Mercury Beat Sabrina Ionescu, Liberty in Single-Elimination WNBA Playoff Thriller

Adam WellsSeptember 24, 2021

Phoenix Mercury guard Skylar Diggins-Smith drives past New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu (20) during the first half in the first round of the WNBA basketball playoffs, Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
AP Photo/Rick Scuteri

A late slide at the end of the regular season didn't affect the Phoenix Mercury in the playoffs, as they advanced to the second round thanks to their dramatic 83-82 win over the New York Liberty on Thursday night. 

Brianna Turner's free throw with 0.4 seconds remaining provided the difference in a wild game that featured a combined 15 ties and lead changes in the fourth quarter. 

After a slow start, Sabrina Ionescu acclimated herself very well in her first career playoff game. Last year's No. 1 overall pick dropped 14 points, 11 assists and five rebounds in 35 minutes. 

Ionescu had a chance to win the game at the buzzer, but her three-point attempt fell well short of the basket. 

Notable Game Stats

  • Skylar Diggins-Smith (PHX): 22 points (8-of-18 FG), 5 assists, 4 rebounds
  • Sophie Cunningham (PHX): 21 points (6-of-7 3-pt FG), 3 rebounds, 2 assists
  • Brittney Griner (PHX): 16 points (6-of-8 FG), 10 rebounds, 6 assists
  • Sabrina Ionescu (NY): 14 points (5-of-12 FG), 11 assists, 5 rebounds
  • Betnijah Laney (NY): 25 points (10-of-22 FG), 4 rebounds
  • Natasha Howard (NY): 16 points (7-of-16 FG), 10 rebounds

The fourth quarter turned into a battle between the top two stars for the Liberty and the shooting stars for the Mercury. 

Skylar Diggins-Smith tied the game at 77 on a three with 1:40 remaining. Ionescu immediately answered with a driving layup, but that was followed by Sophie Cunningham's three-pointer to put the Mercury up by a point. 

Another bucket by Diggins-Smith gave Phoenix a three-point advantage. Kia Nurse forced a three with 13 seconds left, but it missed and Rebecca Allen grabbed the rebound. Betnijah Laney answered with a game-tying three with 2.7 seconds left in regulation. 


BETNIJAH LANEY 😱<br><br>πŸ“Ί ESPN2 <a href="https://t.co/9aDY4HkuNz">pic.twitter.com/9aDY4HkuNz</a>

Brittney Griner came into the playoffs after one of the most dominant seasons of her career. The seven-time All-Star finished second in the league in scoring average (20.5), tied for fifth in rebounding (9.5) and first in blocks (1.9). 

While Griner was a dominant force on both ends of the court with 16 points and 10 rebounds, it was the performance of Sophie Cunningham off the bench that lifted the Mercury. 

Phoenix stormed out of the gate with a 21-10 lead late in the first quarter. The Liberty erased that deficit by going on a 31-16 run before the half. 

After New York went up by six early in the third quarter, Cunningham took over by making all three of her three-point attempts and finished with 12 points in the period. 


GO OFF. TRIPLE AND-1 πŸ€‘πŸ€‘ <a href="https://twitter.com/sophaller?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@sophaller</a> <br><br>πŸ“Ί ESPN2 <a href="https://t.co/hjCUZl2lyZ">pic.twitter.com/hjCUZl2lyZ</a>

NBABet @nbabet

Sophie Cunningham (4/4 3PM) is UNCONSCIOUS right now 🎯 <br><br>Her 4th three gives Mercury (-10) the lead! <a href="https://t.co/dTP41LY44F">pic.twitter.com/dTP41LY44F</a>

Despite Cunningham going off, the Liberty continued to hang around. Laney made a huge three in the final minute of the third to get her team back within two heading into the final quarter. 

Reshanda Gray put New York back on top early in the fourth period with a three-point play. 

The superstars for both teams played at their best down the stretch. Diggins-Smith scored 10 of her 22 points in the fourth quarter

Despite the loss, this season was a step forward for the Liberty. They made the playoffs for the first time since 2017 and won 10 more games this year than they did in 2020 (2-20). 

This marked the fifth straight game the Mercury had to play without Diana Taurasi. The 2009 WNBA MVP is still recovering from an ankle injury. 

The Mercury finished the season with three straight losses after winning 10 consecutive games. Two of those losses were against the Connecticut Sun and Las Vegas Acesβ€”the top two teams in the leagueβ€”so there wasn't any great cause for concern.  

To advance to the semifinals, the Mercury will have to beat a Seattle Storm team they lost to 94-85 on Sept. 17. Seattle won two of the three meetings between the clubs in the regular season. 

What's Next

The Mercury will play the No. 4 Seattle Storm (21-11) at the Angel of the Winds Arena on Sunday at 3 p.m. ET.