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Defensive stand helps Connecticut beat Phoenix and snap 5-game losing streak

Connecticut’s Alyssa Thomas had a team-high 20 points and three big steals to help the Sun snap a five-game losing streak with a 79-64 win over Phoenix Friday night at the Mohegan Sun Arena.

UNCASVILLE, July 12 – When the Connecticut Sun looks back upon the 2019 campaign, will Friday night’s WNBA game against the Phoenix Mercury be the one that turned it around?

Connecticut had a franchise-best start of 9-1 but they stumbled in the past two weeks with five consecutive losses – their longest losing streak since early in 2016. And there was a growing sense of frustration midway through the second quarter of Friday night’s contest at the Mohegan Sun Arena.

One could see the exasperation building with the Sun over disputed calls with the protests getting louder and bit more animated. The visiting Mercury took the lead from the outset and led by eight points with 2:02 left in the first half. Phoenix’s DeWanna Bonner scored 10 points in the second quarter alone, several on driving layups to the basket.

But Connecticut stood tall in the third quarter. They outscored Phoenix, 20-1 to open the second half and snapped their losing streak with a 79-64 victory over the Mercury before 6,864 fans in the building and a national television audience on ESPN2.

Perhaps we will look back on this game that saved the season, stopping the losing streak that threatened to derail the team’s hopes to contend for a WNBA championship this season.

“They needed a win so badly for their own confidence,” Sun coach Curt Miller said.

All five Connecticut starters (Shekinna Stricklen, Alyssa Thomas, Jonquel Jones, Jasmine Thomas and Courtney Williams) played the entire third quarter – all 10 minutes. Extended timeouts due to the game being televised by ESPN2 did help along with a stoppage when Bonner crumpled to the court after hurting a knee, Miller said. And the Sun were on such a roll, he didn’t want to disrupt it with a substitution just for the sake of substituting.

“That felt good for our players,” Miller said afterward. “There was no magic formula (to end that losing streak). We saw a collective effort tonight of great energy. You saw a team that really, really played hard at the defensive end. We weathered, in stretches, another tough shooting night. But we weathered it with our defense.”

The Sun (10-6) had five players in double figures and three with a double-double (at least 10 points and 10 rebounds). Alyssa Thomas had a team-high 20 points and 10 rebounds while Jonquel Jones scored 13 points and pulled down a team-high 11 rebounds. Stricklen and Jasmine Thomas had 11 points each.  Williams scored 10 and Bria Holmes came off the bench to add another 10 points.

Bonner led Phoenix (7-7) with 20 points while Brittney Griner had just 10 points on 4-of-12 shooting from the floor. Griner came into the game on a tear. In her last six games, she was averaging 23.8 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game. In those six games, which the Mercury won five, she made 62.5 percent of her shots (60-of-96).

And Connecticut favorite, the legendary Diana Taurasi made her season debut after missing the first 13 games of the season with a sore back. Taurasi scored five points in 16 minutes of work – all from the foul line. She was 0-for-4 from the floor.

Legendary WNBA star Diana Taurasi, who won three NCAA championships with UConn, made her season debut Friday night after missing 13 games with a back injury. As usual, she received a rousing cheer during pre-game introductions.

“It feels good,” Alyssa Thomas said. “We came out with energy on defense. Today we struck together and grinded it out.”

Stricklen made three 3-point shots and scored more than 10 points for the first time since she had 24 against Atlanta on June 21.

“Oh man, a big relief,” she said about the victory. “We got to (being) ourselves and having run. The defense was turned up and everyone was smiling. When you see that and everyone is aggressive (defensively), we are a very strong team.

“We just wanted it. It won’t come to us. We have to go out and get it.”

And after Washington and Las Vegas play on Saturday, the Sun will be in second place in the league at the midway point of the season (16 games).

Griner was hard on her performance. ”We came out and laid an egg,” she said. “I just wasn’t good tonight and didn’t help my team in a good way. They were trapping, but that is not an excuse, normally I am finding the open person and hitting them, but I wasn’t able to do that tonight.”

Bonner credited the Sun defense for making life difficult for the Mercury. “They made us speed up a little bit and we didn’t knock down shots, missed a couple easy shots. They definitely made us rush on offense and took us out of our game,” she said.

Griner had eight of her 10 points in the first quarter. Bonner had 10 points in the second quarter as Phoenix built up an eight-point lead with 2:02 remaining in the first half. It was Bonner’s driving layup to the basket after a steal that gave Phoenix a 36-28 lead.

Sticklen scored on a driving layup of her own with 38 seconds left and the Mercury led 36-30 at halftime.

Courtney Williams skies to the basket during Friday night’s win over Phoenix. She had 10 points and pulled down 10 rebounds.

Connecticut was relentless in the third quarter. Trailing by two, Jonquel missed on a cutting layup to the basket but she grabbed her own rebound to keep the possession alive. Williams scored on a floating five-foot jumper from Alyssa Thomas to tie the game at 36-36.

Sticklen got a steal and fed Jonquel Jones for a driving layup and a 38-36 lead. After a Taurasi miss, Williams pulled down the rebound and raced upcourt, scoring with a 15-foot pullup jumper and a 40-36 lead.

A few minutes later, it was Alyssa Thomas with a steal and Williams with a driving layup. Alyssa Thomas pulled down a rebound from a miss by Williams and scored in the run while Jasmine Thomas capped off the 20-1 run with three-point shot with 3:13 remaining in the third period for a 50-37 lead.

Phoenix did cut the lead to three early in the fourth quarter, 57-54 but Connecticut ripped off the next eight points with a 25-foot, three-point shot from Jasmine Thomas, a running layup from Alyssa Thomas and a steal by Alyssa Thomas and a drive to the basket from Holmes, to push the lead back to 11.

The Sun return to action on Sunday when they travel to Indiana for a 4 p.m. contest and return home to the Mohegan Sun Arena on Friday, July 19, when they will host Atlanta.

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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