Center could return before season ends

PHOENIX -- Mercury center Maria Stepanova, who was averaging 10.6 points and leading the WNBA with 2.4 blocked shots per game, planned to leave the team on Wednesday to rejoin the Russian national squad.

Stepanova, who returned to the Mercury this season after a three-year hiatus, started 14 of 15 games including Tuesday night's contest against Detroit.

In a statement released by the Mercury, Stepanova said she expected to come back to Phoenix for the 2006 season.

Mercury general manager Seth Sulka said the five-year WNBA veteran could return before the end of this season if her Russian commitment ends.

The Russian national team plays Sept. 3 in the European Championships, a qualifying tournament for the world championships.