MINNEAPOLIS — The Utah Starzz seem to have finally gotten into the rhythm of the season, having won three in a row and six of their last eight games.
But the Phoenix Mercury's Tuesday-night win over Orlando really tightened the screws on Utah, which now almost certainly must win the rest of its five games, including the Wednesday nighter at Minnesota starting at 6 MDT or else go home at the end of the regular season like it has throughout history.
Utah has climbed to a 15-12 record, and a win at Minneapolis would be a franchise-record 16th in a season.
But the Mercury and the Sacramento Monarchs are both now 18-10 and tied for the playoff-eligible third and fourth spots in the WNBA's Western Conference. Utah must somehow catch one of those teams, and the Starzz are 2 1/2 games behind both with five left for Utah, four left for the other two.
Utah need only tie with them because it holds the playoff tiebreaker on both, having won both season series with them 2-1, but time is running short, and a loss by Utah Wednesday would mean it would have to win every game for sure, and one of the other teams would have to lose three of their last four for Utah to sneak in.
Utah is the only one of the original eight WNBA teams, including Sacramento and Phoenix, to have never made the playoffs.
The Lynx (13-14) are coming off a disheartening loss to league-leading Los Angeles on Monday night that ended Minnesota's three-game wining streak. Brian Agler's young club was in the playoff race until injuries precipitated an eight-game losing streak July 5-21.
Utah's big three — Natalie Williams (league-leading rebounder, 12.0; fourth in scoring, 19.0), Jennifer Azzi (now the WNBA's top free-throw shooter, .938) and Adrienne Goodson (averaging 17.2 points, 5.6 rebounds) — has put on a blitz over the last week. The Starzz, in fact, now have all five starters scoring 9.2 points or more per game. Margo Dydek, the league-leading shot blocker at 3.15 a game, averages 9.8 points, and guard Korie Hlede scores 9.4.
The Starzz continue their critical road swing at Cleveland Thursday and at Charlotte Saturday.