UNCASVILLE, August 23 – It was nothing new to those Connecticut fans who have been watching Diana Taurasi for the past 18 seasons. For four seasons, Connecticut fans cheered for Taurasi as she played with abandon, passion and skill in the blue and white of the UConn women’s basketball team, helping the Huskies win three straight NCAA titles from 2002-04.
For the past 14 years, she has been torturing the opposition in the WNBA with the Phoenix Mercury, who were blessed to draft her with the first pick in the 2004 draft.
As usual, Taurasi received a rousing cheer from the fans of the Connecticut Sun in pregame introductions in Thursday’s second round WNBA playoff game at the Mohegan Sun Arena.
And then, the Sun fans cringed as Taurasi scored 27 points to help the Mercury eliminate the Sun from the WNBA playoffs for the second year in a row, 96-86. Two days earlier, Taurasi had 26 points as the Mercury eliminated Dallas in the first round.
Phoenix advances to the WNBA semifinals against top seeded Seattle beginning on Sunday. The Sun haven’t been among the final four teams in the WNBA playoffs since losing to the Indiana Fever in the 2012 Eastern Conference finals.
It was a nip-and-tuck game with 18 lead changes and seven ties. The Sun led by as many as seven points but they could never get away from the Mercury – in part thanks to Taurasi.
Four times, Taurasi hit shots that cut the lead to three points or less. Twice, her shots gave the Mercury the lead. She hit 10-of-16 shots from the field and was 5-of-10 from three-point range.
At the age of 36, the 6-foot guard doesn’t look like she is slowing down one bit.
“She amazes me really every single day,” Phoenix coach Sandy Brondello said. “To be able to do what she continues to do at such a high level at her age is amazing. When we need her to score, she scores, when we need her to get us into our sets and make the appropriate play, she does it. In that fourth quarter, I’m not even sure that she took a shot. (She didn’t) It shows a lot about her and her competitiveness.”
Taurasi has won three WNBA championships with Phoenix with the most recent coming in 2014. Thursday night against the Sun, she scored 20 or more points in the playoffs for the 35th time in her career.
She didn’t take a shot in the fourth quarter because the Mercury was feeding the ball to 6-foot-9 Brittany Griner, who scored 21 of her 27 points in the second half. DeWanna Bonner had 16 of her 23 points in the second half along with a game-high 18 rebounds. Taurasi had 10 points and three assists in the third quarter.
Taurasi had just two rebounds but one was a huge one with 3:16 remaining in the game as she outdueled Connecticut’s 6-foot-6 Jonquel Jones for the rebound after a Courtney Williams miss. Phoenix teammate Stephanie Talbot had just tied the game at 84-84 with a long three-point shot.
Thanks to Taurasi, the Mercury got the ball and took the lead for good on a six-foot jump shot from Griner.
“She will do whatever it takes to win and I don’t know if I have seen anyone with the will to win bigger that what hers is and she is so critical for our success,” Brondello said. “I have no words for Diana and it just shows too, locked in defensively and she gets the rebound over Jonquel (Jones) in a key moment of the game.”
Phoenix outscored the Sun, 12-2 in the final 3:16. The Sun missed their final five shots from the field, had a key shot blocked by Griner with 1:53 remaining and had a turnover.
Taurasi improves to 13-0 in her WNBA career in series-ending games – single-elimination games, game 3 in best-of-3 series and game 5 in best-of-5 series.
“A lot of it is luck, a lot of it is having great teammates,” Taurasi said. “You don’t do it alone in this sport you have to rely on your teammates and your coaches.
“I think we relish these moments where it’s up to you if you want to keep playing. It is up to you. It’s up to the group. Do you want to come back tomorrow, and go to Seattle and play the best team in the league? There was a moment there where we could have easily said, we are good, we had our good moment this season. Let’s go back to Phoenix and get ready for USA Basketball, get ready for the overseas trip,” she said.
“You get to make that decision and I have been really lucky to have great teammates.”
Taurasi averaged 20.6 points a game this year – her highest scoring average since 2011 and she sank more than 100 three-point shots this season for the second time in her career. She is just the second WNBA player to average more than 20 points a game since Houston’s Cynthia Cooper did it. The only NBA players to do that have been Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Karl Malone and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
“She got herself ready to play (this season),” Brondello said. “If you look at her body, she takes care of it and I think that is what a lot of the younger players can look up to. It doesn’t matter about your age, if you want to continue to play at a high level, take care of your body, do the little things and keep doing what she does. She is on another planet that is why she is called the GOAT (greatest of all time).”