Letting a 10-point lead evaporate in the closing stages of the third quarter, Diana Taurasi threw up a 50-foot prayer at the buzzer to put the Phoenix Mercury up five, and the team would hold the defending champion Minnesota Lynx scoreless for the next six minutes to win the Western Conference Finals in three games, 96-78, Tuesday night at US Airways Center.
Taurasi put on one of the most-impressive performances of her Hall of Fame career with 31 points on 12-of-17 shooting and a game-high seven assists in leading the Mercury to the fourth WNBA Finals in franchise history and her third.
“There’s always plays in games that turn the tide,” said Taurasi, who is now 7-0 in deciding games wearing a Phoenix uniform. “Tonight, the way we played as a unit on both ends, shows what kind of people we have on this team.”
The Mercury shot 65 percent in the first quarter in taking a 28-21 lead, highlighted with a DeWanna Bonner off-balance three from the corner and a Brittney Griner rebound and put back off a Bonner long-range miss. Phoenix sustained its lead in the second, going up 50-42 with Taurasi, Griner and Bonner each posting similar numbers. Bonner actually recorded 12 of her 14 points in the first half, after her 0-for-6 Game Two.
The third quarter belonged to Lynx guard Seimone Augustus, with her scoring 13 of her team-high 21 points in the period and capitalizing on the drive to the basket that brought the Lynx within two. League MVP Maya Moore, who scored 16, would tie it at 67-67 with a layup, the final play of a 17-7 run over five minutes. Taurasi sank a 21-footer with a minute to play, and after Whalen traveled with two seconds left, Taurasi put up the play of the game, giving her team a 72-67 edge after three.
“We just said we have 10 minutes, we’re going to play every possession as hard as we can, and we locked down,” Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said. “We played team defense and made some shots.”
The Lynx then went until Lindsay Whalen’s driving layup with 4:20 left to break an 18-0 Phoenix run, and Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve was ejected with double technicals with two minutes on the clock.
Whalen, arguably the Lynx’s player of the series, scored 20 and led all players with eight rebounds but could not advance her team to a fourth-consecutive Finals.
“We all wanted it,” Whalen said. “We just felt that we didn’t have that last push in the fourth, we fought back a lot, we tried, but shots weren’t falling and we weren’t able to hit shots.”
Griner also scored 22 points for the Mercury, Candice Dupree posted 14 with seven boards, and Penny Taylor scored 10 points.
The Mercury now awaits the winner of either the Indiana Fever or Chicago Sky in Sunday’s Game One of the WNBA Finals at 12:30 p.m. PT (ABC). The deciding Game Three of the Eastern Conference Finals will be at 4 p.m. Wednesday in Indianapolis (NBATV).