Updated October 9, 2021 - 12:13 am
Aces guard Kelsey Plum paused for a moment to gather her thoughts. Or at least attempted to after an 87-84 loss to the Phoenix Mercury in Game 5 of the WNBA semifinals Friday night at Michelob Ultra Arena.
“We were so close. That’s why it hurts,” she said while flanked by teammates A’ja Wilson, Chelsea Gray and Riquna Williams — all of whom were fighting back tears.
“But I wouldn’t want to do it with another group. I do know that we’ll be back. I have no doubt in my mind. The result will be different.”
But this season is over for the Aces, who led 66-58 after three quarters. They failed to nurse their lead down the stretch amid more brilliance from Mercury stars Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner. They combined to score 23 of Phoenix’s 29 fourth-quarter points as the Aces fell victim to untimely turnovers and missed layups.
The Mercury will play the Chicago Sky in the WNBA Finals, which begin Sunday in Phoenix. And the Aces, who lost in the WNBA Finals last year, feel like another promising season ended too soon.
“We played together as much as possible. We tried to stay mentally strong,” Gray said. “It didn’t go our way tonight. … We’ll learn from this.”
Aces coach Bill Laimbeer believes mental toughness made the difference in the series. The Mercury had it. The Aces didn’t, he said.
At least not enough to win a championship.
“They have two mentally strong players. Taurasi and Griner. They willed that onto their team. They hung in there and made the big plays,” Laimbeer said. “We need to acquire that trait.
“Whether we grow up. Whether we acquire something. But it’s something that this team has consistently lacked throughout the year.”
And in the fourth quarter Friday.
The Aces surrendered a 10-0 run to start the final period and did not execute their offense with enough precision to regain control.
Neither team led by more than four points after that, and Gray made two free throws to give the Aces a four-point lead with 2:27 to play. Wilson threw the ball away on the next possession, and Liz Cambage missed two free throws on the next possession.
That allowed Griner to tie the game with two buckets and Taurasi to make the go-ahead 3-pointer with 1:12 to play. Gray countered with a 3-pointer on the ensuing possession, but the Aces didn’t score again.
They turned the ball over instead and fouled Mercury guard Shey Peddy while attempting a desperation 3-pointer. She made two free throws, and Wilson’s driving layup attempt was blocked by Griner with 0.7 seconds left.
A record crowd of 9,860 was stunned into silence.
“Hopefully, it’s a learning experience. I’ve been in all sides where we grew into it. Or where we acquired it,” Laimbeer said. “What happens going forward, I’m unclear. … We did the best of our ability to learn who we are and what we’re about.”
Plum and Gray led the Aces with 22 points apiece, and Wilson had her most productive game of the series with 21 points and 10 rebounds.
Griner had 29 points and nine rebounds, and Taurasi scored 14 of her 24 in the fourth quarter while improving to 10-2 in road elimination games.
“Down the stretch, we needed mental toughness,” Laimbeer said. “It didn’t happen, and that’s the way it goes.”