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Phoenix Mercury ousts Liberty from playoffs behind Diana Taurasi

New York Liberty guard Tanisha Wright drives the

New York Liberty guard Tanisha Wright drives the baseline around Phoenix Mercury guard Diana Taurasi on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016.

Diana Taurasi hoisted the ball high in the air and let out a guttural scream when it swished through the net. She wagged her finger defiantly, victoriously, and just like that, this Liberty season was over.

Taurasi’s three, which came with 1:28 left in the game and gave the eighth-seeded Mercury a seven-point lead, was pivotal in helping squash a second-half surge that had the Liberty faithful believing that this team had just a little more magic left.

Instead the Liberty, the third seed in the WNBA playoffs, lost in heartbreaking fashion, 101-94, at Madison Square Garden last night after earning a bye in the first round.

“That’s why I say she’s the best player in the world,” Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said of Taurasi, who scored 17 of her 30 points in an inspired, frenzied fourth-quarter effort. “She’s such an unselfish player, but her determination to win in those moments, it exceeds anyone I’ve ever seen. She wants to take those shots. She makes those shots.”

Because of the new format — one that hasn’t been met with much enthusiasm throughout the league — the second round is now a single-elimination knockout, meaning the Liberty postseason is done almost as soon as it began. The Liberty remain the only original WNBA team in existence without a championship to its name. This was the final game of Swin Cash’s storied career. She hid her face in her shirt as she walked off the court after she and her teammates stopped to salute the fans.

Tina Charles, who led the league in both points and rebounds this year, scored 19 with nine rebounds and Tanisha Wright had 21, 11 in the fourth quarter. Neither was able to fully neutralize Taurasi, an unstoppable force just when it looked like her team was ready to break. The Mercury next will play the Minnesota Lynx in a best of five.

“Taurasi was phenomenal, made a bunch of big plays,” Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer said. “Our effort was there. We didn’t play badly . . . but tonight, we just didn’t get it done. They played well. They made the basketball plays. They deserve to win this game.”

The Liberty defense — the very thing that has carried this team so many times this season — chose the worst possible time to fall apart. Even with the return of Kiah Stokes, who played limited minutes after coming back from a hip injury, the Liberty looked outsized and outmatched in the first half. Brittney Griner, Taurasi and Penny Taylor had all scored in the double digits by the break.

But the third quarter brought with it a team reborn (it helped that the Mercury essentially played six players and lost a step in the third). The Liberty outscored the Mercury 26-16 in the quarter, and Amanda Zahui B’s layup with time expiring ended the third with the Liberty down just 68-67.

Brittany Boyd’s driving baseline layup tied it at 71 early in the fourth. Epiphanny Prince hit a three a little later to lock it at 74. But it just wasn’t enough against Taurasi.

“We know the little discipline things that we have to correct,” Laimbeer said. “We’ve just got to now do it . . . Little things like the missed boxed outs. They change the course of the game. Championships teams make those plays and we’re still in the learning process.”


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