along with Taurasi and Pondexter – that came through for the Mercury and hit timely shots. Just as the Sparks were heating up, just as they were ready to take the lead, just as the crowd was ready to erupt, one of these players would hit them with a momentum-killing bucket.
“Every time we made a run, they came back with their own run,” Taurasi said after the game. “Candace and Tina were unbelievable tonight, hit every huge shot, and put us back on our heels. When that happens, you have to respond as a team and today we got a lot of contributions and a lot of big shots from a lot of people.”
Taurasi actually hit the first big shot for Phoenix. After the Mercury went on a 12-0 run to build an 11-point first quarter lead, the Sparks responded by scoring eight straight points over three minutes to pull within three with just over a minute to play in the quarter. Before L.A. could get over the hump, Taurasi hit a jumper to stop the bleeding and keep the Mercury ahead by five.
In the second quarter it was Temeka Johnson who stopped an 8-0 Sparks run with a three-pointer, one of 14 threes that the Mercury would hit in Game 1. Johnson’s three again pushed the Mercury back to a five-point advantage and kept her former team at bay.
Over the next four minutes of the second quarter, the Sparks were able to continue to chip away at the Mercury lead, until they tied it at 44 on a pair of Parker free throws with 1:27 to play in the period. The teams traded buckets over the next minute until the Mercury made a late run to sap all of the momentum the Sparks had built in the quarter.
In the span of 32 seconds, Willingham, Taurasi and Pondexter combined to score seven points and force two L.A. turnovers to close the half with a 53-46 lead.
The second half featured more of the same, but with a few new faces getting involved in the action. After Thompson cut the Phoenix lead to three with 3:32 left in the third quarter, Penny Taylor responded with a three-pointer and a two-point bucket to again push the Mercury advantage to eight points.
Taylor, who played such an integral role on the Mercury’s 2007 championship team, returned to the Mercury midseason after recovering from ankle surgery. The Australian standout – who is regarded by many as one of the top players in the world when healthy – is coming off of the bench for Phoenix this season and providing Mercury coach Corey Gaines with incredible depth.
Taylor, along with Sixth Woman of the Year DeWanna Bonner, helped lead the Mercury to a 29-4 advantage in bench scoring in Game 1 as the Sparks relied heavily on their starters to play the bulk of the minutes. Only Betty Lennox played more than three minutes off the bench for L.A.
After Taylor pushed the lead back to eight, L.A. countered once again, this time with a 7-0 run to shrink the lead to a single point with just over a minute to go in the period. However, Ketia Swanier responded by hitting a three in the closing seconds of the quarter to push the lead to four heading into the fourth. Swanier only scored five points on Wednesday, but chose a perfect time to contribute.
Right after Parker erased the Mercury lead with four quick points to open the final quarter, Tangela Smith hit a layup on the next possession to score her first points of the night. She would go on to score 11 points in the quarter.
After Leslie hit a jumper to tie the game again at 74, it was Taylor and Taurasi that combined to score the next five points in the span of 22 seconds to push Phoenix ahead once again.
Over the next four minutes, the Mercury would hit four shots – all from three-point range – to continue to thwart every Sparks push to regain the lead. Smith, who held the highest three-point shooting percentage in the WNBA this season, hit a pair during the stretch along with Taylor and Taurasi.
The Sparks had one last run left in them as the fourth quarter wound down as Leslie pulled L.A. within two points with two minutes to play. After receiving plenty of help from her teammates all night, Taurasi took over down the stretch as she earned two trips to the free throw line over the next minute and calmly sank all five attempts from the charity stripe to seal the win for the Mercury and send the series to Phoenix with the Mercury needing just one win in two games to advance to the WNBA Finals.
“I know the next game is going to be a battle,” said Gaines after Game 1. “I think we came in and did a good job. I told our players that this is our chance to get them right now and Diana and Cappie and Penny really led the way. Tangela also hit some big threes for us and it was a team effort.”
In a series stocked with star power, it was the collective effort by the Mercury that put them in the driver’s seat of this series.