When the Lynx began the season 0-6, coach Cheryl Reeve knew few people outside of Target Center expected them to make the playoffs. Inside the locker room, it was a different story.
"When you walked in the gym, you wouldn't know the team was 0-6," Reeve said. "It was a group that felt like we weren't that far off. And they believed in themselves, and in each other."
The Lynx made it happen Sunday, beating Phoenix 86-73 to lock up a WNBA playoff berth. After the Mercury kept things even throughout the first half, the Lynx drew away with a stellar third quarter at Target Center, outscoring Phoenix 28-13.
The victory made the Lynx only the second team in WNBA history to reach the playoffs after starting the season 0-6 or worse.
Kayla McBride and Napheesa Collier provided the one-two punch, powering the Lynx through that decisive third quarter. McBride finished with a team-high 23 points, while Collier added 22 points, 16 rebounds, five assists and three blocked shots. The two combined for 17 points in the third quarter, including 13 during a critical stretch when the Lynx turned a 41-41 tie into a 56-46 lead.
The victory was the 300th in the WNBA for Reeve, who has spent her entire head coaching career with the Lynx. The Lynx end the regular season at Chicago on Friday and at Indiana on Sunday.
"I just told the group, they deserve this," said Reeve, whose team has won four of its past six games. "It's just a step.
"We wanted to get back to the playoffs, certainly, after missing last year. But this is a team that's got a belief in themselves."
Phoenix, which has been eliminated from playoff contention, lost its eighth consecutive game. The Mercury were missing three players because of injury, including Diana Taurasi, the WNBA's all-time leading scorer. Moriah Jefferson (32 points) and Brittney Griner (17) led the way for Phoenix.
The last WNBA team to make the playoffs after such a poor start was Los Angeles, which lost its first seven games in 2015 before rallying. Reeve said her team never stopped working despite its 0-6 record and did everything she asked, making her believe her players would find their footing as the season moved along.
Sunday played out in similar fashion. The Lynx held a 15-11 lead early in the game, but the Mercury scored 14 consecutive points to go up 26-18.
The teams battled back and forth in the second quarter. Rachel Banham completed a four-point play to put the Lynx ahead 41-39, making a free throw after she was knocked down while hitting a corner three. But the Lynx sagged at the end, as Sug Sutton stole the ball and scored on a fast break to tie it 41-41 at halftime.
"We were disappointed with what we did in the first half," McBride said. "I thought we came out a little flat and let them back into the game. We wanted to come out [in the third quarter] with a lot of energy."
The Lynx started the second half on a 13-4 run, with Griner scoring the Mercury's only points in that stretch. Collier said it all started with defense. The Lynx managed to stay aggressive while cutting down on fouls, challenging the Mercury's outside shooters while also tending to Griner.
The lead grew to as many as 18 points in the fourth quarter. The Lynx had a season-high 28 assists on 31 baskets and got another outstanding performance from rookie Dorka Juhász, who finished with 10 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists while providing good defense.