Playing without All-Star center Chiney Ogwumike, who sat out the game with a knee injury, the Connecticut Sun showed they are ready to contend for a WNBA championship when next week’s WNBA playoffs begin.
After allowing the defending WNBA champion Minnesota Lynx hit 82 percent of their shots from the floor in the first period, the Sun played tough defense in the second half that lifted Connecticut to a 96-79 victory Friday night at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville.
With a win, the Sun did clinch a home playoff game. If they want a first round bye and a home game next Thursday, August 23, they need to beat the Los Angeles Sparks in the regular season finale Sunday at 3 p.m. at the Mohegan Sun Arena. With a win over the Sparks, the Sun would clinch the No. 4 seed.
Trailing by three points at halftime, the Sun began the third quarter with a 13-4 run sparked by Alyssa Thomas. To open the fourth quarter, Connecticut scored the first nine points and didn’t allow a field goal to take command of the contest.
Despite 25 points from Minnesota’s Sylvia Fowles, the current league MVP, Connecticut (20-13) prevailed to sweep the three-game series from the Lynx (17-16). The Sun have won eight of their last nine games.
Starting in place of Ogwumike, Connecticut’s Jonquel Jones continued her outstanding play as the season draws to a close. The 6-foot-6 center had a game-high 26 points, five rebounds and four blocks. Jones tied a career-high with five 3-point shots and was 8-of-11 from the floor.
Thomas scored 18 points, including six in that 13-point Connecticut run to open the third quarter. She also had eight assists and was 8-of-10 from the field. Layshia Clarendon had 14 points off the bench and a season-high five assists while Courtney Williams chipped with 13 points.
“When I took over this job (December 2015), we talked about building a franchise and building a culture here that could play and eventually be built for championships,” he said. “If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best and we have modeled ourselves (after Minnesota) trying to create a championship culture and a championship team.”
The past two seasons, Connecticut is 6-3 against the Lynx. At halftime, Miller stressed defense with his team.
“Coach was on us about our defensive intensity,” said Jones, who made her first start since July 11. “I think we were in the right place on defense, but like he said, we needed to have more active hands and be willing to get stops. We also needed to play at a higher pace because they have a lot of players that play a lot of minutes.”
After making her first eight shots from the floor in the first half, Fowles missed her first three shots. And the Sun were hustling. Alyssa Thomas grabbed a miss from Jasmine Thomas to score her first points of the quarter. Thomas scored 12 of her 18 points in the third quarter.
She used a spin move to get through the lane to score one basket and had a few driving runs to the basket. She also had some nice assists on baskets from Jones and Shekinna Stricklen.
Jones’ three-point shots were punches to the gut for the Lynx. Three times, Jones got the ball, took a step back and drained a three-point shot.
Fowles converted on back-to-back possessions late in the third quarter and the Lynx cut the Sun lead to two points, 63-61 but Jones responded with a three-pointer to push the league back to six points.
Connecticut led by five after three quarters and Clarendon scored off a nice bounce pass from Morgan Tuck to extend the lead to seven, 74-67. On the defensive end, Jones blocked a Lynx shot. Minnesota got the rebound but coughed it up to Jasmine Thomas and second later, it was Jones calmly stepping behind the three-point line and draining another three-point shot for a 10-point lead, 77-67.
Clarendon sank a pair of free throws with 7:27 left and Jones took a nice feed from Tuck in the lane to extend the lead to 14 points, 81-67.
The Lynx missed their first six shots of the fourth quarter as the Sun pulled away.
“They came out with a real intensity about them to start off (the second) half and give them credit for that,” Minnesota guard Lindsay Whalen said. “They have a very talented team, a lot of really good players and they have really found this year how to play together. I give them credit for a really good performance tonight and I thought we still had some good looks.”
It was a bittersweet finale for Whalen, who played her final regular season game in Connecticut. Whalen was a first round draft pick of the Sun in 2004 out of the University of Minnesota and led Connecticut to the WNBA finals in 2004 and 2005.
She didn’t get the start but received a loud, standing ovation from the Sun fans prior to the tipoff. She played 11 minutes and scored six points. A four-time WNBA champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist with Team USA, Whalen will be retiring at the end of the season to become the head coach of the Minnesota women’s program.
The Sun had 25 assists on 35 made field goals, setting new single-season franchise records in both categories. Connecticut now has 644 assists and 1,112 made field goals. The old franchise marks were 630 assists in 2006 and 1,098 made field goals last year.
The Sun also posted back-to-back 20-win seasons for the first time since 2011-12.
The Sun close out the regular season on Sunday at 3 p.m., celebrating Fan Appreciation Day at Mohegan Sun Arena with a game against Los Angeles. The Sun clinch the No. 4 seed with a win over the Sparks or the Phoenix Mercury losing at home to New York on Sunday afternoon.
The WNBA playoffs begin on Tuesday with the first round – a pair of single-elimination contests. The winners advance to Thursday’s second round to face the No. 3 and No. 4 seeded teams in another round of single-elimination contests.
The WNBA semifinals, a best-of-five series, begin the following week on August 26. The top two seeds – Seattle is the No. 1 seed – get byes into the semifinals.