They never lost their faith and confidence in each other – even when the Connecticut Sun were 1-6 after the first seven games of the 2020 WNBA season.
The Sun lost games early. They gave up halftime leads and leads in the second half. They knew they were a bit shorthanded with guards Briann January and Natisha Hiedeman late to the bubble in Bradenton, Florida as they recovered from COVID-19.
“It was the veterans in the locker room that gave me the road map,” Sun head coach and general manager Curt Miller said. “They didn’t panic. There was a calm about them. They said we’ll build chemistry off the court and work on continuity on the court.”
The Sun played with great confidence on Tuesday night as they eliminated the No. 6 seed Chicago Sky, 94-81, with a dominating performance, building a lead as large as 19 points after being tied at halftime. The No. 7 seeded Sun advance to Thursday’s second round match against No. 4 Los Angeles Sparks at 9 p.m. in another single-elimination contest.
Veteran Alyssa Thomas was the catalyst for Connecticut from the start. She scored 13 of Connecticut’s first 22 points and finished with a game-high 26 points, 13 rebounds, eight assists and a WNBA playoff record 10 rebounds. DeWanna Bonner, in her first playoff game with the Sun, had 23 points and 12 rebounds.
Brionna Jones had 12 points and eight rebounds, including six offensive rebounds. Rookie Kalia Charles had 13 points, including several key drives to the basket in the first half for Connecticut.
The Sun had a huge advantage on the glass. They pulled down 40 rebounds and 17 offensive rebounds to help Connecticut score xx second-chance points. The Sky had just 21 rebounds as a team.
“I thought we had great energy throughout the game,” Miller said. “The third quarter was huge for us with tons of energy. (Jasmine Thomas) made some shots for us and it took the weight of the world off us because we realized we didn’t have to go through the paint (for all of our points).”
Going to the basket was Connecticut’s game plan early with Chicago rookie Ruthy Hebard guarding Thomas in the early going. “We wanted to see if the rookie could handle Alyssa, so we were going to put the ball in her hands non-stop throughout the game.” Miller said. “There was an emphasis to play through (Alyssa Thomas) and she came through. It was lights out for us.”
And Alyssa Thomas didn’t stop. With Connecticut leading by 16 points early in the fourth quarter, Thomas had three offensive rebounds on one play. She grabbed a rebound of a miss by Charles with 8:44 remaining and missed on her shot. Thomas got her own rebound and missed again.
This time, squeezed by two Chicago defenders, Alyssa Thomas came up with the ball on her knees on the floor. She took a dribble and got to her feet, moving away from the basket to feed Hiedeman, who was fouled on the play.
“It’s playoff time,” Alyssa Thomas said. “I know my job is to be out there for 40 minutes. I just try to do a little bit of everything. I am just trying to do whatever my team needs me to do – whether that is scoring, rebounding or assisting. It’s win or go home. I’m coming at you hard for 40 minutes.”
Connecticut built an eight-point lead with 3:42 left in the second quarter before Chicago closed out the first half with a 10-0 run to take a three-point lead. Former UConn sharpshooter Gabby Williams had back-to-back three-point shots to close out the run for the Sky but Thomas drove to the glass and scored with 1.1 seconds left to tie the game at halftime, 41-41.
Despite being hobbled by plantar fascitis, which is a painful heel injury, Jasmine Thomas hit a three-point shot 17 seconds into the second half to give Connecticut a three-point lead. Jones pulled down a rebound of a miss from Briann January and put it back in to extend the lead to five.
A few minutes later, Jones got another offensive rebound and put it back in off the glass before Jasmine Thomas hit a three-point shot from the corner off a nice feed from Alyssa Thomas to extend the lead to nine points. A jump shot from January completed a 13-2 run for Connecticut in the first three minutes of the third quarter.
“At halftime, we settled down and we found our groove,” Bonner said. “Once we settled down, we played the way we can play.”
Chicago cut the lead to nine points in the final two minutes but Bonner scored on a nice reverse layup from Alyssa Thomas with 1:26 remaining and the Sun sank their final six free throws to secure the win.
Allie Quigley had 19 points to lead Chicago while Kahleah Cooper had 17 points. Williams scored 16 points off the bench for Chicago.
NOTES: This was Connecticut’s first elimination game win since the WNBA began playing single-elimination games in the first and second round in 2016. The Sun lost a pair of single-elimination games to Phoenix in 2017 and 2018. A year ago, the Sun earned the No. 2 seed into the semifinals. … It was the first time the two teams had met in the postseason.
Connecticut’s Alyssa Thomas and Bonner were named to the Associated Press’ All-WNBA Second team. For Thomas, it is her first AP honor of her career. Bonner was named to the All-WNBA second team in 2019.
In 2020, Thomas averaged 15.5 points, 9.0 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game. She also led the league with 42 steals. The Maryland graduate has seen herself in the top five in the league in points per game, rebounds per game and assists per game. Bonner averaged 19.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.7 steals per game in her first season in Connecticut. She led the league in scoring on four different occasions this season.
Together, Thomas and Bonner averaged 35.2 points per game making them the third highest scoring combo in the league. Behind Dallas’ Arike Ogunbowale and Satou Sabally and Phoenix’s Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith.