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Mercury comes back to defeat Atlanta and set franchise win mark

Mercury guard Penny Taylor faces Dream forward Aneika Henry in a jump ball.
Mercury guard Penny Taylor faces Dream forward Aneika Henry in a jump ball.
Scott Mammoser

In a potential WNBA Finals preview, the first-place Phoenix Mercury grinded out a tough win over the East-leading Atlanta Dream, 75-67, Tuesday at US Airways Center.

The win for the Mercury (24-4) set a new franchise-high for victories in a season, eclipsing the 23-11 mark during its 2009 championship run, and it is four short of the league-record 28 won by three teams. The Dream (17-11) is four games ahead of Indiana and Washington atop the East, and was without All-Star center Erika de Souza, who missed her first game of the year, sidelined with an illness.

“I’ve been here for a long time and we’ve won championships, but it’s pretty cool to be on the team that gets the record,” said Mercury guard Diana Taurasi, who scored nine of her 14 in the fourth quarter. “We’ve worked really hard this year, and it’s been a complete team effort. They’re (Atlanta) a good team, they’re athletic, defensively they pressure just as well as any other team in the league, so they do a lot of good things.”

With a season-high crowd of 12,346, many of whom Native Americans cheering for All-Star Game MVP Shoni Schimmel of Atlanta, an Angel McCoughtry three capitalized a 7-0 Dream start.

The Mercury would come back to knot it at 9-9 and take a 23-15 lead after one. Erin Phillips put up a three at the buzzer to increase the lead to 41-29 at halftime, but Atlanta came storming back in the third, outscoring Phoenix 22-6. Tiffany Hayes tied the game at 47-47 from the line with three and a half minutes left, then scored the go-ahead basket a minute later. Schimmel scored to give the Dream a 51-47 lead after three.

As she usually does, Taurasi answered right back, scoring the first five points of the fourth. Then, after Taurasi lost the ball on a no-look pass, Schimmel drained an off-balance three in the corner over her to put Atlanta back up by two. Candice Dupree soon tied it, and back-to-back field goals from Taurasi put Phoenix back up four.

McCoughtry picked off DeWanna Bonner down four in the final minute, but Atlanta could not get off a clear shot, and Brittney Griner moved the lead to six on the other end. Schimmel , McCoughtry and Hayes missed a slew of long-range shots on the final drive to secure the 13th-straight home win for Phoenix.

“We had to dig deep to get away with that,” Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said. “We were playing a little bit more tentatively (in the third quarter), this is a good team (Atlanta) because of their defensive prowess.”

Dupree led the Mercury with 16 points, and Griner finished with 14 points, nine blocks and nine rebounds.

Penny Taylor tied Yolanda Griffith for 20th on the league career-scoring list with her 13 points and also dished a night-high eight assists.

“We maybe came out a little lacking in the third quarter,” Taylor said, “but they’re the type of team that when you give them an inch, they come really aggressively.”

McCoughtry would end up leading all scorers with 19 points, one under her average (which is third in the WNBA), Schimmel scored 13 with five assists, Hayes had 12 points, Sancho Lyttle grabbed 12 rebounds with seven steals, and Aneika Henry also found herself into double figures with a career-high-tying 10 boards.

“When we decide to play our defense, we make it tough for anybody, and we give ourselves a chance,” said Dream assistant coach Karleen Thompson. “We just have to work to get it in our minds that we have to do that for 40 minutes, especially against a team like this at their house.”

Thompson is filling in for head coach Michael Cooper, who is recovering from recent tongue cancer surgery. The Dream’s media relations director mentioned he was doing better.

Phoenix will be at San Antonio at 5 p.m. Thursday before a home rematch with the Lynx (23-6) at 7 p.m. Saturday, of which it leads by one and a half games in the West. Atlanta is at Seattle Thursday.

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