Much-hyped Mercury fall short in turbulent season

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By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman

PHOENIX (AP) -- A season with high expectations resulted in a coaching change and enough success to get the Phoenix Mercury within two wins of the WNBA Finals.

Still, the overall season had to be labeled a disappointment.

The Mercury had the highest of hopes, and plenty of hype, going into 2013, having perennial all-star Diana Taurasi healthy and able to lead a group of veteran players and the No. 1 draft pick - Baylor's much-talked-about Brittney Griner.

Griner hurt her ankle, missing seven games, and never was the dominant player many expected her to be, but Taurasi was at the top of the game, even playing point guard. She averaged 20.3 points and 6.2 assists per game, second-best in the league in both categories.

That helped the Mercury go 19-15 and reach a postseason matchup with second-place Los Angeles and MVP Candace Parker. Phoenix won the first game, lost at home and then pulled out a last-second win on Griner's game-winning shot in Los Angeles to reach the conference finals against the Minnesota Lynx, owners of the league's best record.

Phoenix lost the first game to the Lynx 85-62 and kept it close on Sunday before being eliminated 72-65.

"It was a strange year, it was a little weird," Taurasi said. "When things were not going our way through the season we worked through it. When they made the coaching change, it could have easily been a foregone season. But we stuck with it. I'm happy the way we fought throughout the season."

While Griner fought off injuries and made progress on her professional learning curve, the team struggled to incorporate the 6-foot-8 youngster and was 10-11 on Aug. 8, when six-year coach Corey Gaines was fired, replaced by college coach Russ Pennell.

The former Grand Canyon University and University of Arizona coach instilled a defensive mentality on a team that made its name as an up-tempo, high-scoring squad that won championships in 2007 and 2009.

Under Penell, Phoenix went 9-4 the rest of the regular season, earning the No. 3 seed from the Western Conference. He was hired a day before his first game and said he didn't even know all the players' names when the Mercury beat last-place Tulsa in his debut.

"I've learned a couple of things," Pennell said. "No. 1, the quality of play at this level is incredible. If you watch as a fan on television, I don't know if you get the full effect until you sit there on a sideline and watch them go up and down."

He got the players to believe in a defense-first strategy that led Phoenix to hold opponents to 38 percent shooting over the final 13 games of the regular season, best in the league during that stretch. Pennell figured there were enough scorers with Taurasi, Candice Dupree (15.2 points a game) and DeWanna Bonner (14.5 a game) that Griner didn't have to put up as many points.

Still, the top pick scored 12.6 points per game, second-best among first-year players behind rookie of the year Elena Delle Donne of Chicago, and averaged five rebounds a game, tops among WNBA rookies.

Griner struggled at times with WNBA defenses - not just double- and triple-teams but regular man-to-man defense.

"I think the biggest thing for her is she has got to get physically stronger," Pennell said. "I believe that is going help as much as anything, Right now she just doesn't have the brawn or the strength to hold her position long enough. So she's constantly fighting to get to a spot that we have asked her to get to, that good post players need to get to, and right now she is not physically able to do that. And she knows it."

Pennell added, "When you compound that with the fact that she is the face of the league, and supposed to be all this and all that, to me there are a lot of people who want her to be the women's equivalent of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. I think learning to handle all of that in four months is probably a lot to ask of a young player."

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