UNCASVILLE, Conn., Aug. 7 – There were many questions surrounding the Connecticut Sun when this WNBA season began. How could they absorb the loss of former All-Star Katie Douglas (retired), rookie of the year Chiney Ogwumike (injury) and veteran guard Allison Hightower (injury)? Where would the scoring come from?
How about Alex Bentley? The third-year guard from Penn State scored a career-high 31 points Friday night to lead the Sun to a big 86-72 win over the Washington Mystics. The Sun began the season with a surprising 7-1 start before stumbling by losing eight of 10 games.
The victory keeps the Sun (11-9) right in the thick of the hunt for a playoff berth in the Eastern Conference. The Sun picked up a 31-point win over San Antonio on Wednesday but that was against the last place team in the Western Conference. This was a win over the Mystics, which already has beaten the Sun twice this season and came into the game one game behind New York for the Eastern Conference lead.
Connecticut travels to Washington (12-8) for a Sunday contest at 4 p.m. to conclude the season series.
“We were wondering where the points would come from (at the beginning of the season),” Sun coach Anne Donovan said with a grin. “I think we figured it out tonight. Alex was back to her usual self. She was aggressive, she got to the perimeter and drove to the basket.”
And Bentley got plenty of help from her teammates. Shekinna Stricklen came off the bench to score 11 points while Kelsey Bone added 10 in the middle. Guard Jasmine Thomas had a season-high eight assists while Bentley and forward Camille Little had six assists each. The Sun had 23 assists on 35 baskets.
“I love our assist to field goal ratio,” Donovan beamed afterwards. “You need to move the ball against Washington.”
Connecticut also controlled the backboard. In the final 6:29 of the contest, the Mystics missed eight of their final 11 shots and the Sun came down with six rebounds.
The Sun outrebounded Washington, 33-23 and held a 26-7 edge on Washington’s offensive glass.
“Everything went wrong,” Washington coach Mike Thibault said. “They got full court drives, they got offensive boards, we missed some easy shots. It was just a series of those type of plays. Give them credit, they shot the hell out of it tonight, but with our defensive scheme (Alex) Bentley certainly shouldn’t have gotten 31 tonight. She played great, she made shots early and gave herself confidence.”
The Sun led by as many as 15 points before Washington climbed back into the game with a 14-0 run. LaToya Sanders hit a jumper with 7:08 remaining in the game to tie the game at 62-62. It was the first tie of the game. The Sun raced out to a 13-3 lead in the first quarter.
Connecticut didn’t panic. Bentley came down the floor and drained a three-pointer from the top of the key to give the Sun the lead again. “Some one had to stop the bleeding,” she joked. “They left me open so I took the shot.”
The Sun took turns tormenting the Mystics. Thomas split two Washington defenders and drove to the basket for a layup that extended the lead to five points, 67-62. Little and Stricklen had offensive rebounds in the possession to keep the play alive for Connecticut.
Stricklen drained a three-point shot to extend the lead to eight, 70-62 with 5:10 remaining. Washington cut the lead to five with 4:47 left but that is as close as they could get. Bentley, who had a career-high 12 field goals, scored the final three baskets of the game. Twice, she drove past two defenders in the lane.
“It’s a huge win, a huge win,” Thomas said. “We work hard. When we play together like that and stay on the same page, we’ll win basketball games. We need to keep doing that going forward.”
Emma Meesseman led the Mystics with 15 points while Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, Ivory Latta, Bria Hartley and Tayler Hill had nine points each. Former UConn All-American Stefanie Dolson scored three points in just 14 minutes of action.
Connecticut plays at Washington on Sunday and returns home to face Tulsa next Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Mohegan Sun casino.