The roller coaster that was the Phoenix Mercury’s 2013 season is now in the record books, ending in the Western Conference Finals with its 14th-straight loss to the Minnesota Lynx.
The Mercury dropped its first three games this season, before winning eight of nine. Then it lost six of seven, the swing that led to the eventual firing of Corey Gaines on Aug. 8. The team would finish 9-4 under Russ Pennell to end the year, including 6-1 at home, and hold opponents to a league-low 38 percent shooting.
Penny Taylor would also miss 24 games due to a knee injury, and the team waived second-year point guard Samantha Prahalis July 18 and signed rookie Jasmine James from Georgia.
“I’m proud of where we came from,” Pennell said after Sunday’s loss to the Lynx. “I had the job 24 hours before the game. That first game against Tulsa, was nothing more than me standing on the sideline asking Julie (Hairgrove) what was everybody’s name. I had to call them by their school. I think we grew together really quickly and came together in doing what we asked them to do.”
Diana Taurasi finished second in the WNBA in both scoring and assists (20.3 and 6.2 per game), of which the latter was a career best. She became the first player in history to rank in the top two in those categories and also became the quickest player to surpass the 6,000-point plateau for a career.
“It was a strange year, it was a little weird,” Taurasi said. “The story didn’t end the way we wanted it to, but I’m proud of everyone in that locker room. When things were not going our way through the season, we worked through it. When they made the coaching change, it could have easily been a forgone season, but we stood with it, and I’m happy with the way we fought throughout the season.”
Obviously - and certainly the tallest - story of 2013 was the emergence of No. 1 overall draft choice Brittney Griner, who put together one of the most celebrated collegiate careers in history at Baylor.
The 6-foot-8 Griner averaged 12.6 points and 6.3 rebounds in 27 games, missing seven matches with a left knee sprain. Her franchise-record 81 blocks led the WNBA, and she also dunked twice, both coming in her much-anticipated debut – a loss to the Chicago Sky and Elena Delle Donne, who would be named Rookie of the Year. Her scoring high was 26 in a June 25 win at San Antonio.
“I think the biggest thing for her is she has to get physically stronger,” Pennell said of Griner. “I believe that is going to help out as much as anything. She just doesn’t have the brawn or the strength to hold her position long enough. She’s constantly fighting to get to a spot, that we’ve asked her to get to, that post players need to get to, and right now, she’s not able to do that. She knows she needs to do that.
“When you come out of that, she’s supposed to be the face of the league.There’s a lot of people who want her to be the women’s equivalent to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Learning how to handle that in four months, is a lot to ask for in a young player, but I will tell you this. She has been absolutely great with her attitude, I’ve never seen her turn down an autograph, a picture, and she is learning how to be a professional.”
Taurasi also discussed Griner’s growth over the season.
“Brit’s got a long way to go, and that’s good for us because she hasn’t scratched the surface of how good she’s going to be, how dominant,” Taurasi said. “This was a big awakening for her, a really good one, I think she’s going to come away with the things she needs to work at, and now she’s going to head over to China, and I’m pretty sure she’s going to come back a better player.”
This spring, Griner became just the third woman in NCAA history to win the Wade Trophy multiple times, joining Lynx guard Seimone Augustus, who did it at LSU.
“There is a lot of potential,” Augustus said of Griner. “Playing international will make her better, everybody talks about her strength, she’s going to reach her potential and take this league to new heights as everyone has expected.”
Besides the All-Stars Taurasi and Griner, power forward Candice Dupree led the team in rebounding (6.4 per game), while averaging 15.2 points, and 6-foot-4 DeWanna Bonner brought 14.5 and 5.8 per night.
Aug. 20, the Mercury also had three players record double-doubles for the first time in franchise history (Taurasi, Dupree and Griner).
Taurasi, Griner, Dupree, and Bonner will take part in the training camp for the national team this weekend in Las Vegas. Team USA coach Geno Auriemma and his staff chose 33 players to assess, in determining the team that will compete in the 2014 FIBA World Championships in Turkey.