Professional Basketball

Minnesota routs Phoenix, clinches playoff berth


Phoenix Mercury guard Michaela Onyenwere attempts a layup over the outstretched arms of Minnesota Lynx forward Dorka Juhasz during Sunday’s game at Target Center. Photo by Abe Booker III/Sportspage Magazine

MINNEAPOLIS – Coming into Sunday’s game, the Minnesota Lynx knew that a berth in the upcoming playoffs was theirs to lose. Having missed the playoffs the year before and having started the season 0-6, the Lynx players knew that they had to put their best foot forward as they faced their arch-rival Phoenix Mercury in front of 7,314 fans at Target Center, in order to solidify their playoff spot and not risk narrowly missing out again. When the final buzzer sounded, Minnesota downed the Mercury 86-73 to clinch their spot. It wasn’t easy.

At first it looked like it was going to be an embarrassment when Phoenix came out of the gate on an 11-6 run before the official’s timeout with 4:38 remaining in the first quarter. Phoenix forward Michaela Onyenwere and guard Moriah Jefferson each scored five points.

Then the Lynx woke up. Guard Kayla McBride scored five points while forwards Dorka Juhasz and Nikolina Milic each scored two, as Minnesota went on a 9-0 run and took a 15-11 lead when Phoenix called timeout with 3:19 left in the quarter.

Minnesota guard Rachel Banham exchanged three-pointers with the Mercury’s Jefferson, and Phoenix took a 20-18 lead at the end of the first quarter.

The Mercury went on a 6-0 run to start the second quarter, which forced Minnesota to call a timeout to regroup with 8:24 remaining on the clock.

Over the next three minutes, the teams traded baskets. Mercury forward Kadi Sissoko hit her second three-pointer of the game to give her team a 31-25 lead with 5:13 left in the half.

Minnesota Lynx forward Dorka Juhasz records one of her two blocks in Sunday’s game against the Phoenix Mercury at Target Center. Juhasz, a rookie, finished two assists shy of a triple-double. Photo by Abe Booker III/Sportspage Magazine

Juhasz scored on a driving finger roll layup and then grabbed a rebound on a missed Onyenwere layup. Lynx forward Bridget Carleton grabbed a rebound on a missed shot by forward Napheesa Collier, her teammate, and then connected on a three-pointer of her own. Carleton then stole a pass from Mercury center Brianna Turner, but guard Aerial Powers, another teammate, lost the ball out of bounds. Carleton stole the ball again, this time from Jefferson, but again her teammate, Powers, committed a turnover, this time an offensive foul.

Juhasz grabbed a rebound when Mercury guard Sug Sutton missed her shot, and Lynx guard Tiffany Mitchell connected on a three-pointer to tie the game 31-31 with 2:49 left in the half.

Phoenix responded with a pullup jumper by Jefferson. Powers hit a three-pointer for Minnesota, which was promptly answered with one from Jefferson. However, Phoenix center Brittney Griner was hit with a technical foul for defensive three seconds, which put Collier on the line for the free throw.

The teams traded baskets again and then Banham hit a 23-foot three-pointer to give the Lynx a 40-39 lead with 45.2 seconds. However, Onyenwere fouled Banham on the shot. After the free throw, Minnesota led 41-39 on Banham’s four-point play. Sutton stole a pass from Juhasz and made a layup in transition to tie the score 41-41 with 0.8 seconds left, which became the halftime score.

Minnesota came out of the locker room looking like a brand new team. After quick layups by Collier and Lynx forward Diamond Miller, the Mercury called timeout with 8:48 left in the quarter.

When play resumed, it became the Brittney Griner and Kayla McBride show. Griner hit a short turnaround jump shot, then McBride answered with a three-pointer. Griner hit a six-foot hook shot over the head of Juhasz, and then McBride hit a 20-foot step back jumper. Minnesota led 50-45 with 6:56 left in the third quarter.

The Lynx clamped down on defense, and then Phoenix went cold on offense. Sissoko missed two free throws, Jefferson missed a running layup, center Megan Gustafson missed one of two free throws, Sutton missed a jump shot, Griner missed a turnaround shot and Sutton missed a three-pointer. Meanwhile, Minnesota’s Collier hit a fadeaway shot, McBride scored on a cutting layup, Milic shot a three-foot hook shot, and Carleton nailed a three-pointer.

With 2:10 left in the third quarter, Minnesota had a commanding 63-50 lead, which they stretched to 69-54 when the quarter ended. The Lynx went 10-for-22 from the field in the quarter (45.5 percent) while the Mercury only went 4-for-15 (26.7 percent).

Phoenix’s woes continued in the fourth quarter as players not named Jefferson or Griner struggled to make a basket. Onyenwere was 0-1, Sutton 0-1, Sissoko 0-1 and guard Ashley Joens went 1-3. Griner was 1-2 plus two free throws, and Jefferson tried to carry the team on her shoulders going 6-for-9 from the field for 12 points in the final frame. Even though they outscored Minnesota 19-17 in the fourth quarter, the strength of the Lynx third quarter performance in which they outscored the Mercury 28-13, became the difference in the game. Minnesota won 86-73 when the final buzzer sounded.

