The Monarchs aren't known for their offensive punch. They are generally described as a scrappy team with a deep, big bench. In fact the fiery Monarch's coach Jenny Boucek says the starting line-up is, "meaningless for our team. We play everybody."
This type of depth limits the Mercury's primary strategy which is to out run an opponent and wear them down over the first 35 minutes of play. Combine that depth with the Monarch's size and and interior strength and this is a tough match up for Phoenix even if as Mercury head coach Corey Gaines explained they only score two ways: at the line or on offensive put backs.
But if that was all the Monarchs had brought with them to Phoenix this game would have been over early. Instead, Kara Lawson and Nicole Powell got hot from behind the line and they combined to go 4 for 4 in the final 5 minutes of the game which cut a 16 point Mercury lead to bring on an over time period.
The pair went 10 for 18 for 56% for the game from down town. A lot of those shots came off offensive rebounds that were kicked out or from the Mercury's defense having to collapse and help on the bigger Monarch players such as Crystal Kelly, DeMya Walker and rookie Courtney Paris (who is huge and every bit the 6'4", 250lb she's listed at).
When the Mercury had to gang rebound and they didn't win possession, the Monarch's shooters were left open. There were some defensive mistakes and lack of communication according to Tameka Johnson but overall you have to tip your hat to any team that shoots 56% from three and find some other way to win. Like leaning on your star players to put up huge numbers in OT for example.
This game was a classic case of bright side vs. dark side.
Yes, the Mercury blew 14 and 16 point leads at the end of the 2nd and 4th quarters. Yes, the Monarch dominated the paint to the tune of 29 to 6 on 2nd chance points. And yes, the Monarch did that all without their floor leader Ticha Penicheiro who is out with a sprained right thumb.
Coach Gaines was happy to get the win but was by no means satisfied saying, "When you are up by 16 you want to put them away then. I think we played a decent game until the last three minutes of the first half."
On the flip side was the win and the fact that the Mercury didn't quit after giving up that lead and instead came out firing in the over time.
Diana Taursi score 8 of her game high 31 in the extra period leading the Mercury to a WNBA record 115 points for the night. After the game Diana said this about her performance, "Sometimes you just get going a little bit....But today I feel it was a lot of people that played well...The strength of our team this year is going to be a lot of people getting involved and we like to score a lot of points. But I think if we spread it around we have 6 or 7 people that can score 20 points on any night. We just have to get to that point where we can trust anybody."
Balance and trust. Two things we said were going to be key to the Mercury season.
You expect Diana to go "Kobe" at big moments just as the Mercury have come to rely on Cappie Pondexter putting up 22 on 50% shooting. The ability of those two super stars to dominate a game has become a staple in Phoenix. As Diana said though, the Mercury are at their best when they get balanced scoring. They got just that tonight with all 5 starters in double figures and DeWanna Bonner putting up 9 off the bench.
They put up those numbers the old fashion way. Only 16 came off fast break points and the Mercury were only 34% from behind the arc. It wasn't hot outside shooting or a break neck pace that broke the scoring record. The Mercury defense generated 19 of those record high 115 off of 15 turnovers but that's not spectacular either. Mostly it was well executed half court offense that almost always saw the team use 15+ seconds on the shot clock combined with going 25 of 27 from the free throw line lead by Cappie's 12 for 12.
This Mercury team might put up a lot of points and they certainly want to jam it down their opponents' throats off turnovers and defensive stops but it's the half court execution that has been most impressive for the league's highest scoring team.
As great as Cappie and Diana were, Le'Coe Willingham was the player of the game. She put up a career high 26 points on 11 for 17 shooting with all of those points coming in the paint and about 8 off fast break run outs. When your team's biggest and strongest paint player is sprinting the floor and getting wide open looks it puts a lot of pressure on the opponent.
Le'Coe credited her big night with letting go and using her force, "I found myself thinking too much and that's not what I do. I do what feels natural and I don't really think about it. Tonight I just had to let go and play freely."
The other player that really stood out for me in this game was reserve forward Brooke Smith. Brooke is not a player that's going to play big minutes and put up big numbers but her had a definite impact on the defensive end. When she entered the game at the end of the 1st period the score was tied and the Monarch bigs were scoring in the paint. Brooke's activity and energy shut that down allowed the Mercury offense to build a 10 point lead. The Monarchs only scored 3 points during Brooke's 7:18 of game play.
"I just try and come in and do whatever I can to help the team like play defense, rebound and bring some energy", said Brooke. The 6'3" Standford grad plays an important role on this team, similar to the energy of Suns bench player Lou Amundson. Coach Gaines said this about Smith, "Brooke is the kind of player who doesn't make mistakes; who knows our offense inside and out and she's going to come in and be steady every time." Brooke is an under-rated offensive player as well. Gaines thinks she has a lot of post moves and a true hook shot.
Brooke's role on this team though is to set screens and do the dirty work. All great teams need these types of hustle players who are willing to do whatever it takes to get a win. Sometimes bench players come in and you don't really notice there impact on the game. So far, Brooke is not that type of player.
With this win the Mercury now lead the league in points and are tied with Seattle and Minnesota for the best record in the West. The Mercury host the Lynx on Wednesday, June 17th at 7pm. If you haven't yet, I highly encourage you to come out and see this team play.
Coach Gaines post game audio