The beauty of the Connecticut Sun is that it can be difficult to lock in one player and shut them down. In game one of the WNBA semifinals, it was Alyssa Thomas who inspiring the Sun past the Los Angeles Sparks with 22 points and 10 rebounds.
In game two, it was Jonquel Jones with 27 points and 13 rebounds and Courtney Williams with 25 points and six assists in another win over the Sparks.
On Sunday night, it was Jasmine Thomas’ turn to shine. Jasmine Thomas had a team-high 29 points – just one shy of her career high – while Williams had 17 points and a career-high 13 rebounds as the Connecticut Sun secured their first berth in the WNBA finals since 2005 with a 78-56 win over the Sparks here in Long Beach, California.
The Sun swept the best-of-5 series, 3-0, and will face the winner of the remaining WNBA semifinal between the top-seeded Washington Mystics and No. 4 Las Vegas Aces beginning on September 29. The Aces beat the Mystics, 92-75 on Sunday to cut the Mystics’ series lead to 2-1. Game 4 is Tuesday in Las Vegas.
If Las Vegas wins, the series begins in Connecticut, who would have the home court advantage in the best-of-5 championship series. If Washington wins, the Mystics would have home court.
Either way, the Sun were thrilled to get back to the WNBA finals for the third time in team history.
Connecticut’s defense and ability to rebound the basketball disrupted the Sparks offense throughout the series and game three was no different. The Sun had a 44-34 advantage in rebounding and limited the Sparks to just six offensive rebounds in the game. “The story of the series was our defense,” Sun coach Curt Miller said.
Connecticut had an 11-point lead midway through the second quarter before the Sparks cut the lead to three on a 12-4 run that concluded with Nneka Ogwumike finding her sister, Chiney, on the baseline. That sliced Connecticut’s lead to 33-30 with 1:36 left in the first half.
But as they did all series, the Sun responded to the run.
Rookie Natisha Hiedeman drained a three-point shot off a nice feed from Williams to push the lead back to six. Los Angeles’ Chelsea Gray missed on a jump shot and it was Williams with the rebound. She pushed it upcourt and found Alyssa Thomas, who drove into the lane for a one-handed shot off the glass and it to extend the Sun lead to eight with 44.8 seconds remaining.
In the third quarter, the Sparks scored the first basket of the second half to cut the lead to six. But Jasmine Thomas and the Sun took over and crushed the Sparks.
The Sun went on a 15-2 tear over the next five minutes with Jasmine Thomas scoring 11 points – many on drives through the lane to the basket. And Williams had the other four points of this run on tough jumpers over Sparks defenders.
Meanwhile, Los Angeles missed 12 of 13 shots. When Jasmine Thomas drove to the basket and sank another layup with 4:41 left in the third quarter, the Sun had an 18-point lead in a playoff elimination game.
“You never know on any night, who will be that person (that carries the team),” Jasmine Thomas said earlier in the playoffs.
“There were moments in each game where we looked like we could compete and win, but they were just better over the course of 40 minutes each night and that’s why they’re advancing,” Sparks coach Derek Fisher said.
Jasmine Thomas had 29 points in the win – one shy of her career-high of 30 points in a win over Las Vegas earlier this season. Her previous best in the playoffs was her 19 points against the Sparks in game one of the series.
Williams had 17 points, four assists and a career-high 13 rebounds, including 12 defensive rebounds – an impressive achievement for a 5-foot-8 guard. Her previous best was 10 rebounds on six occasions.
Alyssa Thomas had just two points but she had six assists – a new playoff high for her – six rebounds and a pair of steals.
“I’m incredibly proud,” Miller said. “They have that little bit of chip on their shoulder. This group has truly taken that chip that we may call ‘a team without mega superstars.’ We love to call our team a team that has great bounds, and we can win different ways.
“We’ve won a game in this series because our post game was dominant,” Miller said. “Tonight it was our backcourt, and Jasmine Thomas and Courtney Williams offensively. It’s fun to see it all come together. It’s a team that fits together. You’re seeing stars blossom in this playoff series. The light is shining on these guys that probably don’t get enough credit. It’s a very, very versatile team, and we can win in different ways and that’s what’s been fun to watch.”
It was a disappointing finish for the Sparks, who had won 15 straight games at home in the Staples Center. But Los Angeles found themselves playing a playoff home game at the Walter Pyramid before 4,000 fans on the campus of Long Beach State University because the Staples Center was being used for the Emmy Awards.
Nneka Ogwumike led the Sparks with 17 points and pulled down six rebounds. But she received little help. Chelsea Gray, who had a tough shooting series, had just seven points on 3-of-13 shooting while starting center Candace Parker had just four points in 11 minutes of action and starting guard Tierra Ruffin-Pratt had just four points in 13 minutes of play. Shooting guard Riquna Williams had just a point.
“We just have swagger in this series. As physical and as intense as it got from LA in stretches, I thought we were the more aggressive team,” Miller said. “I thought we were more consistently the team that played physical. Ultimately, we continued to keep moving them. We looked like the energy team, and I thought energy was a big part of this series.”
Miller also praised Jasmine Thomas’ defense on Gray, who was averaging 14.5 points a game coming into the series. She had four points in game one, 10 in game two and seven on Sunday night.
“Jasmine was unbelievable, and she just stayed in plays the whole series with Chelsea Gray and made it difficult,” Miller said. “Let’s be honest, Chelsea missed some shots in the series that she can make. But she’s one of the best point guards in the world, and Jasmine proved the entire series and probably outplayed her. You wouldn’t have had many people say that was a check mark going into the series that we would win, and we clearly won that matchup. That’s just total effort, and credit to Jasmine having an incredible series. But that’s what we see all the time.”
NOTES: Connecticut previously played in the WNBA finals in 2004 and 2005. In 2004, the Seattle Storm beat the Sun, 2-1 in a best-of-3 series. In 2005, the Sacramento Monarchs beat the Sun, 3-1 in a best-of-5 series – the first year that the finals were extended to five games. … Jasmine Thomas’ 29 points were the second-highest number points scored in a single playoff game in team history. Nykesha Sales had 32 points in a 67-65 loss to Seattle in game 2 of the 2004 WNBA finals.
2019 WNBA Finals
Game 1: Sunday, Sept. 29
Game 2: Tuesday, Oct. 1
Game 3: Sunday, Oct. 6
Game 4: Tuesday, Oct. 8, if necessary
Game 5: Thursday, Oct. 10, if necessary