Big game from Griner, Mercury lose home opener

AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin


Brittney Griner yelled out after draining a three as the roof nearly popped off of Footprint Center.

“I knew she was going to hit it,” guard Sug Sutton, who assisted Griner’s trey, said.

Phoenix welcomed Griner with a fitting introduction and ovation for their superstar center.

Griner took a moment to soak it in.

“There may have been a little dust in my eye,” Griner said. “It was emotional in the back. Just hearing and seeing some of the clips and then coming out…Part of the process of healing is just kind of letting it out…I got choked up a little bit. Tried to hide it but you caught it.”

As Mercury head coach Vanessa Nygaard has repeatedly said – “it’s a miracle” that the former MVP candidate is back playing basketball since being wrongfully detained in Russia for nearly 300 days.

Ambassador Roger Carstens, the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs who played a big role in getting Griner back to the US, was at the game in support of her.

“On a personal level, I was sitting there crying with Sheila Jackson Lee, Congresswoman from Texas,” Carstens said. “It was a very emotional moment for both of us…where the team sits in Washington, D.C., we knew that this day was going to come. We knew it was going to be hard…what we saw today was exactly how I pictured it. BG home. Cherelle [Griner] cheering her on. BG’s family in the crowd and BG back on the court doing what she does best, and that’s playing basketball.”

Even though she was wiping away tears of joy right before tip-off, the first play of the game was still a ferocious Griner and-1.

That momentum ignited a solid start from the Mercury, but the Sky responded by following their leader, Kahleah Copper (15 points, five rebounds).

While Griner is the one working her way back to full-go, through the first two games, it’s actually the rest of the team that needs to catch up with her.

She followed up an 18-point, four-block performance in the first game by dropping 27 points (9-13 FG) to go along with 10 boards and four blocks in the home opener.

“Just getting back into it,” Griner said. “Going hard. Teammates believing in me. Supporting me. Means a lot. In that preseason game, my defense was horrible…that was my big focus. That’s effort.”

Turnovers continued to be an issue (19) for PHX, as well as getting outscored in the paint 36-28.

“A couple of those are – I don’t want to say anything so I won’t get fined – offensive fouls,” head coach Vanessa Nygaard said. “Working the timing…I think it will take a little bit of time but there will be a lot of focus placed on that because that number’s still way too high…in a close game like this, take away five of those turnovers…it would be a big difference for us.”

It’s also the second game in a row Phoenix gave up 11 offensive boards.

Diana Taurasi had a frustrating outing, grinding out 16 points on 5 of 17 shooting as well as a technical in the third quarter.

In her first game of the season coming back from a left knee injury, sharpshooter Sophie Cunningham (2 points, 0-3 FG, 19 minutes) had trouble finding her spots within the game’s flow.

“Overall, we got to get better at execution,” Nygaard said. “Second game of the year and we have a lot of work to do…Sophie will be there. She’s gonna fight and work. I look forward to having a better performance from everybody on Thursday.”

Despite a fourth quarter surge by the Mercury, Chicago escaped Phoenix with a 75-69 win.

“We did some great executing coming out of timeouts, not there at the very end, but we did a great job on that,” Nygaard said. “We got some important stops. Defensively, we had a lot of great effort in the second half.”

“Trying to tighten up the small things,” Griner said. “Not rushing. Just trying to find the best option. I think we definitely need to come out like that. We can’t wait. This league is so good. We can’t wait until the second half to tighten it up because at that point you’re really in an uphill battle.”

Griner and the Mercury will be back in front of the home crowd on Thursday as they face the Lynx at 7 pm.

Extra sights and sounds from the game: