UNCASVILLE, July 13 – Last September, a veteran Phoenix Mercury team led by Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner pulled away from the Connecticut Sun in the final minutes to secure a second round victory in the WNBA playoffs, spoiling a magical season that saw the Sun earn their first WNBA playoff berth since 2012.
On Friday night, the Sun came through in the final two minutes to snap a three-game losing streak with a 91-87 victory over the Mercury at the Mohegan Sun Arena.
Guard Courtney Williams, who missed four games in the recent West Coast road swing, scored the final six points of the game for the Sun. She drove to the basket and scored off a beautiful assist from Alyssa Thomas with 2:06 left to break an 85-85 tie.
With 45 seconds remaining, Williams took another sharp pass from Thomas and drained a two-point from the top of the key for an 89-85 lead. Griner scored with 39.9 seconds left and Taurasi missed a baseline jumper with 3.9 seconds left as the Sun (11-10) secured the victory.
Williams scored a team-high 25 points, sinking 11 of 20 shots. She also tied a career-high with 10 rebounds. Chiney Ogwumike finished with 22 points, shooting a season-high 90 percent, draining 10-of-11 from the floor before fouling out with 4:36 remaining.
And Thomas’ performance was an example of what the Sun missed when she sat out 10 games after injuring a shoulder against Washington in early June.
Thomas had 11 points, eight rebounds and a career-high 10 assists. She had back-to-back assists to Williams in the final 2:06. She also had assists on three consecutive Sun baskets to Ogwumike in a 2:22 span midway through the fourth quarter.
“If anyone didn’t realize that she is our MVP and that she is our best player to play through, all you have to do is watch that game and everything she brought to the table,” Sun coach Curt Miller said. “Points, assists, two rebounds away from a triple-double. More importantly, really helping our centers contain (6-foot-9) Brittney Griner to a low shot attempt (nine shots).”
With her dominating size, Griner can be an imposing defender. But on multiple occasions the Sun, sparked by Thomas, made the extra passes in the lane to get open shots.
Connecticut led by seven points 85-78 after Jasmine Thomas sank a three-pointer with 3:42 remaining only to see the Mercury run off seven straight points and tie the game.
But there was Alyssa Thomas doubled team by the Mercury defense finding Williams, who drove to the basket to give the Sun a two-point lead with 2:06 remaining.
When Taurasi missed a shot from the top of the key with 1:03 left in regulation, it was Williams who corralled the rebound. Later in the possession, Alyssa Thomas handed it off to Williams to leaped into the air with a jump shot with 45 seconds left to extend the lead to four points, 89-85.
“She’s got that swagger that as a coach, you love,” Miller said of Williams. “She is the ultimate in “next play.’” She could miss three shots in a row, and at times like she really struggled to dribble the ball tonight. But when we needed it, she can go get you baskets. She rises to the moment.“
Williams shrugged off the compliment.
“I think we just needed buckets and we needed stops,” she said. “We played disciplined on defense, kept our intensity up without doing anything stupid and tried to get the best shot on offense.”
The Sun led by as many as 12 points in the first half but trailed by two points at halftime. In the third quarter, Connecticut played well and again led by as many as 12 points, 73-61 after Jonquel Jones scored on a fast break off an assist with 24 seconds left in the quarter from – wait for it – Alyssa Thomas.
The Sun closed out the quarter with an 8-2 run with Alyssa Thomas scoring six straight points for Connecticut on a drive to the basket, a basket in the lane and a shot off the glass before her assist to Jones.
“It feels good having her back in the lineup,” Williams said.
Taurasi scored a game-high 28 points and sank a season-high five three-point shots. She pulled down seven rebounds and had six assists. Back-to-back three-point shots early in the fourth quarter took a big chunk out of Connecticut’s 12-point lead.
A deep three-point shot from Taurasi with 3:06 cut the lead to two points and Taurasi had a pretty assist on a shot from Angel Robinson that tied the game at 85-85 with 2:36 remaining.
Griner scored in the lane off an assist from DeWanna Bonner with 39 seconds left to cut the Connecticut lead to two points, 89-87. It was Taurasi who intercepted a pass from Williams with 11 seconds left to give Phoenix the ball with a chance to tie or win.
But Taurasi’s shot on the baseline over Jasmine Thomas with 3.9 seconds bounced off the rim and Williams got the rebound.
Taurasi didn’t cut herself nor her teammates any slack of coming close. “I missed a layup. You have to make layups at the end of the game,” she said. “You make that layup we are in good shape. You miss that layup and we are in bad shape, so you have to make layups at the end of the game, that’s on me.
“We have to do a better job of giving effort for 40 minutes, that’s just the bottom line,” she said. “We know every team wants to come in and beat us. They are jumping up and down like they won a championship, they are .500 (now 11-10) and we understand that. We have to bring a different level of mental strength and physical consistency and when we do it we are pretty good and when we don’t, we are just an average team.”
Griner had 19 points for Phoenix (14-8) while Bonner scored 16. Angel Robinson chipped in with 10.
This was a much-needed win for Connecticut – especially coming off the heels of losing to the New York Liberty on Wednesday with a shot at the buzzer. The Sun had lost nine of their last 12 contests.
“It was huge,” Ogwumike said. “I think we have been waiting for a game like this. We have been in so many situations this season, up by a lot, down by a lot. I think all of those experiences have taught us to play hard every possession.
“We weren’t perfect every possession, but we played hard every possession and I think the only thing we still are learning this season is learning how to close together. Tonight was a good learning experience for us, and we proved that we do know what to do at the end of a game,” she said.
Connecticut won’t have much time to savor this victory – no one does in the league this year with a condensed schedule to get the campaign over in time to participate in the world championships in September in Spain.
The Sun travel to Minnesota to take on the Lynx (12-9) and former UConn star Maya Moore and former Sun All-Star guard Lindsay Whalen at the Target Center on Sunday night at 7 p.m. (WCCT, Channel 20). The Sun return home on Tuesday night when they host the Atlanta Dream at 7 p.m. at the Mohegan Sun Arena.