Balanced effort leads Connecticut past Taurasi and Mercury, 93-92

Connecticut’s Alex Bentley had 14 of her season-high 16 points in the second half to help the Sun beat Phoenix Friday night at the Mohegan Sun Arena.

UNCASVILLE, Conn., Aug. 4 – The Connecticut Sun played with some fire and guts Friday night against the Phoenix Mercury and the legendary Diana Taurasi that will be helpful when the Sun earn a berth in the WNBA playoffs in the coming weeks.

Connecticut had six players in double figures, including Alex Bentley, who scored 14 of her season-high 16 points in the second half including a key basket with 18.2 seconds left in regulation to lift the Sun to a 93-92 win over Phoenix at the Mohegan Sun Arena Friday night.

The Sun (15-9) have won three straight since the WNBA All-Star break and beat a Mercury team (13-11) that has been playing well. Taurasi, the former UConn star, had 33 points – her fourth 30-point game of the season on 12-of-18 shooting. Her basket from the corner with 1:20 remaining in the fourth quarter tied the game at 89-89.

On the ensuing possession after Bentley gave the Sun a two-point lead with 18 seconds left, Phoenix’s Stephanie Talbot missed a shot and Connecticut’s Alyssa Thomas pulled down the rebound. Shekinna Stricklen was fouled, and she hit two free throws to secure the win.

Phoenix coach Sandy Brondello said the idea was to get the ball to Taurasi. It didn’t work.

“It was kind of a broken play,” Taurasi said. “We had our opportunities throughout the game to get a little space and we just couldn’t get there so that possession wasn’t nearly important as the first half where we pretty much didn’t come and play.”

Connecticut also played the second half without All-Star guard Jasmine Thomas, who twisted her left ankle with 3:17 remaining the second quarter, trying to guard Taurasi. Thomas, who had 15 points in the first half, was carried off the floor by her teammates and didn’t return.

The Sun had six players in double figures. Jonquel Jones led the way with 19 points and 15 rebounds before fouling out with 2:26 remaining in the game. Alyssa Thomas (18 points, seven rebounds, four assists) played a team-high 36 minutes. Shekenna Stricklen had 11 points while Courtney Williams added 10 points and four assists.

“Could have easily chalked that one up in the loss column considering what we went through, but the team stayed together,” Connecticut coach Curt Miller said. “I didn’t sub Alex (Bentley) out the entire second half, and while she missed some shots I know she is capable of making, she made a big one down the stretch for us. Frankly, I thought she did a pretty good job on Diana considering all of the shots that she was making. Gritty, gritty win, big win for us, and in the grand scheme of things the goal is making the playoffs.”

The Sun had a season-high 53 points at halftime and a 12-point lead. They survived a surge from the Mercury, who drained 11 three-point shots in the game and saw Taurasi sink 33 – the most she has ever scored at the Mohegan Sun Arena. Her previous high was 26 points.

“There are not very many people like Diana (Taurasi) in the league. We tried different things. I thought Alex did as good a job as she could on most plays. All you can hope is that you make her take tough shots. I even talked a little to her (Taurasi) to try and remind her that she was old and getting tired and she just laughed at me,” Miller said.

Stricklen said teamwork – six players in double figures — helped the Sun prevail in front a crowd of 7,331.

“It means a lot. It’s not that one person you got to focus on, it’s everyone,” Stricklen said. “We play together so well and that’s a big thing for this team and if we keep playing like that, we’re going to keep moving forward.”

The Sun opened a one-game lead over Washington (14-10) and a two-game lead over the Mercury (13-11) for the third seed in the upcoming WNBA playoffs. The top eight teams – regardless of conference – earn a spot in the WNBA playoffs. The top four teams will receive first round byes.

Connecticut has nine games remaining in the regular season and another two games with Phoenix. The Mercury return to the Mohegan Sun Arena on Sunday, August 20 for a 3 p.m. contest and the Sun will travel to Arizona on Friday, September 1.

It’s always great to come back here and play,” Taurasi said. “They (Connecticut) have had really good fans here for a while now.  I can remember back to when KT (Katie Douglas) and Nykesha (Nykesha Sales) were here and this place was rocking so they have a great atmosphere.  They have a young and talented team this year so it was fun out there.”

Connecticut returns to the court on Tuesday when they host the Seattle Storm at 7 p.m. at the Mohegan Sun Arena. They will be presenting UConn associate head coach Chris Daley with the Margo Dydek Award at halftime.

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