UNCASVILLE, August 1 – After a one-week break for the WNBA All-Star Game, Connecticut Sun head coach Curt Miller wanted his team to play with some urgency and some anger when they resumed the season Tuesday night against the New York Liberty at the Mohegan Sun Arena.
It was the beginning of the final eight games of the season – an 18-day stretch that will determine if the Sun make the playoffs.
“I was very passionate about this,” Miller said. “This is a big game. This is one that will certainly give us momentum in these last eight games (of the season). I wanted to get off to a good start. I wanted intensity out of this Sun team.
“When we play with a little edge, we can be really good and really dangerous,” he said.
Connecticut led for most of the first half but New York scored the first eight points of the third quarter to erase a seven-point Sun halftime lead, giving Sun forward Alyssa Thomas a fat lip with an errant elbow in the process.
That helped light a fire under the Sun. Layshia Clarendon had eight points in the third quarter while Jonquel Jones had 13 of her game-high 21 points in the fourth quarter as the Sun won their third straight game with a 92-77 victory over the Liberty before 6,412 fans.
Courtney Williams had 17 for Connecticut and Chiney Ogwumike added 12 points. Alyssa Thomas scored just five points but she had four assists, two steals and a game-high 12 rebounds.
It was a crucial win for Connecticut (15-12) in their hunt for a playoff berth. The top eight teams earn playoff berths and the Sun are currently seventh, just a half game out of fourth place. Los Angeles and Washington are tied for fourth with 15-11 records.
The top two seeds earn a bye into the semifinals while the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds have to play just one single-elimination playoff game. Teams seeded No. 5 through No. 8 have to play back-to-back elimination games.
“I’m proud of our fight,” Miller said. “New York came right at us after halftime and it’s one of those situations where we have lost our composure at times throughout the year. But tonight, we got an edge and had a little bit of fight in us. I was really proud of how we answered that run.”
The Sun played good defense. They held former league MVP Tina Charles, the one-time Sun and UConn star, to a season-low 11 shots from the floor. Charles finished with 12 points.
“I think that’s our third game in a row that you have to credit our defense,” Miller said. “The aggressive (double teams) from the guards really made Tina have to give up the ball early (in a possession). It’s the third straight game that we’re doing good things at the end and we will need that in order to accomplish some of goals (as a team) and make the playoffs.”
The Liberty (7-19) cut the Connecticut lead to six points early in the fourth quarter. But the Sun went on a 8-2 surge with Thomas hitting a jump shot from nine feet away, Jones draining a 25-foot three-point shot and then hitting a six-foot jumper in the lane to increase the lead to 12 points with 7:07 remaining, 74-62.
New York cut the lead to 11 points when Brittany Boyd hit a three-point shot with 3:36 remaining. While it was an 11-point lead, the Sun were keenly aware that the last two games between the two teams were decided on a buzzer-beating three-point shots. On July 11, New York’s Shavonte Zellous hit a three-point shot at the buzzer to beat the Sun at the Mohegan Sun Arena.
But Jones, a 6-foot-3 center, drained a three-point shot from 27 feet away. Thomas followed with a block of New York’s Kia Nurse driving to the basket. Thomas zipped the pass to Jones, who drained another three-point shot from 25 feet away and the lead had swelled to a comfortable 17 points with 2:35 remaining, 85-68, as the crowd roared.
“She is such a dynamic weapon for us inside and outside,” Miller said.
Added Thomas, “When she is knocking down three’s, it gives us a different dimension.”
Jones said, “I was just playing my game – not overthinking anything. I’m just trusting the process and trusting the things we do every day.”
The Liberty were missing two starters – Zellous, who is out with a right ankle sprain, and Epiphanny Prince, who is suffering from a right knee contusion. And former UConn guard Bria Hartley missed much of the fourth quarter with an ankle injury.
“It doesn’t help but it was still a winnable game,” Liberty first-year coach Katie Smith said. “(Connecticut is) tough. They battle and they do not back down. They are strong and have good guards that will go take a hit and get in there and be aggressive. They just keep coming, fly around the court and find each other and things start flowing for them. Jonquel (Jones) did a nice job knocking down shots for them.”
Sugar Rodgers led the Liberty with 16 points, including a pair of three-point shots in the final two minutes while Boyd and Amanda Zahui B each had 14 points. Charles finished with 12.
Connecticut will turn their attention to Bill Laimbeer’s surging Las Vegas Aces, who have won seven of their last 10 games. The Sun will host Las Vegas (12-13) on Sunday at 3 p.m. at the Mohegan Sun Arena.
Not only would a victory keep the Sun moving up in the chase for a playoff berth but it would give Connecticut the tiebreaker edge should they finish tied with the Aces. A win Sunday would give Connecticut a 2-1 edge in the season series – the first criteria for breaking ties.
NOTES: Jones scored more than 20 points for the second game in a row and the fourth time this season … Connecticut’s Courtney Williams matched a career-high with six assists. … It was the sixth time this season that Connecticut had more than 10 three-point shots in a single game. The Sun were 11 of 26 from three-point range. .. There were plenty of former UConn players on the floor. For the Sun, Morgan Tuck (5 points) went to UConn while for the Liberty, Charles, Bria Hartley (3 points, 5 assists), Kia Nurse (4 points) and Kiah Stokes (0 points) all played for the Huskies.