UNCASVILLE, September 17 – The Connecticut Sun went through the 2019 season with a bit of a chip on their shoulder. The team had advanced to the playoffs the previous two seasons only to be bounced out in a single-elimination game by UConn legend Diana Taurasi and the Phoenix Mercury.
Few were predicting that the Sun would get past the WNBA semifinals this season.
For the Sun, it got more intense this past weekend during the halftime analysis of the Seattle Storm and Los Angeles Sparks playoff game when ESPN analysts John Brickley and Katie Douglas – a former Sun player whose number has been retired by the team – talked about the team and their lack of big-time stars.
With Sun point guard Jasmine Thomas sitting right next to her on the ESPN set, Douglas said, “They don’t have that mega star. On paper, they’re probably not the most talented team without having those mega stars. But collectively, they’ve been together. They have great chemistry. Like you (Brickley) said, they know their roles.”
That chip on Connecticut’s shoulder is huge now. The Sun sold t-shirts Tuesday night at the Mohegan Sun Arena that simply “DisrespeCT.” The players had shirts in their lockers.
Connecticut took it out on the visiting Los Angeles Sparks, winning their first playoff game since 2012 with an 84-75 victory in game one of the best-of-5 semifinal before 7,102 fans at the Mohegan Sun Arena.
Alyssa Thomas, who scored 13 of Connecticut’s first 15 points in the game, led the way for the Sun with 22 points, a game-high 10 rebounds, four steals and five assists. Thomas tied a season-high with 19 points and dished out a game-high eight assists.
Jonquel Jones scored 16 points while Courtney Williams added 15 points and pulled down seven rebounds.
Los Angeles’ Candace Parker led the Sparks with a game-high 24 points and 10 rebounds while Nneka Ogwumike added 20 points and also pulled down 10 rebounds. But Connecticut played outstanding defense, forcing 17 Sparks turnovers and getting nine steals.
The Sun limited Los Angeles’ talented point guard Chelsea Gray to just four points and five turnovers. Gray came into the game averaging 14.5 points a game.
“We have great balance,” Sun coach Curt Miller said. “We are at our best when we are sharing and distributing (the ball). We have balance with this team and you just can’t load up one person.”
Jones led the Sun with 14.6 points per game with Williams (13.2), Alyssa Thomas (11.6) and Jasmine Thomas (11.1) each averaged in double figures. And Shekinna Stricklen (9.0) sank more three-point shots (76) than any other player in the league this year.
“We’ve got All Stars. We’ve got the league’s best 3-point shooter,” said Jasmine Thomas. “I don’t know what it’s going to take to turn us into big names. But we can’t control that. We can’t control what people think about us. We can’t control what people say. But how we believe in ourselves in this locker room is what we feed off of.”
Game two is Thursday night at 6:30 p.m. at the Mohegan Sun Arena. The Sun, who had the best home record in the league this season (15-2), will be looking to take a 2-0 lead back to California for game three and four.
The Sun were idle for 10 days after finishing second in the league and securing a bye into the semifinals. They missed eight of their first nine shots of the game before Alyssa Thomas took over, scoring 13 of the Sun’s first 15 points.
“I took it upon myself to get ourselves going and then everyone settled down and started hitting shots,” she said.
Added Jones, “She was our engine. She was ready and we needed that tonight.”
Los Angeles cut the lead to one but Jasmine Thomas hit a pair of three point shots in the final 1:02 of the quarter, including a shot at the buzzer to give the Sun a seven-point lead after one quarter.
That lead eventually swelled to 12 points in the second quarter but Los Angeles hit 70 percent of their shots (11 of 14) from the floor in the second quarter, ending the quarter with a 14-4 run to take a three-point halftime lead.
Strong third quarter performances have been a staple for the Sun this season and this was no different. Stricklen hit a pair of three-point shots in the first two minutes of the third quarter while Jasmine Thomas also hit a three-point shot. Connecticut opened the quarter with a 12-2 run to regain the lead.
“After fighting really hard to have a three-point lead going into the half, we didn’t start the third quarter in the right way,” Los Angeles coach Derek Fisher said. “And [Connecticut] scored nine points in one minute and 23 seconds on things that weren’t difficult for us to cover. You know we just didn’t start it with the right sense of urgency. And I thought the momentum turned a little bit at that point.”
Los Angeles cut the lead to two on an 18-foot jumper from Gray with 5:27 remaining in the game. But Williams hit a 19-foot pullup jumper off a nice need from Alyssa Thomas to increase the lead to four, 70-66 with 4:42 remaining.
Jones stretched the lead to seven with a three-point shot from 27 feet away with 4:00 remaining. The lead dipped to six three times in the final two minutes but each time the Sun responded.
Williams hit an 18-foot pullup shot with 1:23 left to stretch the lead to eight. With 44.1 seconds left, Alyssa Thomas hit a free throw to push it back to seven only to see Jonquel Jones get a steal forcing a Los Angeles turnover.
With 16 seconds left, Jasmine Thomas drove to the basket to push the lead back to eight.
“This is the first step but we can’t relax,” Jasmine Thomas said.
Jones was thrilled with the win afterward. When asked how satisfying this was, she had a big smile and tilted head backward. “It feels so good to have a playoff win,” she said. “People count us out because we play team basketball and nowadays, people expect superstars. But (team basketball) is what we play. We’re proud of what we do.”
Fisher was impressed with Alyssa Thomas. “She played 40 minutes and she plays hard every minute that she’s on the court,” he said. “So I think that’s what makes her difficult to play against. Is that again, she doesn’t really take many possessions off. She’s always coming at you on the offensive end; whether she has the ball or she’s crashing the glass. And then you know then defensively she’s also in the action; rebounding, trapping, pick and rolls.”
NEXT: Game 2 is Thursday night in Connecticut before the series switches to Los Angeles, where the Sparks have won 15 straight games at home. Game 3 is set for Sunday, Sept. 22 at 7 p.m., with game 4 on Tuesday, Sept. 24. Game 5, if necessary, will be in Connecticut on Sept. 26.
Below is the segment that irritated the Sun players.