All that focus on getting homecourt advantage was about games like tonight.
With Game Three of a best-of-three first round playoff series tied with under a minute left, the odds would normally favor the Seattle Storm at KeyArena where they'd only lost twice in nearly 40 previous games.
But ultimately games are decided on the court and the Phoenix Mercury simply took advantage of the opportunity to make a play in the waning moments of the game to pull out a thrilling 77-75 win in Seattle and earn a trip to the Western Conference Finals.
"I think everyone fought so hard this season to get in this position, to have this third game at home and we didn't capitalize on it, we didn't maximize it," said Storm center Lauren Jackson. "I just feel sorry for my teammates, our coaches and all of our fans because everyone's given so much this year. It was just unfortunate."
Coming out of a timeout with 10.5 seconds left, Mercury forward Penny Taylor drove to the basket and missed a layup that was somehow tapped to Candice Dupree who hit a game-winning short jumper with 1.9 seconds left to pull out a win that left Storm fans stunned. The final shot was the biggest of Dupree's team-high 20 point performance to cap off another strong game against the Storm in this series.
"Penny missed," said Dupree, who shot 10-for-15 from the field. "Corey drew up a play for Penny to either shoot a jumper or attack the basket. I thought for sure her layup was going to go in, but it bounced out and everybody was tipping the ball around it happened to land in my hands. I put it back up as quick as I could."
With their sixth first round loss in the last seven years, the Storm fell short in their bid to become the first repeat champions in the WNBA since the Los Angeles Sparks won two straight in 2001 and 2002 after the Houston Comets won the first four titles in league history. Yet even if they didn't repeat, this wasn't exactly the timing most people expected: having beat the Mercury in 11 of the last 13 games entering Game Three, it's safe to say that most Storm fans felt that drawing the Mercury in the first round put them in the fast lane for a return to the Western Conference Finals.
"Not that we disrespect Phoenix or anybody else in this league, but we didn't expect to be in this situation right now," said Storm coach Brian Agler. "We thought we could win and we did a lot of good things tonight, but sometimes things aren't meant to be. That's sort of how this game was. It wasn't meant to be tonight."
All of the emotion and intensity that made this one of the most physical contests between these two rivals in recent memory came to a head in a frenzied final minute that the Mercury won by doing exactly what defined the series for the most part: rebounding and simply outworking the Storm in the paint, as surprising as that might sound to long-time WNBA fans. The Mercury came into KeyArena and outrebounded the Storm 39-35, winning in a grittier fashion than normal when it counted.
Losing the rebounding battle at home to one of the league's poorer rebounding teams only compounds the taste of disappointment that's unlike any Storm fans have felt in some time.
The Storm's two losses at home this year were generally lopsided affairs and their last loss before that was a first round exit against the Los Angeles Sparks in another lopsided Game Three result in 2009. Storm point guard Sue Bird did all she could in leading all scorers with 22 points - and more clutch shots for her portfolio - to keep the Storm in the game, but it simply wasn't enough tonight.
Losing a close game at home simply hasn't happened to the Storm in recent years, whether due to being outplayed down the stretch or just bad luck.
"I will say we made plays down the stretch," said Storm coach Brian Agler. "We had opportunities down the stretch. We had people hit big shots. There were a lot of things tonight that were just uncharacteristic of our team - missing free throws. We'd make plays and we wouldn't convert, whether it be to get back in the offense or whatever it might be. It was very tough."
For the Mercury, the win highlights the value of Dupree and Taylor who have been instrumental in their success this year but are often overshadowed by Diana Taurasi, who fouled out with 6:38 left in the game. As fortuitous as that final play was for the Mercury, it capped off a simply brilliant performance by Taylor who had a career-high 17 rebounds to go with 19 points.
With Taurasi having fouled out, Mercury coach Corey Gaines utilized the full extent of Taylor's ability to drive, pass, and score down the stretch as she knifed through the Storm defense in a back and forth final five minutes.
"I called Penny (Taylor) over and said, 'Penny, take as many shots as you can possible get right now.' I told her that," said Mercury coach Corey Gaines. "And I said I didn't care if they were 'threes, twos, let the ball go. I need you to take as many shots as possible.' And she did. She did. And she also got 17 rebounds which was pretty big."
The Mercury now advance to the Western Conference Finals to face either the Minnesota Lynx or San Antonio Silver Stars who will play Game Three of their Western Conference Semifinals game tomorrow night.