Lynx best Mercury in battle of former Huskies
MINNEAPOLIS -- Even Geno Auriemma made the trip west for this one, seated at midcourt at the Target Center Thursday night and providing analysis for the ESPN2 broadcast, bringing his unique vantage point to the proceedings.
There they were, on opposite benches: Diana Taurasi and Maya Moore, the two best players Auriemma has ever coached at Connecticut, going head-to-head in the WNBA's Western Conference finals for the first time.
The night belonged to Moore, the rookie, and her Minnesota Lynx. Minnesota jumped out to a big lead behind Moore, held on during a Taurasi-led run and then finished off the proceedings with one of their own, winning Game 1 of the best-of-three series 95-67.
The series moves to Phoenix on Sunday, where the Mercury will face elimination if they can't come up with more than they managed in Thursday's frustrating effort.
Moore finished with 15 points for Minnesota, one of five players in double figures (Seimone Augustus led the way with 21 points), an example of the balance that the Lynx have shown all season. Taurasi ended up with a game-high 22 for Phoenix, but didn't get the support she needed from Penny Taylor or Candice Dupree, the two players who sealed the first-round series victory in Seattle on Monday night. The pair combined for eight points.
Both of the former Connecticut stars proved emphatically Thursday night that no matter how many accolades their individual talents have brought through the years, no matter how bright the spotlight, this isn't a one-on-one game. Success in the best women's league in the world is going to be the result of a team effort. It was true at UConn and it's true in the pros.
Moore got one Thursday night. Taurasi didn't.
"There's no question that the balance we have has really helped Maya," said Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve. "If she had to shoulder more of this, it would have been really difficult for her. We have experienced players and they have taken the pressure off her."
Taurasi is the stalwart centerpiece of the Phoenix Mercury, the perennial league scoring champion, considered by many to be the best women's basketball player in the world.
Moore is closing fast on Taurasi's legacy. She showed up in Minneapolis as an instant star with unprecedented credentials: three national player of the year awards, two national championships and a game that no one doubted would translate into the professional realm.
But Moore did not dominate the WNBA as a rookie the way she did in the college game and was not always the best player on the floor on a given night.
Instead, she has found herself in an almost perfect situation, surrounded by veteran talent, mentored by an experienced point guard, playing for a coach who has found the right balance between patience and expectation for one of the most-hyped young talents in the 15-year-history of the league.
And Moore has flourished. Playing alongside Lindsay Whalen and Augustus, Moore earned league rookie of the year honors. On Thursday night, she began the game as the best player on the floor, jumping out with 13 first-quarter points on 4-of-5 shooting and complementing her production with stellar defense.
Taurasi, meanwhile, got off to a slower start, hitting one of her first five attempts before getting into a groove in the second quarter. Moore cooled off while Taurasi heated up, and by halftime, after leading by as many as 19 points, the Lynx had a 47-36 advantage and Moore had 13 points to Taurasi's 12.
Moore stayed quiet through two quarters, but opened the fourth quarter by stripping DeWanna Bonner under the Minnesota basket, scoring and finishing the three-point play. But at that point Minnesota was in control.
And neither she nor Taurasi was on the floor when the game ended with a decisive Lynx victory.
"The postseason experience has been good," Moore said after the game. "Every game, I'm getting a lot more comfortable."
Auriemma did a dozen pregame interviews, answering questions about his former players. He doesn't really need to play compare and contrast. They're different players with different personalities and different games, but sharing the same floor in a big WNBA postseason series made it unavoidable.
The coach said he has seen Moore adjust and adapt to the night-in, night-out grind of playing against the best players in the world. In college, the start of the postseason meant playing a No. 16 seed in the NCAA tournament. That's now how it goes in the WNBA.
"Watching the other night, Maya really struggled in the first quarter and Cheryl sat her down," Auriemma said. "Cheryl brings her back in and on the first possession, she buries a 3. That's what Maya does. She just has a way of imposing herself on the game."
He joked that if he had to pick one player to get into a foxhole with, he'd probably pick Taurasi.
"She'd get us both killed, but we'd have fun," Auriemma said.
Of the 11 players Auriemma has in the league, four of them are on these two teams, including Ketia Swanier (Phoenix) and Charde Houston (Minnesota).
Auriemma hadn't been in this building since Connecticut won its first national championship here back in 1995.
"I remember sitting on that bench right there," Auriemma said, nodding his head in the direction of the Mercury bench. "It's good to be back under these circumstances. This is great on a lot of levels."