Phoenix was already eliminated from post-season contention prior to the game, and played without three of their normal starters, Diana Taurasi, Shey Peddy and Sophie Cunningham. Minnesota was without forward Jessica Shepard and guard Lindsay Allen during the contest.

Phoenix Mercury guard Moriah Jefferson shoots a jumper past Minnesota Lynx forward Dorka Juhasz during Sunday’s game at Target Center. Jefferson led all scorers with 32 points. Photo by Abe Booker III/Sportspage Magazine

The Mercury guard Moriah Jefferson led all scorers with 32 points. Brittney Griner added 17 points for Phoenix and led her team with 10 rebounds. Guard Sug Sutton led the Mercury with five assists. Phoenix shot 25-for-68 (36.8 percent) from the field; 7-for-14 (50.0 percent) in three pointers; and 16-for-22 (72.7 percent) in free throw shooting.

Minnesota was led by 23 points from guard Kayla McBride and 22 points from forward Napheesa Collier and 10 points from forward Dorka Juhasz. Collier led the Lynx with 16, while Juhasz pulled down 12 boards. Juhasz led Minnesota with eight assists. She was two assists shy of recording a triple-double.

The Lynx went 31-for-72 (43.1 percent) in field goal shooting; 9-for-21 (42.9 percent) in three-point field goal shooting; and 15-for-22 (68.2 percent) in free throw shooting.

Minnesota edged Phoenix with 36-30 in points in the paint; 15-6 in second chance points; and 6-5 in fast break points. Both teams turned the ball over 12 times. There were three ties and eight lead changes.

“Our early offense wasn’t good in the first half, and they felt that. We knew that if we could get some stops and play in our early offense, that’s when we’re at our best. We’re top three in the league when we do that. We found those spaces in the third quarter,” said Minnesota Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve.

The win marked Reeve’s 300th career regular season victory. Reeve is only the third head coach in league history to reach 300 wins, behind only Bill Laimbeer (306) and Mike Thibault (379). She did it in her 468th regular season game to give her a .641 winning percentage, which is second only to former Houston Comet head coach Van Chancellor’s .655.

Minnesota Lynx guard Kayla McBride shoots a floater as Phoenix Mercury center Megan Gustafson tries to defend during Sunday’s game at Target Center. Photo by Abe Booker III/Sportspage Magazine

More important to the Lynx team than Reeve’s milestone is that it clinched the playoff spot after being absent from postseason play last year.

“It’s meaningful. I’m not going to say that it’s not, because it is not easy to do. This season has been a journey of ups and downs, great moments and difficult moments,” said Reeve. “I just really wanted it for this group. We feel like we have more that we can do to continue to fight for playoff position… It’s a lot of hard work that went into what this franchise is accustomed to doing, which is competing in the postseason.”

With two road games left in the regular season, Reeve was asked what the team needs to do to improve from where they are now.

“I think every time we play, what we focus on is trying to get our defense set. I think every coach will tell you transition defense [is important to focus on]. We try to get saves, so if we miss or we turn it over, we chart and get feedback on our saves, [which is] our ability to get back,” said Reeve.

“We continue to strive in that area, and then certainly rebounding. That’s the path. It’s pretty incredible when you look at the statistics of when your defense is really good, and that means you get them out of transition,” she added. “That means it is one and done, that you can hold our opponent below 40 percent. Our team knows that since 2011, we’re 150-7 [when holding the opponent below 40 percent], so why would you not play Transition D and rebound? That is your path to be successful.

“If we can continue the trend from this weekend, and we’re going to be challenged big time when we go on the road, and certainly in the playoffs, so those are the two main areas that we are going to continue to focus on,” Reeve concluded.

Minnesota Lynx guard Kayla McBride was asked about the third quarter rally that gave the Lynx the separation.

“I think we were disappointed in what we did in the first half. We felt like we came out a little flat and let them come back into the game,” she said. “We wanted to come out with a lot of energy. Really, on the defensive end is where we stood out. We were able to get back in transition, where we are really good, and then it just became fun. When we’re playing off of our defense, that’s the best version of us. We came out with a different mentality in the third quarter.”

The Minnesota Lynx (19-19) travel to Chicago (15-22) for a 7 p.m. CT matchup against the Sky on Friday, then wrap up the regular season on the road at Indiana (12-25) for a noon CT game on Sunday against the Fever. Minnesota currently holds the fifth seed in the playoffs.

Phoenix (9-28) closes out their regular season schedule hosting the Washington Mystics (17-20) at 5 p.m. CT (7 p.m. MT) on Tuesday; they host the Las Vegas Aces (32-6) at 5 p.m. CT (7 p.m. MT) on Friday; and travel to Las Vegas for a 10 a.m. CT (noon MT) contest against the Aces on Sunday.

Recommended for you