CHICAGO — The Mercury are back on top.
Five years after their most recent championship, the Mercury once again have reached the WNBA’s summit, defeating the Chicago Sky 87-82 at UIC Pavilion on Friday to complete a three-game sweep of the WNBA Finals.
Diana Taurasi hit a fadeaway jumper and was fouled with 14.3 seconds left to put the Mercury up for good, and Taurasi and Candice Dupree each scored 24 points to lead the team.
Taurasi was named the Finals MVP, the second time in her career she’s won the award.
It was the culmination of a magical season in which the Mercury set a WNBA record with 29 wins during the regular season, then vanquished their rival Minnesota Lynx in the Western Conference finals to set up the matchup against the Sky.
“It’s been an unbelievable season, in my first year in Phoenix,” Coach of the Year Sandy Brondello said. “It’s one that I’ll savor for the rest of my life, for sure.”
It was the franchise’s third championship in four Finals appearances. The Mercury previously won titles in 2007 and 2009.
“In ’09 when we won it, I was like, ‘You know, we’re going to be here a lot. We’re going to have so many opportunities to win a championship.’ ” Taurasi said. “And then five years went by and we didn’t come close. Western Conference finals, swept. Western Conference finals, swept. One year we didn’t make the playoffs.
“So when you do finally get here, not only do you have to take full advantage, but you have to enjoy it. You really have to enjoy it.”
Friday’s clinching victory came without center Brittney Griner, who missed the game following surgery on Thursday to correct a retinal issue suffered when she was hit in the eye during Game 2.
The announcement of Griner’s absence provided some hope for the 7,365 fans in attendance, and the Mercury had to fight considerably harder than they had in their two other Finals victories, both blowouts.
But they got it done.
“Obviously, not having Brittney Griner really changed how we played a little bit,” Brondello said. “I knew it was going to be a tight game. But I always had confidence that we would close it out. That’s what we’ve done all season long. There’s a reason we were 29-5. We did have some close games, believe it or not, and we executed when it mattered.”
With Griner out, the Sky made a point to attack the rim without the 6-foot-8 Defensive Player of the Year inside to protect it, consistently feeding center Sylvia Fowles down low and driving to the hoop for layups.
Mercury reserve center Ewelina Kobryn, making her first start of the season in place of Griner, filled in admirably, recording eight points, eight rebounds and three blocks in 25 minutes, despite some early foul trouble.
The game was tight throughout, with the Mercury leading most of the way, though never by more than five.
The Sky led with as little as nine minutes remaining, when the Mercury scored eight consecutive points to go up 72-67.
Down four with under two minutes left, the Sky scored two straight baskets to tie it at 82 with 29.6 seconds to play.
And that’s when Taurasi made the latest — and perhaps greatest — clutch shot of her career.
With less than 20 seconds on the clock, Taurasi drove right, threw in a one-hander while fading away near the right baseline and was fouled, hitting the free throw to put the Mercury up 85-82.
“Diana Taurasi’s just amazing,” Brondello said. “When you put the ball in her hand in the money, crunch time, she makes things happen.”
Elena Delle Donne missed a 3-pointer to tie on the other end, Penny Taylor got the rebound and hit two free throws to seal it, and seconds later the Mercury were celebrating their third championship in eight years, and what will go down as one of the great seasons in WNBA history.
“This team has just been unbelievable all year,” Taurasi said. “Every single day we come to work, it really is just fun. There’s years where the last place you want to go is into that locker room. This year I couldn’t wait to get in the locker room.
“… It’s things like that that make this team so special. And what we achieved on the court probably won’t happen again.”