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Gamecock rookies help Wings run past Mercury

Rookie Davis leads Wings to season-opening win (0:51)
Kaela Davis scores 20 points to help the Wings to a 10-point, 68-58 win over the Mercury. (0:51)

PHOENIX — Six weeks ago, Kaela Davis and Allisha Gray were celebrating a national championship with their South Carolina teammates. On Sunday, they were making their WNBA debuts with Dallas.

“You come off a screen, and you see [Brittney] Griner in the lane,” Davis said of the moments of realization that she is now in the big leagues. “And you’re like, ‘OK, this is where we’re at.’ It’s an amazing opportunity.”

Davis, who was the No. 10 draft pick, couldn’t have asked for a much better first game. She had 20 points on 6-of-10 shooting, with four rebounds and four assists, as the Wings beat the Mercury 68-58.

Yeah, that’s a pretty hideous final score, especially with a traditional offensive-power team such as Phoenix being held to fewer than 60 points. It was a rough opener for the Mercury, who have just two players back from last season: Griner and Diana Taurasi. The new-look Mercury looked OK in the first half, though, as they got out to an 8-1 edge and led 34-32 at the break.

But Phoenix seemed to regress in the second half. Griner finished with 18 points, and Camille Little — one of the new faces to Phoenix, though she’s in her 12th WNBA season — scored 11. Taurasi, though, couldn’t find the bottom of the net: She was 1-of-11 from field and scored just three points.

“It’s strange because we started the game pretty fluid, with a lot of rhythm,” Taurasi said. “We didn’t adjust to their defensive pressure as well as we should have. When a team plays that aggressively, it either gives you some openings, or it takes everything away.”

Having energetic young players such as Davis and Gray — redshirt juniors for South Carolina last season who opted to forego their final year of eligibility to enter the draft — helped with Dallas’ defense. Gray, who was the No. 4 selection, had 11 points.

“I was a little nervous,” Gray said. “It’s a different level of play. But once the game got going, I was OK. It was good seeing my fellow Gamecock teammate get buckets — and to have the overall team effort. Everyone did what they could to contribute.”

It wasn’t that long ago that Dallas’ Skylar Diggins-Smith — the No. 3 pick in 2013 — was making her pro debut. Now she’s one of the Wings’ veterans, but she said she didn’t give Davis or Gray any special advice Sunday.

“We don’t want to put a lot of pressure on them. We just need them to be who they are,” Diggins-Smith said. “We know where they come from: Dawn Staley, one of the best coaches. She has that mindset that her players are going to attack, attack, attack. With Kaela and Allisha, they came in ready and in shape.

“We didn’t adjust to their defensive pressure as well as we should have. When a team plays that aggressively, it either gives you some openings, or it takes everything away.”
Diana Taurasi

“The difference from last year is how we stepped up our defense. Just having players who are capable of coming in off the bench and giving us good minutes. I think we’re going to be a win-by-committee team this year.”

The Wings were 11-23 last season — their first in Dallas after moving from Tulsa — and did not make the playoffs. Dallas had the worst defensive rating (an estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions) in the league, at 111.1. The Wings traded leading scorer Odyssey Sims to Los Angeles and got the No. 4 selection, which they used for Gray. They also had the No. 3 pick and chose Kentucky’s Evelyn Akhator, who is currently injured, as is second-year player Aerial Powers.

Coach Fred Williams was confident that Davis and Gray, whom he watched win the NCAA title in Dallas, could come in and quickly help the Wings.

“I just told them, ‘Be aggressive. This is your first WNBA game, and go play like you would in the collegiate world,'” Williams said.

Two other SEC graduates were integral to the Wings’ win. Theresa Plaisance (LSU) had 10 points on 5-of-8 shooting and helped Courtney Paris guard Griner. Former Lady Vol Glory Johnson had 14 boards to lead the Wings’ 41-17 annihilation of the Mercury on the glass. (That tied a Phoenix record for fewest rebounds in a game, a mark set in Taurasi’s rookie year, 2004, at Seattle.)

Johnson, in her fifth season out of Tennessee, missed 16 games last year because of suspension and injury. She looked like her usual self on Sunday.

“I always know I can help my team that way, if nothing else,” Johnson said of rebounding.

Ultimately, it is just one game. But the Wings had to like what they saw. For that matter, South Carolina fans still riding the euphoria of their NCAA title were no doubt thrilled too.

“Gamecock Nation — they’re they best. They follow us and support us wherever we are,” Davis said. “I know they’re excited about us being here.”

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