The Connecticut Sun have been down this path before – playing without Chiney Ogwumike, the former No. 1 pick in the 2014 WNBA draft. Earlier this spring, the Sun traded Ogwumike to the Los Angeles Sparks for a first round pick in the 2020 WNBA draft.
Two years ago, the Sun won 21 games without Ogwumike, who was recovering from an injury with essentially the same core of players that make up the 2019 edition of the Sun.
Can Connecticut prosper without Ogwumike, who averaged a team-high 14.4 points and 7.3 rebounds a year ago? Can the Sun win advance in the playoffs having lost to Phoenix at the Mohegan Sun Arena in the second round of the WNBA playoffs in 2017 and 2018?
On Saturday night, the Sun showed that that core of players that won 21 games two years ago and won another 21 with Ogwumike a year ago can still be successful.
Forward Alyssa Thomas scored a game-high 23 points while 6-foot-6 center Jonquel Jones scored 10 points and pulled down a game-high 14 rebounds to lead Connecticut to an 84-69 win over the short-handed Washington Mystics before nearly 8,000 fans at the Mohegan Sun Arena.
The Mystics, who went to the WNBA finals for the first time in franchise history last September, were missing potential MVP candidate Elena Della Donne, out with a sore left knee. Starting point guard Kristi Toliver missed most of the second half after banging her knee in a collision.
It took a strong third quarter effort by the Sun to grab control of this contest. The Sun led by three at halftime, 44-41 after a 12-4 run to close out the first half capped off by Thomas’ steal near midcourt and her drive to the basket for a layup with 51 seconds left in the second quarter.
Leading by one, the Sun went on a 15-2 run to take command with baskets from Jasmine Thomas, Alyssa Thomas and Shekinna Strickland.
Not only did Jones pull down 14 rebounds but she had two steals and three blocks. Eleven of her rebounds came on the defensive end of the floor. Jasmine Thomas added 13 points and had a team-high six assists.
“It was a great opening (night) win for us,” Sun head coach Curt Miller said. “They have so many great weapons. They had us on our heels in transition all night to their credit. It gives us a desire to really play in transition when they had us on our heels.”
The Sun were up by 10 points in the second quarter before Washington took off on a 17-2 run to take a five-point lead, fueling in part by many transition baskets. But on this night, the Sun had answers.
“Big game by Alyssa Thomas, really got us going on the pick and roll,” Miller said. “Jasmine (Thomas) really demanded and when we had Layshia (Clarendon) in there (at point guard) she really ran the game, we had great point play the whole night.
“In a night where we struggled in stretches to get Courtney (Williams) and JJ (Jonquel Jones) after her first four points, to get JJ her strict shots, (Alyssa) Thomas really did a nice job.”
Alyssa Thomas had 15 points at halftime. She finished the game by making 11 of 15 shots, pulling down eight rebounds and dishing out four assists.
“She’s playing at a four position, she’s a post player, she is able to just take the ball and dribble,” Sun teammate Jonquel Jones said. “For most post players, someone that good, coming at you downhill, it’s unstoppable. She has the spin move when you try to body her, she’s strong if you try to body her, she can finish with both hands, so I think that is what makes her really tough. Someone running down at them full speed like that, they don’t know what to do.”
Courtney Williams struggled with her shot on this evening, hitting just 3 of 11 shots from the floor for six points. Morgan Tuck and Layshia Clarendon came off the bench for eight points each. Tuck drained a pair of three-point shots in the second quarter to allow the Sun to keep pace with the Mystics.
Connecticut’s three newest players saw little time. Third-year pro Bria Holmes from Hillhouse in New Haven played just six minutes while rookies Kristine Anigwe, the 6-foot-4 forward from Stanford, and Bridget Carleton, the guard from Iowa State, didn’t play. But the WNBA season is tight and compact. They will get their opportunities to contribute.
Emma Meesseman led Washington with 14 points. Toliver added 11 points with Shatori Walker-Kimbrough (11) and Ariel Atkins (10) scoring in double figures.
“We were shorthanded to start with and that didn’t help for sure,” Meesseman said. “We started out well, but then our shots didn’t fall and we just lost our focus on defense a little bit. We did see some good stuff too and we have a week to prepare for our next game and that is going to help us a lot.”
The Sun know Washington will be better the next time they meet in about two weeks on June 11 here at the Mohegan Sun Arena.
“We came back in the first half by driving to the basket and being really aggressive and playing good defense. We know what it takes to win, it just wasn’t there for 40 minutes,” said Meesseeman, the Belgian who played five seasons in Washington before sitting out the 2018 WNBA campaign to play overseas.
The Sun return to action on Tuesday night when they host the Indiana Fever at the Mohegan Sun Arena beginning at 7 p.m.