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Griner, Taurasi lead Phoenix past Connecticut for second straight year

Down by two points, Connecticut’s Courtney Williams tries to score on an underhanded layup with 1:53 left in the game but Phoenix’s 6-9 Brittany Griner, left, is about to block the shot. Griner had a playoff-high 27 points and blocked six shots as the Mercury eliminated the Sun Thursday, 96-86.

UNCASVILLE, August 23 – The Connecticut Sun have shown they can get to the playoffs and earn home court advantage. Now, they need to learn win at home in the playoffs.

For the second straight year, the Sun were eliminated by the Phoenix Mercury, 96-86 in the second round of the WNBA playoffs. A year ago, the Mercury rallied to beat Connecticut and end a happy season that saw the Sun qualify for the playoffs for the first time in six years.

Last night, Phoenix ignored the roaring crowd at the Mohegan Sun Arena and outscored the Sun, 12-2 in the final 3:53 of the contest to eliminate Connecticut and earn a berth in the WNBA semifinals against top-seeded Seattle.

The Sun trailed by three points with 4:42 remaining but the crowd of 7,858 roared when Courtney Williams hit a three-pointer as the shot clock expired and was fouled. She sank the free throw to give Connecticut a one-point lead, 82-81.

After an airball by the Mercury, it was Williams who hit a jumper with 3:53 remaining to give Connecticut an 84-81 lead.

“There was a moment when we could’ve have said, we’re good. We’ve had some good moment this season. Let’s go back to Phoenix, get ready for USA basketball. Get ready for the overseas trip,” said Phoenix’s Diana Taurasi, the 36-year-old future Hall of Famer.

The Sun would score just one more basket in the game.

Phoenix’s Brittany Griner gets a finger on a shot by Connecticut’s Alyssa Thomas in Thursday’s WNBA playoff game in Uncasville. Phoenix eliminated the Sun, 96-86.

Six-foot-9 Brittany Griner, who had playoff career-high 27 points and six blocks, scored four points in the final three minutes, had a steal and made a huge block on Williams, who tried to get an underhanded shot past Griner on the baseline with 1:53 remaining.

“I think we relish those moments where it is really up to you if you want to keep playing,” said Taurasi, who also scored 27 points. “It’s up to you and it’s up to the group.”

For the Sun, Griner was just too much to handle.

After being held to just eight points and three shots in the first half, Griner took 15 shots in the second, made 10 and scored 21 points. Taurasi had 27 points for Phoenix while DeWanna Bonner added 23 points and pulled down a game-high 18 rebounds.

“She was big for us,” Phoenix coach Sandy Brondello said. “In the first half, we didn’t get her the ball enough and she wasn’t being aggressive enough. In the second half, we made an emphasis to get her the ball and let her go to work. I kept reminding her that the only person that can stop you is you.”

The Sun (21-14) had four players in double figures including Courtney Williams, who scored a franchise playoff record 27 points. Alyssa Thomas scored 17 while Jasmine Thomas added 14. Jonquel Jones started for the third consecutive game and finished with 13 points.

Williams had eight rebounds, three assists and 11 field goals. She was 4-of-5 from three-point range.

“Both teams played outstanding basketball with (a) low (number of) turnovers, big plays and (the) stars showing up on the big stage,” Sun coach Curt Miller said. “I thought we did a ton of good things and got ourselves in position to be able to pull out this game.”

But the Sun couldn’t stop Griner or the Mercury, who scored 56 points in the second half.

“We couldn’t find a way to disrupt them,” Miller said. “They did what they had to do and we didn’t make the same plays they did down the stretch.”

Connecticut’s Alyssa Thomas drives to the basket for two of her 17 points in Thursday’s 96-86 loss to Phoenix in the WNBA playoffs.

Connecticut never led by more than seven points, and each time the Sun appeared ready to break the game open, Phoenix would rally.

Late in the third quarter, the Sun led by 67-61 when a Stephanie Talbot three started an 11-4 Phoenix run to close out the third quarter. It was Griner who capped off the quarter with basket in the paint over Chiney Ogwumike, who played in her first WNBA playoff game.

Williams’ four-point play that energized the crowd with 4:19 remaining gave the Sun their first lead of the fourth quarter, 82-81. Jones was double teamed in the paint and she kicked the ball back out to Williams, who beat the buzzer with a three-pointer and was fouled in the process.

Williams’ extended the lead to three points, 84-81 hitting a 18-foot jump shot with 3:55 remaining.

“We regrouped together and stayed together,” Taurasi said. “We found a way to stay together in those tough moments.”

After throwing up an airball just a minute earlier, Talbot drained a three-point shot to tie the game at 84-84. Alyssa Thomas took a nice feed from Williams and drove through the lane to tie the game at 86-86 with 2:32 remaining. But those were the Sun’s final points of the game.

Connecticut missed their final five shots from the field, had one pass stolen and one shot blocked. The Mercury pulled down the final four rebounds of the game.

“I am of course disappointed,” Connecticut guard Jasmine Thomas said. “Disappointed for my team because I know how bad we wanted this and how we made it a goal to be back in this position this season. We accepted the challenge and wanted it. Disappointed, frustrated but also extremely proud of my team. I have seen us go through so much behind the scenes and on the court. This year has been special for us in so many ways and it would have been nice to be able to advance tonight, because I wanted it that bad for this group.”

Phoenix’ Diana Taurasi scored 27 points to lead the Mercury past the Sun in the playoffs in the second straight season.

Bonner’s driving layup with 2:10 remaining gave the Mercury a two-point lead, 88-86. On the Sun’s next possession, Griner blocked Williams on the baseline. Griner sank two foul shots with 1:40 left in the game to extend the lead to four points, 90-86.

Griner intercepted a pass from Shekinna Stricklen with 1:26 left and Bonner converted on a driving, finger roll layup with 1:11 remaining to push the lead to six points, 92-86.

Jones honored: Connecticut Sun center Jonquel Jones was named Sixth Woman of the Year, the league said Thursday.

Jones, who averaged 11.8 points with a career-high 50 made three-pointers during the 2018 season, came off the bench in 18 of 34 games. She led the Sun in scoring five times and shared for the lead in two other games.

“I’m extremely excited for JJ being recognized for her outstanding year in the role that she had for us this season,”  Miller said. “She was a huge spark coming off the bench and continues to show that she has a chance to be one of the elite players in this league for a long time.”

During Connecticut’s stretch drive to make the playoffs, Jones averaged 18.5 points and 6.6 rebounds with 26 3-point shots and a pair of double-doubles as the Sun closed the season by winning nine out of 10 games. Against Chicago on August 12, she had a season-high 15 rebounds and 17 points and came back two nights later to collect a season-high 27 points to go along with 10 rebounds against Dallas.

NOTES – It was the second-ever playoff game between the two teams. … The Sun were the hottest team in the league winning nine of their final 10 games. … Taurasi is 13-0 in WNBA series ending games – single-elimination, Game 3 in best-of-3 series and game 5 in best-of-5 series. She is 17-5 in elimination games in her 14-year WNBA career.

Gerry deSimas, Jr., is the editor and founder of The Collinsville Press. He is an award-winning writer and has been covering sports in Connecticut and New England for more than 30 years. He was inducted into the New England High School Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2018.

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