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Women's basketball is on the rise. Can the Phoenix Mercury be part of it?

Women's basketball has risen to unprecedented heights over the past year.

The Phoenix Mercury hopes to ride that wave and return back to its winning culture in the 2024 WNBA season after the team's league-worst record last year (9-31).

So much has happened to the Mercury and within its periphery. The world has witnessed the sport’s top players and teams reach uncharted territory, overcome dire straits, which has bolstered interest.

“It’s about time," Phoenix's 19-year veteran Diana Taurasi said about the sport's rise.

The WNBA's all-time leading scorer Taurasi added to her legacy as the league's first 10,000-point scorer last August.

Brittney Griner triumphantly came home play a full season after she was imprisoned in Russia for 10 months in 2022.

The Mercury hired a new general manager a Nick U'Ren last October, and second head coach in Nate Tibbetts since the team's 2021 finals run. After Sandy Brondello left Phoenix right after the Mercury lost to the Chicago Sky in the finals, and she led the super team New York Liberty to its runner-up finish to the vaunted repeat title winner Las Vegas Aces last year. The Liberty-Aces matchup drew the WNBA finals viewership ratings as the league's most-watched championship series in 20 years.

Plus, the Mercury is hosting the All-Star Game in July.

“It’s super exciting. It’s a great time to be involved with women’s sports in general, not only just our league, but I just want to play a part and help pushing this forward," Tibbetts said at the Mercury's media availability on April 28.

"All the work has been done before this. This is great momentum, and our team, our organization wants to help raise the level in every way that we can.”

In the college ranks, the women's Final Four had 13.8 million viewers, nearly 300% higher than 2022, eclipsing the Men's Final Four numbers, according to ESPN.

The Final Four had the undefeated South Carolina, the Caitlin Clark-led Iowa, blue-blood Connecticut, and North Carolina State. South Carolina beat the Iowa for the national title, a couple weeks after Clark broke Pete Maravich's NCAA all-time scoring scoring record that stood for 54 years.

The Indiana Fever and its No. 1 overall pick Clark will play in their highly anticipated game at Phoenix on June 30.

"It's an inflection point of where we're at. She obviously gets a ton of attention. She's an amazing player," Mercury CEO Josh Bartelstein said about Clark at the team's media day on Thursday.

"It's terrific rookie class. ... I just think all the notoriety around all these amazing women, what they're doing in college, how it's transferring to the W, and I think all of us leaders in this league is our job to promote our teams but to promote the league, just like in the NBA."

Mercury embraces new coach Tibbetts' energy at training camp

Tibbetts replaced the Mercury’s former interim coach Nikki Blue. She was promoted last June from being one of the team's assistant coaches under Vanessa Nygaard, who was fired after just over one full season.

“I’m really excited to get going. It’s been a long off-season from when I first came here, but thankfully some of our veterans have been in town," Tibbetts said about preparing for the season with Mercury players in Phoenix.

Tibbetts transitioned from the NBA as an Orlando Magic assistant coach the past three years. His additional past experience was with the Portland Trail Blazers from 2013 to 2021, and the Cleveland Cavaliers from 2011 to 2013.

Mercury Head Coach Nate Tibbetts attends a news conference announcing his introduction to the team at Footprint Center in Phoenix on Oct. 20, 2023.
Mercury Head Coach Nate Tibbetts attends a news conference announcing his introduction to the team at Footprint Center in Phoenix on Oct. 20, 2023.

The Mercury's owner Mat Ishbia made Tibbetts the highest-paid coach in league history, which surpassed Las Vegas coach Becky Hammon's $1 million salary. Tibbetts doesn't have head coaching experience, and that drew backlash on social media for perceived sexism as a male getting the job over Blue, who was also a first-time head coach.

“I hate men. I don’t know how they hired him,” Taurasi joked about Tibbetts. She continued in praise of him, “That’s just all hot smoke. The man is a coach. That’s what he does for his whole life.

"He coached at the highest level in the NBA, and to have an opportunity to be around him for the past four or five months, it’s been refreshing. … I’m just really excited for us and our fans.”

Tibbetts said he spent much time with the team's core trio in Taurasi, Griner, and Sophie Cunningham.

“For him to come to the NBA and meet us (in the WNBA) where we’re at and see our talent and see our skill, he’s thrilled to be with us, too. He’s very personable," Cunningham said. "He’s not messing around, though. He means business, and let me tell you this is the best training camp I’ve ever been a part of. It’s the best off-season I’ve been a part of. He’s very intentional about what we’re doing, and we’re creating something special out here in Phoenix.”

The Mercury's lost both of their preseason games against the Seattle Storm and Los Angeles Sparks last Tuesday and Friday. The season opener's at the two-time defending champion Las Vegas Aces this Tuesday, May 14.

Phoenix Mercury guard Sophie Cunningham (9) greets guard Sug Sutton (1) during a time out against the Washington Mystics at Footprint Center in Phoenix on Sept. 5, 2023.
Phoenix Mercury guard Sophie Cunningham (9) greets guard Sug Sutton (1) during a time out against the Washington Mystics at Footprint Center in Phoenix on Sept. 5, 2023.

Two of the Mercury's new veteran guards in Kahleah Copper and Natasha Cloud, backup point guard Sug Sutton, and rookie Charisma Osborne agreed that Tibbetts’ energy, or “heat” as he calls it, has been infectious.

His coaching staff even participates in the players' drills, plus implements a large cache of schemes in its offensive and defensive systems to foster the team’s camaraderie.

Among the league's 12 teams, and myriad of franchises such as the Houston Comets that won several titles then became defunct, Phoenix is among the original three alongside New York and L.A.

It's been 10 years since Phoenix’s third title, and raised those banners (2007, 2009, 2014) within a seven-year span. Taurasi and Griner led Phoenix to its latter two titles.

“We understand each of our parts in winning, and all of our goals are just focused on bringing the organization back to the dynasty that it used to be," Cloud said.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: How the Phoenix Mercury can return to championship ways