After the Lynx’s 96-86 victory over Phoenix, Rebekkah Brunson’s teammates awarded her the game ball. Coach Cheryl Reeve, though, suggested they owed the forward much, much more.
“We needed every bit of Rebekkah Brunson tonight,’’ Reeve said. “I think [Natasha Howard] and [Sylvia Fowles], whatever Rebekkah wants for the next couple days, those two need to do for her.’’
That would only be fair, Reeve reasoned, given what Brunson did for them in Game 2 of the WNBA semifinals at Xcel Energy Center. In a game littered with 54 fouls — including four on Fowles and five on Howard — Brunson stepped into the void, lifting the Lynx on offense and defense to give them a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five series.
Reeve still wasn’t thrilled with her defense in a plodding game that included 68 free throws. But the Lynx, with an assist from the erratic Mercury, scored 35 points in the first quarter and repelled multiple Phoenix rallies in the second half. The Mercury had 20 turnovers, with many forced by the Lynx, and never got closer than six points after halftime.
Maya Moore led the Lynx with 26 points but gave all the praise to Brunson. In addition to scoring 13 points, Brunson had 11 rebounds and a big block of a DeWanna Bonner shot with 35 seconds remaining. On a night when both teams sputtered under a barrage of whistles, her ferocity put the Lynx on the brink of making the WNBA finals for the fifth time in the past six seasons.
“I’m one of her biggest fans. I’m going for fan of the year,’’ Moore said of Brunson, who moved into second place on the WNBA’s career playoff rebound chart with 480. “It’s her constancy.
“She’s there to cover up mistakes, to block a shot or get the big rebound we needed to stop Phoenix’s momentum. Hitting open jumpers, being aggressive, going to the rim. I’m glad she’s getting recognition for all the little things she does for this team.’’
Reeve said the constant fouls made the game feel like it took four hours. A crowd announced at 11,923 groaned repeatedly as Phoenix marched to the foul line 31 times, making all but one. But the calls went both ways, which quickly grounded Mercury center Brittney Griner.
Griner got her third foul with 50.8 seconds remaining in the first quarter. She sat the entire second quarter and finished the game with two points and two rebounds.
The Lynx, who made 33 of 37 free throws, used an 18-7 spurt in the first quarter to gain a 14-point lead. Phoenix spent the rest of the game trying to catch up. Coach Sandy Brondello said the fouls spoiled her plan to push the tempo, and her team made some “rookie mistakes’’ when it lost discipline and poise.
“We didn’t bring the appropriate effort and intensity,’’ Brondello said. “To let them score 35 points in the first quarter, that was the ballgame.
“I was very proud of our effort in the last three quarters. I thought we competed and showed we could play with them. But you can’t play with the Lynx for 30 minutes. They’re too good.’’
The Lynx also won despite foul trouble and injuries that kept Janel McCarville (back spasms) and Anna Cruz (hip contusion) out of the game.
The Mercury’s Diana Taurasi scored a game-high 31—including 12 in the fourth quarter, when her three-pointer whittled the deficit to 92-86 with 23 seconds left. Lindsay Whalen scored 12 in the fourth quarter, including a three-pointer with 5.9 seconds left.
Brunson said after the game that she didn’t think she did anything exceptional. Moore and Reeve begged to differ.
“It was a grind for us all,’’ Brunson said. “I don’t think I did anything more than I usually do. I always have the mindset of doing whatever it takes to help my team win. And whatever they need from me, I’m going to give them.’’