PHOENIX — Of course, it was a bit frightening. When Phoenix’s Brittney Griner took an inadvertent poke in the eye early in Game 2 of the WNBA Finals, she dropped to the floor. And a thought immediately flashed through her mind.
“My teammate in college, Melissa Jones, lost her sight in one eye,” Griner said of the former Baylor guard who was hurt in a 2011 game at Oklahoma. “Hers wasn’t a hit to the eye; she fell and hit her head on the court, and then someone fell on her. I don’t think to this day she still has her sight completely back.
“So, yeah, it’s definitely scary, especially when you get a finger to the eye. I was trying to open my eye, and I was struggling to do that. I was like, ‘Please, let me see something.'”
After a few minutes sitting on Phoenix’s bench, Griner was able to get her right eye open. Her sight, at first a bit blurry, was fully back. And then, to a huge ovation, she returned to the game.
But the pain wasn’t quite over yet for the Mercury center. In the second quarter, Griner was hit in the head in another rebound battle, this time by Chicago’s Sasha Goodlett. Griner said it made her back teeth “clatter together,” and a piece of one tooth chipped off.
And yet when the game was finished, there was Griner, smiling, having scored a team-high 19 points. She also had six rebounds in Phoenix’s 97-68 triumph, which puts the Mercury one victory away from the WNBA title. Game 3 is Friday in Chicago (ESPN2 and WatchESPN, 8 p.m. ET).
“I think maybe last year, it probably would have been a little different,” Phoenix veteran forward Candice Dupree said of Griner’s resilience after being hurt. “There is a possibility she would not have played for the rest of the game.
“We huddled around her, and were saying, ‘Come on, BG, you’re all right.’ Sometimes you gotta give people tough love. I think, emotionally, it would have gotten to her last year. If nothing is broken and you’re not bleeding to death, then you’re OK.”
Dupree was smiling as she said this, but high pain tolerance and a degree of fearlessness really are requisites for professional athletes.
“You’ve got to be that way,” Dupree said, “because people will eat you alive otherwise.”
Griner has accepted that, and she has also made progress with the mental part of dealing with adversity. She didn’t lose her cool. She kept her mind on the task at hand.
“It hurt like hell,” said Griner, sporting a still-bloody scratch on her right eyelid and what looked like the beginnings of a black eye after the game. “But I kept playing. Nothing was going to keep me out of this game.”
And even though Chicago played better than in Game 1, it still ended up a blowout. And Griner had a lot to do with that.
“She’s matured — in a situation like that, being a 23-year-old kid, you’d think it would have really affected her,” teammate Diana Taurasi said. “But she was determined to get more involved in the game. Not many people, especially younger players, have that mentality. They might go into their shell.
“She is so different in so many ways. It’s really impressive. Last year, she probably walked into this locker room when she was a rookie and saw all these veteran players. And that maybe didn’t let her completely be herself.”
Which is why Taurasi — who is as good a leader as you’ll find in the WNBA — made a point to tell Griner from the first days of practice this year that the Mercury were as much Griner’s team as anyone else’s.
“I said, ‘I am going to look to you in big moments. I’m going to need to lean on you on both ends of the court,'” Taurasi said. “And anytime we need a big stop or a big basket, I’m looking to her. She seems to do it over and over.”
The Mercury’s vets were all very good, too, on Tuesday. Taurasi had 18 points, DeWanna Bonner 15, Penny Taylor 14 and Dupree 10. Phoenix shot 56.1 percent from the field.
But the fact that they all empower Griner — and that she has flourished in her second year — is a tribute to Phoenix as a team and Griner individually.
“To BG’s credit, she’s tough as nails,” Phoenix coach Sandy Brondello said. “Playing as well as she did after getting hit, it shows her maturity and development as a player.”
Incidentally, Taylor said the Mercury players were actually talking just before Tuesday’s tipoff about the 2009 WNBA Finals, when Taylor got hit in the mouth in the second game by an inadvertent elbow from Indiana’s Briann January. One of Taylor’s front teeth was dislodged and had to be pulled back into place. Then a bonding agent was applied and a temporary retainer put in. It happened in the third quarter, and she missed the rest of that game but returned for the remainder of the five-game series (won by Phoenix) wearing a mouth guard.
“I might have jinxed Brittney by talking about that,” Taylor said. “I was so impressed with the way she bounced back tonight. She didn’t let it faze her. She came right back and her mental focus was the same. I was really proud of the way she responded.”
Now, Griner and the Mercury want to close things out Friday.
“We definitely want to get it [a title] in three [games] if we can,” Griner said, “and come back here and celebrate.”
(Article via ESPNW.com)