UNCASVILLE, Conn. – It was a wonderful homecoming for former Connecticut Sun star Tina Charles in Friday night’s WNBA opener against the Sun at the Mohegan Sun Arena. Charles’ new teammates on the New York Liberty made sure of it.
The Sun scored eight field goals in the first quarter. But they had just 13 for the remainder of the game as the Liberty rolled past Connecticut, 75-54, before a crowd of 6,039 fans.
Charles didn’t have to carry her team. She scored nine points and pulled down a team-leading nine rebounds. She got plenty of help from Cappie Pondexter, who scored a game-high 17 points and Anna Cruz, who added 11 including a pair of back-breaking three-point shots early in the third quarter.
It was the first game for Charles in Connecticut since her draft day trade to New York in April. Charles had threatened to sit out the season unless she was traded to her hometown team.
“It was a great team win. I’m so proud of these guys and how we were able to pull it together,” Charles said. “It was very satisfying.” Charles was booed throughout the game but she shook it off. “It’s a process. They love you, hate you and love you again. They have a right to feel how they feel. I’m just going to go out and play my hardest.”
The Sun, who led by eight points early in the first half, came apart in the second and third quarter as New York took control. Sun rookie Chiney Ogwumike, the No. 1 pick in the recent WNBA draft, led the Sun with 13 points and five rebounds. Guard Alex Bentley chipped in with 10 points.
Veteran forward Katie Douglas struggled with five points on just seven shots while Allison Hightower managed just six points on five shots. The Sun shot just 30 percent from the floor, hitting 21 of 70 shots.
“We came out and laid an egg,” Sun coach Anne Donovan said.
Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer was pleased, especially after a dismal preseason that saw the Liberty drop three games, including two to the Sun.
“I thought our defense was solid,” Laimbeer said. “We know we’re a defensive team and if we can score on top of that, oh, my gosh, that will be even better.
“We want to hang our hat on defense. That is what New York is about – hard nosed and gritty.”
The Liberty didn’t let up for a second. The Liberty were up by 18 points early in the fourth quarter and Laimbeer roared with delight when his team forced a Sun shot clock violation.
“We definitely found shots,” Donovan said. “In the first half we found the right shots, we just didn’t knock them down. As the game went on, you could feel us more and more panicked about it. We’re not always going to shoot the ball real well, so we have to grind it out defensively and we just didn’t do that. We have to have the mentality ‘We don’t score, they don’t score.’”
In the first half, Connecticut generated some offense from its defense. A Hightower steal led to a fast break layup by Kelsey Bone to give the Sun an early three-point lead, 10-7. Renee Montgomery drained a three-point shot and a 15-foot jumper to give the Sun a six-point lead, 17-11.
Montgomery stole the ball and fed Ogwumike to give Connecticut a 19-11 advantage with 2:47 left in the quarter. But New York didn’t panic and closed out the quarter with a 9-2 run.
Down by one, New York scored seven straight points to open the second quarter with five points from Charles. They extended their lead to six but Connecticut twice cut the lead to two on a jumper from Hightower with 3:09 left and a four-foot turnaround jumper from Ogwumike with 1:49 remaining.
But New York closed out the quarter with a 6-2 surge to take a six-point lead at halftime.
In the third quarter, Pondexter opened the scoring with a three-point shot, Cruz stole a soft pass from Kelsey Griffin and drove to the basket for two points and a minute later, Cruz drained a three-point shot for a 12-point lead.
“It’s definitely not the way we wanted to come out,” Douglas said. “I feel like the two preseason games with New York we came out with a lot more energy. Obviously it was a different New York team that we saw tonight and we knew that and expected that. Give New York credit, they came in and executed their game plan where I feel like we did not execute ours both defensively and offensively. So it was not our best night but we have a young team and we have to learn from this.”
The Sun hit the road and face two-time defending WNBA champion Minnesota on Sunday at 5 p.m.
NOTES: Connecticut was 2-of-15 from three-point range while the Liberty were 5-of-11. … New York was called for just 12 fouls tonight. That is tied for the second fewest by a visiting team at Mohegan Sun Arena. San Antonio was whistled for just 10 fouls in a game at Connecticut on June 21, 2009.
New York 75, Connecticut 54
At Uncasville, Conn.
New York (75) Essence Carlson 3-0-7, Delisha Milton Jones 3-4-10, Tina Charles 3-3-9, Anna Cruz 5-0-11, Cappie Pondexter 6-3-17, Alex Montgomery 3-2-9, Plenette Pierson 1-0-2, Kara Braxton 3-0-6, Toni Young 0-0-0, Sugar Rodgers 0-0-0, Chucky Jeffrey 2-0-4. Totals 29-12-75
Connecticut (54) Katie Douglas 1-3-5, Kelsey Griffin 1-0-2, Chiney Ogwumike 5-3-13, Allison Hightower 2-2-6, Alex Bentley 4-1-10, Kelsey Bone 3-0-6, Renee Montgomery 2-0-5, Kayla Pedersen 0-0-0, Alyssa Thomas 3-1-7, Kelley Cain 0-0-0, Danielle McCray 0-0-0. Totals 21-10-54
New York 20 17 19 19 – 75
Connecticut 21 10 11 12 — 54
Three-point goals: Carson, Cruz, Pondexter 2, Montgomery; Bentley, Montgomery