Sophie Cunningham changed the momentum of the Phoenix Mercury’s eventual first-round win of the playoffs against the New York Liberty at the Grand Canyon University Arena on Thursday night when she converted a 4-point game that reduced Mercury’s deficit. to three with 5:38 to go in the third quarter.
Cunningham’s three-pointer was canceled after a review found a foul for the shot just 10 seconds earlier. She went for the home run, trying to regain the momentum her team lost when the call was quashed, and she knocked it out of the park. It was the second of six threes for her that night, as she missed just one shot from outside the arc en route to 21 points off the bench. She averaged just 5.6 during the regular season and her highest point in the previous season was 17.
“The energy just wasn’t there in the second half,” Cunningham said. “You win or you go home. Honestly my biggest thing was bringing the energy and taking the ball to Sky (lar Diggins-Smith) and BG (Brittney Griner) when they need it. But then I just found it. . .. If I’m open, I’m going to shoot the ball.”
Cunningham’s next trey came just under a minute later, giving Phoenix a two-point lead. She got a technical foul for her party immediately after, but made up for it with her fourth triple of the game 38 seconds later, a bucket that gave the Mercury a one-point lead.
Cunningham couldn’t stop pushing her shot, even though she had the hot hand, leaving Diggins-Smith (22 points, five assists) and Griner (16 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, three blocks), the team’s superstars, the also concerned. Her next 3-point attempt was the miss at 6:13 in the fourth. Her fifth mark brought the Mercury within one at 3:39 to go and her sixth gave them a one point lead at 1:13 remaining. Each three meant so much, especially the last one.
“She’s an excellent read to us and brings energy to both sides of the game,” Diggins-Smith said of Cunningham. “It is no surprise to us. When she’s open, we’re confident she won’t miss two in a row. … The next one was more important than the last it seemed and the audience really got involved.”
Diggins-Smith followed Cunningham’s last three with a layup with 50 seconds to play, giving Phoenix a three-point lead. However, Betnijah Laney, perhaps proving that New York, at least for this season, was her team and not Natasha Howard’s or Sabrina Ionescu’s, confidently buried a three that tied the game with 2.7 seconds left. to go. That brought her to 25 points.
Diana Taurasi, who did not play due to her ankle injury, was then seen on the sidelines frustrated, but Phoenix would eventually come through. Griner made a nice pass to Brianna Turner who went for a lay-up and made a mistake by Sami Whitcomb with 0.4 seconds left. Turner made one of the two free throws and then Griner made the game-saving close-out on Ionescu without fouling the buzzer. Ionescu’s deep, desperate act didn’t come close to the brink, and Phoenix won 83-82.
The Mercury will face the Seattle Storm in the second round (ABC) at 3 p.m. Saturday.