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Minnesota battles back to force Game 3 with Mercury

There it sat Sunday, in the middle of the Minnesota Lynx locker room floor. No player, coach or member of team management got too close for fear of disturbing its aura. The Lynx’s WNBA championship trophy, with its three silver spires holding a basketball, stood as a simple reminder that the Lynx aren’t ready yet to call is a season.

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Facing elimination on their home court, the Lynx strengthened their grip on the trophy and have a renewed motivation to hang on to it after a dramatic 82-77 victory over the Phoenix Mercury in Game 2 of the best-of-three Western Conference finals in front of a sellout crowd of 10,513 at Target Center.

The Lynx, who looked woeful early and trailed by as many as 13 points, forced a deciding Game 3 today in Phoenix.

“That grip is two firm fistfuls now on those two bars,” Seimone Augustus said, pointing at Minnesota’s 2013 championship trophy. “Right now, Phoenix is holding the one in back. We are just glad that we aren’t hanging on with a pinkie or fingertip at this point. We are right where we need to be to possibly defend that championship.”

Maya Moore scored a career playoff-high 32 points and Augustus added 23 to power the Lynx. Point guard Lindsay Whalen had 17 points and seven assists, but more importantly, willed the Lynx not to wilt when Phoenix threatened to run Minnesota off the court for a second consecutive game.

The Lynx couldn’t exhale, and then rejoice that their championship hopes weren’t on life support anymore, until Augustus made a 15-foot jumper and was fouled with 23.3 seconds remaining. That gave the Lynx the lead for good and was part of a brutally physical 46-33 second-half run when Minnesota had quality offensive possessions and its defense was disrupting Phoenix.

“You can’t have doubt in your mind when your number is called,” Augustus said of her last-second heroics. “That play was designed for me, but it was my teammates that got me open. That was the hard part. I made the shot, which was the easy part (after) they did their work.”

Minnesota, the No. 2 seed in the West, is trying to advance to the WNBA Finals for the fourth consecutive season. Sandwiched around championships in 2011 and ‘13, the Lynx were runner-up to Indiana in 2012. Top-seeded Phoenix, which set a league regular-season record with 29 victories, is trying to get back to the Finals for the first time since 2009 when it won the second of two championships.

“Minnesota did what they wanted to do, especially being back on home court,” Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said. “That’s always been the advantage here, and really, I thought we played well for most of the game. We just didn’t execute down the stretch. I thought we were on our back foot a lot, but there are things we can change. (Minnesota) responded well.”

The Lynx can thank Whalen for that.

All the energy of playing at home with the league’s best-ever postseason record (15-2) was sapped in the wake of a nine-point first quarter filled with shots that were not only tentative, but also woefully off the mark.

Whalen scored 15 of her 17 points in the first half, many baskets triggered by hustle plays. Moore had 13 points in the first half and Augustus had eight. That was it for the Lynx. None of the other six players, including starters Rebekkah Brunson and Janel McCarville scored.

Whalen refused to let the Lynx wilt, be it on the defensive end with physical play or on offense with perimeter jumpers. She constantly urged the crowd to join in.

“She’s just gone to another level,” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said. “Her leadership is at an all-time high on both sides of the ball. She’s willing us to do things and holding people accountable.”

Whalen was locked away in a conference room with Reeve long afterward, plotting strategy for Game 3, and was unavailable for comment.

“We just keep believing, keep believing that we’re going to make the next play,” Moore said. “When we get our stops like we did in the last few minutes, we get a little pep in our steps. We have no doubt that, if we put ourselves in good position, good things are going to happen for us.”

Diana Taurasi scored 23 points for the Mercury and Candice Dupree added 18. Brittney Griner had 18 points but was limited to just three rebounds.

“At the end of the game, it comes down to making plays and getting stops,” Taurasi said. “We have to control the things that we can control. Minnesota did that and they deserved to win.”

The Pioneer Press is in a media partnership with Forum News Service.