Sophie Cunningham has game of her life in Mercury’s playoff win

(Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The Phoenix Mercury were down 79-77 to the eighth-seeded New York Liberty as they approached the final minute of their do-or-die game Thursday night. In front of a roaring home crowd, Sophie Cunningham decided to do what she’d been doing all game and fired a 3-point shot, this time from the right side of the court, and sunk the most important basket of her life.

It marked a career-high 21 points for Cunningham and gave the Mercury the lead they needed to advance to the second round of the WNBA playoffs. The 25-year-old came off the bench to go 6-for-7 from the 3-point line and ignite her team in the second half.

Sophie Cunningham? More like Sophie Going Ham.

Her efforts, alongside Skylar Diggins-Smith’s 22 points and Brittney Griner’s 16 points and 10 rebounds, led the Mercury to a thrilling 83-82 win in the first-round, single-elimination game.

Mercury coach Sandy Brondello subbed Cunningham into the game in the second half to give the team a spark. The Mercury had let the Liberty close in on their 11-point lead and entered halftime down 41-37. Players began to lose momentum as New York outshot Phoenix 18-13 at the start of the second quarter; Diggins-Smith didn’t score a single point in that span.

“Sophie’s got a short-term memory,” Brondello said with a chuckle after the game. “That’s what I love about her, and she’s not afraid.”

The original plan when Cunningham subbed in was to get the ball to Diggins-Smith and Griner.

“I just went out there and I said, ‘Screw it, I’m just going to shoot the ball,’” she said.

The Columbia, Mo. native mentioned during a sideline interview after the third quarter that bringing energy is her role on the team, and so that’s what she did Thursday night, in whatever form the team needed it.

Typically playing between 16 and 24 minutes a game, Cunningham came into the game as an underdog.

The guard’s previous career-high was 19 points, achieved on June 28, 2019 in a game against the Indiana Fever when she went 3-for-3 from 3-point range. Her season-high was 17 points against the Atlanta Dream on Aug. 15.

On Thursday night, Cunningham scored 12 points in the third quarter alone, followed by another six in the fourth.

“On the stage that we had, it’s not easy coming in and playing,” Brondello said.

It wasn’t just 3-point shooting that Cunningham brought off the bench. She bounced around with a crowd-hyping energy and confidence that had everyone convinced she owned the court. By the final 10 minutes, her teammates were matching her pace, with Griner recording 14 points and Diggins-Smith 12 in the final stanza.

The only thing missing from Cunningham’s picture-perfect night was teammate Diana Taurasi, Cunningham’s favorite player growing up and now her teammate. Taurasi sat out of Thursday’s game with a left ankle sprain.

The Mercury will next face the Seattle Storm, who advanced to the second round on a bye, at 3 p.m. ET on Sunday.