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Basketball is a game of runs and no one knows that more than the Phoenix Mercury, a team that rattled off an undefeated August with 10 straight wins only to limp down the stretch as losers of three in a row. The question at hand heading into the playoffs was, which run would end or continue?
Enter Sophie Cunningham.
In a game of runs during Thursday’s first-round matchup with the New York Liberty, Cunningham not only hit just about every shot she took, she emotionally catapulted the Mercury to the next round of the WNBA Playoffs. She finished with 21 points on 6-of-7 shooting from 3-point range in just 22 minutes. It was a postseason performance that should be recognized as one of the all-time greats in Arizona sports history.
That isn’t an understatement. To be in GCU Arena during the third quarter as the Liberty were grooving offensively was the equivalent to being on a bad date: You committed, but you don’t really want to be there anymore. That’s how rough it started going for the Merc as just about every shot out of a Brittney Griner double-team refused to fall.
Then, Griner found Sophie Cunningham open at the top of the key and everything changed. Cash, plus the foul. Momentum swing initiated.
The next several possessions would find Cunningham open in the corner, on the wing, then a designed play to the opposite wing, each resulting in makes, each setting fire to a once dormant crowd.
Cunningham received a technical after one 3 for talking trash to DiDi Richards of the Liberty. You’d talk shit too if you were in the zone like that. It was that passion that ultimately led to the Mercury narrowly defeating New York by a single point.
“I really didn’t say anything,” Cunningham said after the game.
While her words said one thing, her body language implied another. It was that body language that completely turned the tide for Phoenix during the game. The waving of the hands up and down to get the crowd hyped after another 3, an enthusiastic flex as she implored her teammates to step up, and, of course, a stare-down at her opponent to acknowledge there would be no letdown from this team.
Of course, this night all goes for naught had it not been for the passing of Griner, not only to find Cunningham on several occasions out of aggressive Liberty double-teams, but to find Brianna Turner under the basket in the waning seconds for what ultimately proved to be the game-winning play. Griner had a double-double herself with 16 points and 10 rebounds, but the 6 assists are what proved to be crucial.
Ebbs and flows, the beauty of basketball. This WNBA playoff game had everything and did not disappoint. If you didn’t watch it, you missed out. The country has taken notice, as WNBA ratings have surged across the country to the tune of a 49 percent increase, per ESPN. That’s why local ballers like Chris Paul, Deandre Ayton and Devin Booker have frequented many Mercury games. Not because they have to, but because they appreciate the game and what these women put into it. It’s a craft, and one any real hoophead respects.
The Mercury have lived a life of runs all season and have now put themselves in another one-game playoff against the Seattle Storm on Sunday. Diana Taurasi continues to be questionable and will be a game-time decision once again. She can thank Sophie Cunningham for extending the season for at least one more game and allowing us at least one more opportunity to see the G.O.A.T. because of her own G.O.A.T. performance.
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