'I'm back': Brittney Griner records double-double in Mercury's 'emotional' home opener

PHOENIX — Brittney Griner knocked down a momentum-shifting three pointer in the closing seconds of the third quarter to bring the Phoenix Mercury within five points of the Chicago Sky during Sunday’s home opener.

“I’m back,” Griner triumphantly yelled.

Her shot triggered a fourth-quarter comeback. The Mercury came within two points with 1:00 remaining in regulation before the Sky pulled away for a 75-69 win. Griner finished with a 27-point, 10-rebound double-double in her first game at Phoenix’s Footprint Center since returning to the U.S. from Russian detainment in December.

Although Phoenix (0-2) is still chasing its first win of the 2023 WNBA season, one thing is clear: The team's X-factor is back.

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Griner previously challenged fans to attend their home opener and the Mercury fanbase, known as the X-Factor, didn’t disappoint. More than 14,000 fans showed up to Footprint Center, nearly double the team's average attendance last season. The crowd included Griner's wife, Cherelle, and her parents, Raymond and Sandra Griner, and Roger Carstens, Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, who all cheered when Griner was introduced to Skylar Grey's "Coming Home."

"It was emotional. Just hearing and seeing some of the clips. They set me up with that song," joked Griner, who said she started to cry during the introduction. "Part of the process of healing is letting it out. I got choked up a little bit and I tried to hide it."

Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard said she was "tearing up" from Griner's home crowd welcome. But it was back to business quickly. The team had to shift gears and "lock in," Griner said.

The 6-foot-9 center won the tip off, sprinted down the floor to score a layup on the opening possession and was fouled on the play. Griner sank the free throw to immediately put the Mercury up 3-0. It was one of many plays that had thousands of purple-and-orange-clad fans on their feet.

Nygaard said that she wishes the Mercury would've been able to cap Griner's homecoming with a win, but noted that Griner has already returned to dominant form. Griner herself said she needs to work on her defense after giving up a crucial turnover in the fourth quarter that the Mercury were unsuccessful in challenging.

"She did fantastic tonight and looking forward to getting that great production out of her," Nygaard said of Griner. "I just continue to be impressed with (Griner). BG is somebody that can handle so many things clearly that many people could not handle. I'm just really happy to have her on the court and to just feel the love from all the fans."

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Center Brittney Griner is introduced before the Phoenix Mercury's home opener against the Chicago Sky on May 21 at Footprint Center.
Center Brittney Griner is introduced before the Phoenix Mercury's home opener against the Chicago Sky on May 21 at Footprint Center.

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It was a different scene in Footprint Center compared to last year’s somber home opener, when Griner was listed on the injury report as "NWT" – Not With Team. “Free BG” shirts and signs have been replaced by ”Welcome Home BG” greetings and Mercury fans are “thankful” she’s back.

“I’m very grateful that Brittney is home and safe,” Kay Powers, a four-year season ticket holder, told USA TODAY Sports on Sunday. Courtney Galura, a five-year season ticket holder, added: “I’m just glad that she is out. I’m just glad to see the team getting back together. They are gelding and getting better."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Brittney Griner, Phoenix Mercury have emotional home opener