Despite first home loss, Phoenix Mercury remain confident as they embark on road trip

Phoenix Mercury guard Natasha Cloud takes aim from beyond the arc to finish with nine points and 12 assists against the Dallas Wings on Saturday. (Photo by Shirell Washington/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Suns forward Kevin Durant stood on his feet with a drink in hand at Footprint Center Saturday night when Mercury guard Kahleah Copper made a driving layup with two minutes left in the third quarter.

It cut a 24-point deficit to nine.

It was the first time the Mercury found themselves within single digits since the beginning of the second. They came within four, but it was too little too late as a 40-point performance by Dallas’ Arike Ogunbowale handed the Mercury their first home loss of the season.

The 107-92 defeat exposed the Mercury’s weaknesses but strengthened them as a unit. The team plans to salvage what they learned from Saturday’s loss and apply it on their first extended road trip of the season.

The Wings came into the matchup with a clear height advantage. The team has three players taller than 6-feet-6. Dallas utilized its gifts well and dominated the first half in the paint, scoring 24 to the Mercury’s eight.

“They’re big,” Mercury coach Nate Tibbetts said. “This is one of those games where we got dominated inside. Give them credit, that’s their strength, and they took full advantage tonight.”

The Mercury start their road trip against the Connecticut Sun Tuesday before facing off against the New York Liberty Wednesday.

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The Mercury matched their first half total for points in the paint in the third quarter against Dallas. They drove to the basket with force and mirrored that tenacity on the defensive end. Phoenix implemented a press in the third, communicated on defense and exhausted every last fume with quick hands, forcing eight Wings turnovers.

The determination reminded Tibbetts that heart sometimes outweighs height and calmed his fears as they head on a three-game road trip this week.

“I have just been impressed with how we have stayed together and continued to fight,” Tibbetts said. “We got down at times, but there is no giving up.”

Tibbetts admitted that a win would have served as a huge confidence boost going into this week of travel, but he knows what the team has to work on in practice this week.

“Rebounding and with them hurting us in the paint, we will work on our post-defense,” Tibbetts said. “And just taking care of that basketball.”

Wings second-year forward Maddy Siegrist commanded the offensive glass, securing seven offensive rebounds. Her will to crash the glass when the Mercury collapsed on Ogunbowale paid dividends, with her team shooting 14 second-chance-points attempts for 23 points.

“Confidence was clicking tonight,” Wings coach Latricia Trammell said. “I was so proud of (Siegrist). She was plus-21, 10-of-16 shooting. I remember looking at her and asking if she was good because she played 37 minutes. That young lady wasn’t going to come out. I had to drag her off. She just kept looking at me, signaling that she was OK. Talk about staying ready when her name is called. She has done that, and I have been extremely proud of her.”

Trammell went on to praise three-time All-Star Ogunbowale. She hit seven 3-pointers, including a momentum-crushing 27-footer at the 9:05 mark in the fourth that extended the lead to 79-72. The Wings went on an 8-2 run and secured the victory to bring them to 2-2 on the season.

Her hands-on defense also caused problems for Phoenix. Ogunbowale’s four steals contributed to a season-high 19 turnovers for the Mercury.

Sloppy possessions and poor pass decisions scarred the Mercury, but 21-year guard Diana Taurasi knows some of those mishaps were a matter of the team’s inexperience.

“It’s just little things we must fix for the upcoming road games,” Taurasi said. “We are still learning each other in many ways and what the coach wants from us. It’s only our fifth game together, so there’s still that learning curve we are going through. But we have to take care of the ball in this league, or it’s two points the other way. …It’s a tough league.

A strong push from the Mercury in the third quarter helped cut their deficit to just four points, but it wasn’t enough and they suffered their first home loss of the season. (Photo by Shirell Washington/Cronkite News)

A strong push from the Mercury in the third quarter helped cut their deficit to just four points, but it wasn’t enough and they suffered their first home loss of the season. (Photo by Shirell Washington/Cronkite News)

“Every team feels like they should win, and every team is prepared. We’ll look at the film and come back tomorrow to get better. That’s what the whole season is about.”

The team’s preparation will be put to the test. Phoenix closes its road trip Friday against the Minnesota Lynx, who are first in the league in defensive rating. The Liberty and Sun are third and fourth, respectively.

While the turnover numbers were glaring Saturday, it’s also evident that Taurasi has taken a sip from the fountain of youth, and competitive fire still consumes her soul.

Taurasi, who will turn 42 in June, scored 28 points on 50% shooting from the field while arguing with officials throughout the game over missed calls. The persistence reflected her passion for the game that has been present since her college days.

It’s her third 20-point game of the season, but Taurasi isn’t dominating the backcourt alone. Kahleah Copper poured in 32 on the night, her third 30-plus-point performance this season. Copper reaped what she has sown this season and in her career and surpassed 3,000 career points on Saturday night.

“It means a lot,” Copper said. “I think it would’ve felt better with a win, but it was cool. I was caught by surprise. I didn’t know, so I am proud of myself.”

Copper said she will maintain the same approach moving forward.

“I get up for every game,” Copper said. “That’s just me as the competitor.”

She and the team’s renewed strength of will have allowed the Mercury to tally a third of their total wins from last season, just five games into the season. After the loss, the team sits 3-2, sixth in the league.

Even when the game was out of sight, the delighted fans continually cheered when the Mercury scored in the closing minutes.

“It’s one of the most passionate fan bases, win, lose, or draw, and now we will take that on the road,” Taurasi said.

Sports Digital Reporter, Phoenix

Joshua Heron expects to graduate in August 2024 with a master’s degree in sports journalism. Heron served as a sports reporter for The Hilltop, Howard University News Service, and social-impact brand FISLL as an undergrad at Howard University. He also worked as a freelance reporter for Capital News. His interview series, “Wagwan In Life,” hosts people across multiple professions. Heron produced “Championship Culture,” a documentary highlighting the Howard women’s basketball team. He was a 2023 National Geographic HBCU Media Scholar and former My Brother’s Keeper Fellow.

Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Shirell Washington expects to graduate in August 2024 with a master’s degree in sports journalism. Washington has worked for Virginia Wesleyan University Athletic Communications and Arizona State University Stream Team.