The Connecticut Sun did more than get a win Sunday afternoon against the Los Angeles Sparks before a season-high 8,073 fans at the Mohegan Sun Arena. They earned some crucial days off before they will begin the WNBA playoffs on Thursday on their home floor.
The 2018 WNBA campaign has been an intense sprint with the season two weeks shorter than it was a year ago because of the league’s decision to complete the 2018 campaign before the world championship tournament (newly-named World Cup) begins on September 22 in Spain.
Four teams begin their playoff runs on Tuesday. Thanks to Sunday’s hard-fought 89-86 victory in Uncasville, the Sun begin their post-season on Thursday with an additional three days of rest. Meanwhile, the Sparks are playing Tuesday night along with the defending WNBA champion Minnesota Lynx, the Dallas Wings and the Phoenix Mercury.
The Sun (21-13) had to earn their rest. The Sparks have played in the last three WNBA finals – winning in 2016. Connecticut took leads but Los Angeles (19-15) would not relent. The Sun led by as many as eight points in the first quarter, had an 18-point lead at one point in the second quarter, and were up by 19 twice in the third quarter. The Sparks responded each time.
“We have a motto up on our board a home. Heart of a champion,” Sparks coach Brian Angler said. “We showed that tonight. Our standards are high, our season has been a roller coaster, disappointing at times, but not discouraging.”
After Shekinna Stricklen put the Sun ahead by 19 points, 65-46, with just under five minutes remaining, the Sparks responded with a 17-4 run to pull within six points, 69-63, at the end of the third quarter.
Connecticut had a four-point lead early in the fourth quarter when Courtney Williams and Tuck combined for eight points as the Sun lead swelled to 10 points, 77-67.
It was still a 10-point lead (82-72) when Los Angeles made its last run, getting within two points, 86-84, when Candace Parker (20 points, 10 rebounds) hit a long three-pointer with 5.1 seconds left.
Connecticut’s veteran point guard Jasmine Thomas stepped up to make two free throws after the intentional foul, but Los Angeles’ Riquna Williams was fouled on a three-point attempt and made two of three foul shots to cut the lead to two points. Thomas hit her last free throw attempt to ice the game.
“There was determination in our leader. Jasmine Thomas was literally everything we could have asked for tonight. She willed us,” Sun coach Curt Miller said. “(At halftime), we talked a lot about, was our will going to be bigger than their will?
“There is no one with bigger will than Jasmine and she just brought us along with it,” he said. “While LA made some big plays down the stretch and made us work for it, we got to the finish line. We know we lost a couple games here really close, tough games so getting to the finish line was huge.“
Thomas had a game-high 27 points with five assists and five rebounds to lead the Sun. She was 4 of 5 from three-point range and 7 of 7 from the free throw line, including three free throws in the last four seconds to ice the win.
“Early on my shot was falling and I stayed with it,” Thomas said. “J.J. (Jonquel Jones) made some extra passes to me and I knocked down the shots. For the most part, all of us were on the same page and moving the ball well inside out in the first half.”
Jonquel Jones (17 points, nine rebounds, seven assists) continued her torrid play, making two more three-pointers while stepping up on defense. She made her second straight start as All-Star Chiney Oguwmike sat out her second straight game with a sore knee that she hurt in Tuesday’s win over Dallas. Now, Oguwmike has another three days to rest it and prepare for her WNBA playoff debut with the Sun.
Williams (13 points, four rebounds, three assists), Stricklen (10 points with two made threes and four rebounds) and Morgan Tuck (10 points, two made threes) also made crucial contributions.
The Sun were 11 of 20 from three-point range and 32 of 63 (50.8 percent) overall from the field while also hitting on 14 of 16 free throws.
For Los Angeles, Jantel Lavender (17 points), Essence Carson (14 points), Chelsea Gray (12 points, seven assists) and Odyssey Sims (11 points) paced the Sparks.
Connecticut finished the season by going 9-1 in their final 10 games. They have won four straight games.
“I can’t be (more) proud of our players finishing 9-1 in our last 10 games and stepping up to the plate against a lot of really talented teams and taking care of business at home,” Miller said.
In the last four games, the Sun beat Chicago, Dallas, Minnesota and Los Angeles in eight days at the Mohegan Sun Arena. Sunday’s game against the Sparks was in front of a season-high 8,040 fans.
“(I am) proud of our team, proud of our fan base being patient and then attending four games in eight days,” Miller said. “That’s not always possible in a fan base to attend that many games in a shorter period of time and they just kept coming back, kept getting bigger, kept getting louder, so we really appreciate (it).”
If the Sun can their playoff game on Thursday night, they will advance to face top-seeded Seattle in the best-of-five WNBA semifinals. Thursday night’s playoff game in Uncasville is scheduled to tip off at 8:30 p.m.
NOTES: The Sun are in the playoffs for the second straight year. Connecticut had their own destiny in their own hands in terms of earning the No. 4 seed. If they had lost, the Sun would have ended up tied with Phoenix (20-14), which owned the tiebreaker over Connecticut after winning two of three games. If the Sun had lost, they would have been the No. 5 seed and playing on Tuesday night with Phoenix moving up to No. 4.
2018 WNBA playoffs
Tuesday’s first round
No. 8 Dallas (15-19) at No. 5 Phoenix (20-14), 8:30 p.m.
No. 7 Minnesota (18-16) at No. 6 Los Angeles (19-15), 10:30 p.m.
Thursday’s second round
TBA at No. 3 Washington (22-12), 6:30 p.m.
TBA at No. 4 Connecticut (21-13), 8:30 p.m.
TBA at No. 1 Seattle (26-8)
TBA at No. 2 Atlanta (23-11)