By Mark Carlisle
PHOENIX — The Mercury held on for 72-66 victory Sunday in Phoenix after letting the Las Vegas Aces claw back into the game. Phoenix has won five straight after started 2-3.
“It was not one of our finest games, but we were able to grind out a win. And sometimes that’s what you need to do,” said Mercury coach Sandy Brondello.
Brittney Griner scored 19 points with season-highs in both rebounds, 15, and blocks, seven, including two key blocks in the final minutes to fend off the Aces (1-7) in the team’s first matchup against Phoenix (7-3) since relocating from San Antonio.
The Mercury offense stalled in the second half after an offensive outburst of 50 points in the first half. Las Vegas held Phoenix to 9 points in the third quarter and 22 in the second half, narrowing the lead to 68-64 with three minutes left.
The score stood still for two minutes thanks in large part to Griner blocking Kelsey Plum’s layup off the backboard and rejecting A’ja Wilson near the free throw line.
Diana Taurasi then hit a 3-pointer in the corner to clinch the victory, giving Phoenix a seven-point lead with a minute left.
“Our offense kind of dried up tonight, really,” Brondello said. “It’s been such a strong point for us lately, but when we needed it we buckled down defensively.”
Sunday’s 72 points was the lowest total of the Mercury’s five-game winning streak, its longest since 2014. Phoenix averaged 87 points over the first four wins.
Brondello said she didn’t think the low-scoring second half would be a continuing problem.
“I won’t be going over it because in the next game we can go put 50 up in the second half. It’s just one of those games,” she said. Brondello mentioned fatigue as part of the reason for the slow half.
Aces coach Bill Laimbeer similarly said his team’s defense picked up because of a shift in energy.
“I think it was a combination of they got a little tired and we picked up our energy,” he said.
Laimbeer first said his team did “nothing” well, with a laugh. The Mercury made things difficult for Las Vegas’ two top two scorers, A’ja Wilson and Kayla McBride, who combined to shoot 12 of 38 from the field.
“It’s just one of those days where our whole team, all of our scorers and our shooters didn’t really shoot well,” Laimbeer said. “We got good help from our auxiliary players, but our big guns just had a bad night.”
The Aces as a whole shot the same percentage as Wilson and McBride — 32 percent. The Mercury didn’t finish much higher at 35 percent. Phoenix shot 43 percent in the first half before making only 9 of 35 in the second half — a 26 percent rate.
In addition to Griner’s 19, Taurasi led all scorers with 25 and DeWanna Bonner added 14. It’s the seventh game the trio has each scored 12 or more, which account for all seven of the Mercury’s wins.
Griner’s blocks weren’t the only key defensive efforts for the Mercury.
Phoenix used a combination of power forwards Sancho Lyttle and Camille Little to guard 2018’s first overall pick Wilson. Little, off the bench, ended up playing 21 and a half minutes compared to Lyttle’s 17 and a half. Little was also on the floor for most of the second half until Brondello subbed her out in the final minutes after she’d played for 13 straight minutes.
“I think Sancho usually does a better job than she did tonight, but Camille, we thought she was just a little bit more solid. So, we went with what we thought was most effective,” Brondello said. “But we’ll use them. They’re a great combo. They’ve been really effective for us. If one’s a little down, the other one can step up, and we need that, because there’s so many great 4s (power forwards), so many great post players in this league that you need that interior defender.”
The Lyttle-Little combo gave Wilson her worst shooting night, 5 of 17, since her first game in the league. Wilson finished with 17, seven of the from the free-throw line. She was held to just one point in the first quarter.
Lyttle said limiting the rookie that the young Vegas team is built around entailed staying focused.
“If she’s the focal point, you have to keep your mind intact,” Lyttle said. “She probably touched the ball every possession they had. You just have to play honest and hopefully she misses the shots.”
Little said guarding 2018’s consensus NCAA player of the year wasn’t anything different than she does each night on the floor.
“Every game for me is the same,” she said. “… I’ve been playing this game for a long time. I’ve guarded Tina Thompson, I’ve guarded — she’s a good player, but you know, I’m going to try to make it tough for everybody.”
Wilson said she didn’t differentiate between the two players defending her all game, and not just because of their near-identical names.
“You could ask me who’s guarding me, I probably wouldn’t even see them. I just see a body,” Wilson said.
The two Mercury forwards are alike not just in name, but in style of play. Lyttle said being able to rotate keeps them fresh.
“What I can do, she do and what she can do, I do,” Lyttle said. “I mean it’s refreshing to know that that every time we go we have some fresh legs and fresh lungs.”
Las Vegas’ 19-year-old rookie center JiSu Park had the tall task of guarding the 6 foot 9 Griner. While Griner had a dominant game, she too was limited in the second half, scoring only 5 points compared to 14 in the first half.
After the game, the Talking Stick Resort Arena crowd sang happy birthday to Taurasi, who turns 36 Monday. The league’s all-time leading scorer was also presented on the court with a birthday cake — vegan of course.