WNBA playoffs: Late free throw sends Mercury to second round behind Sophie Cunningham's hot hand

·7 min read

In the most staggering example of why the WNBA playoffs should do away with the single-elimination early rounds, the No. 5-seeded Phoenix Mercury pulled out an 83-82 win Thursday night in a back-and-forth game against the No. 8 New York Liberty at GCU Arena in Phoenix.

New York’s Sami Whitcomb fouled Phoenix’s Brianna Turner with 0.4 seconds remaining and the game tied at 82. Turner hit the second free throw, and the Liberty's Sabrina Ionescu missed a last-second 3-point heave to send the Mercury to the second round.

The Liberty (12-20), with the worst winning percentage for a team in WNBA postseason history, barely clinched a playoff berth after both the Washington Mystics and Los Angeles Sparks lost on the final day of the regular season. It was New York’s first postseason appearance since 2017. The Liberty won only two games last season.

The Liberty more than held their own on Thursday, keeping pace with the veteran Mercury throughout the game.

But it was Mercury guard Sophie Cunningham who turned on another gear in the third quarter. Midway through the period, Cunningham hit a would-be three that was later waved off after officials called a separate foul and reviewed the play. On the ensuing play, Cunningham hit a no-doubt 3-pointer and was fouled. She completed the four-point play.

A little while later, Cunningham hit another triple then picked up a soft technical foul for yelling after the shot.

Cunningham was 6-for-7 from deep, finishing with a career-high 21 points. She scored 12 points in the third.

Skylar Diggins-Smith scored a team-high 22 points for the Mercury. Brittney Griner nearly completed a triple-double with 16 points, 10 rebounds and six assists.

Liberty forward Betnijah Laney scored playoff career-high 25 points. In her first postseason, Ionescu scored 14 points with 11 assists.

The Liberty took a 41-37 lead into halftime.

Mercury star Diana Taurasi missed the game because of an ankle injury. It is unclear if she will be available for the next round.

The Mercury had to play their first-round playoff game at 7,000-fan capacity Grand Canyon University because of a scheduling conflict at their home arena, Footprint Center. Latin music star Maluma’s Papi Juancho Tour was booked in the downtown Phoenix arena for Thursday.

The Mercury also played on the GCU court with two digital WNBA playoff logos as the only — sometimes — visible indication that this was, indeed, a professional basketball postseason game. Phoenix, a three-time WNBA champion, has made the postseason 16 times in its 25-year history, including in each of the past nine seasons.

The Mercury advanced to the single-elimination second round to face the No. 4-seeded Seattle Storm at 3 p.m. ET on Sunday (ABC). The No. 3 Minnesota Lynx host the No. 6 Chicago Sky in the other second-round game at 5 p.m. ET Sunday on ESPN2. The winners of those games will face the No. 1 Connecticut Sun and No. 2 Las Vegas Aces in semifinal series, beginning Tuesday.

New York's Sabrina Ionescu controls the ball under pressure from Phoenix's Sophie Cunningham during the first half of their first-round WNBA playoff game at Grand Canyon University Arena in Phoenix on Sept. 23, 2021. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
New York's Sabrina Ionescu controls the ball under pressure from Phoenix's Sophie Cunningham during the first half of their first-round WNBA playoff game at Grand Canyon University Arena in Phoenix on Sept. 23, 2021. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Sky advance to second round with rout of Wings

The question for the Chicago Sky was always what version would show up in the 2021 playoffs. The answer so far is a bit of both, but it was the standout version that prevailed and put them into the second round with a 81-64 win over the No. 7 Dallas Wings on Thursday night in Chicago. 

The No. 6 seed Sky trounced to a 21-point lead over the Wings in the first half only to have the Wings pull within four in the third quarter and make it the close contest viewers anticipated. It was a five-point game at the start of the fourth quarter before Chicago poured it on late to break its unfortunate streak of playoff heartbreaks. 

Candace Parker nears triple-double

Candace Parker, playing in her first playoff game with her hometown team, was on triple-double watch from the first quarter and finished with 11 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists and three steals. During her postgame interview on the broadcast, she rightly gave the credit to sixth-year guard Kahleah Copper. Copper scored a game-high 23 points, 12 of which she dropped during the pivotal first quarter. Chicago led, 25-14, after one and 44-29 at the half. 

The Sky shot 45.2% overall, but only 19% (4-for-12) from 3-point range. They're one of only four teams in WNBA history to shoot that poorly from range and are the first to win, via Her Hoop Stats. Their success on the boards, 47-35, was key and Dallas struggled to hit easy shots near the basket. 

It was a Marina Mabrey 3-pointer, her first score of the game, that cut the Wings' deficit to four with 3:16 left in the third quarter. They won the quarter, 21-11, setting up a back-and-forth final period, though they never overcame the hole.  

Arike Ogunbowale, kept to one basket in the first quarter, and Satou Sabally, dealing with an Achilles injury, keyed the response for Dallas. Ogunbowale, fifth in the league at 18.7 ppg, led Dallas with 22 points on 8-for-16 shooting. Sabally came off the bench for 12 points on 5-for-10 shooting with four rebounds and two steals in 22 minutes. At one point in the third quarter, she threw up on the sideline and returned minutes later. She's averaged 24.9 minutes per game, and fewer in recent outings, as she deals with that injury that clearly hampered her late. 

Isabelle Harrison, returning from COVID-19, came off the bench for nine points and 10 rebounds, which led the team. The Wings didn't get much from their starters as two scored nine each and another two didn't score at all and only collected a couple of rebounds.

Chicago used a 11-0 run in the first quarter to take a 19-9 lead they never relinquished. They led by 11 at the start of the second quarter, fueled by offensive movement and a stiff defense. In the first quarter alone, they out-assisted the Wings, 10-2, and kept Ogunbowale silent. Parker was already on triple-double alert with seven points, eight rebounds and four assists. While Courtney Vandersloot went full-court to take on an easy buzzer-beater bucket that shouldn't have been that simple. The league's peak performer in assists for five consecutive years had 17 points, eight rebounds and six assists. 

It wasn't until the 4:12 mark of the second quarter that Ogunbowale scored again. Chicago's defense made everything tough for the youngest squad in the league, and their early shots and easy misses didn't help.

The Sky are heavy title contenders despite their seeding and 16-16 regular-season record. They also had experience on their side. The team has a combined 112 games of playoff experienced compared to 10 for the Wings. It was the Wings' first postseason appearance since 2018, and the first of Ogunbowale and Sabally's already dazzling careers. 

Chicago Sky guard Courtney Vandersloot (22) shoots against the Dallas Wings during the first half in the first round of the WNBA basketball playoffs, Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Kamil Krzaczynski)
Chicago Sky guard Courtney Vandersloot (22) shoots against the Dallas Wings during the first half in the first round of the WNBA playoffs on Sept. 23, 2021, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Kamil Krzaczynski)
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