Thirty percent of the 2020 WNBA season has been completed for the Connecticut Sun when they dropped a 100-93 decision to the Chicago Sky on August 8. That left the Sun with a record of 1-6.
But this team didn’t panic. A few bad minutes in those six losses cost Connecticut, a team that had played in the WNBA’s championship series a year ago.
“I think the key to the turnaround was staying persistent, not focusing on the losses, not focusing on what we were doing wrong but building on what we were doing right, showing up every day, giving maximum effort and continuing to learn about each other,” guard Briann January said.
The Sun won nine of their next 13 games to earn a playoff berth last week for the fourth straight year with a win over Phoenix.
Connecticut, the No. 7 seed in the field of eight teams, will face No. 6 Chicago Sky (12-10) on Tuesday night at 7 p.m. on ESPN2 in the first round of the 2020 WNBA playoffs. The first two rounds of the playoffs are single-elimination contests.
With a pair of wins, the Sun (10-12) could advance to the best-of-5 WNBA semifinals.
“I am proud of how we have grown as a basketball team,” Connecticut head coach and general manager Curt Miller said. “We have certainly grown closer off the court as well as building chemistry on the court. No question that our defense has been ahead of the offense the entire year. Some of it is the new pieces (on the team) and some of it is the lack of practice.”
Connecticut is just the third WNBA team to make the playoffs after losing the first five games of the year. Los Angeles began the 2015 season with an 0-7 record but that was just 20 percent of a 34-game schedule. The New York Liberty began the 2012 season with an 0-5 mark.
It has been a challenging year for the Sun and all 11 WNBA teams playing, living and training at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. They’ve been there isolated in their bubble for weeks to stay healthy during this COVID-19 pandemic while playing a pandemic-shortened 22-game schedule in about seven weeks.
After playing virtually every other day for weeks, the Sun were thrilled to have a few days to practice before Tuesday night’s playoff game against Chicago – the first post-season meeting between the two franchises.
“We’ve been able to practice two days in a row so there is a focus, there is an energy, there is an excitement you can feel,” Miller said. “You know it is playoff time.”
DeWanna Bonner, the veteran from Phoenix, is the leading scorer for Connecticut, averaging 19.7 points a game, which ranked No. 3 in the league. Alyssa Thomas, who is playing with an injured hand that makes handling the basketball painful has scored 15.5 points a game and is second in the team in assists (9.2 per game). Thomas leads the league in steals with 42 and has been an defensive star for the Sun in the second half of the season.
Chicago is led by Courtney Vandersloot, the dynamic guard, who is averaging 13.6 points a game and a league-leading 10 assists a game. Guard Allie Quigley is the leading scorer for the Sky, averaging 15.5 points a game with Kaleah Cooper scoring 14.8 points a game.
Former UConn star Gabby Williams is averaging a career-high 7.7 points off the bench. Former UConn center Stefanie Dolson is averaging 6.4 points and 3.5 rebounds a game.
Another former UConn center Azura Stevens is out for the season for Chicago with a knee injury while guard Diamond Deshields (6.8 ppg) is also out with an injury. Stevens, the third-year center, was having her best professional season averaging 11.5 points and 5.9 points in 13 games before she got hurt.
“We are more than capable of winning this game with the team we have,” Sky head coach James Wade said. “It’s a new season so the energy is better. It is like you are playing for your lives to the level has to rise.”
Vandersloot and Quigley have been a dynamic backcourt all season for Chicago. Connecticut’s defense has been key to their late-season surge, led by Alyssa Thomas.
“It will take a team effort,” January said. “(Vandersloot) is arguably the best point guard in our league right now. It won’t be one person’s job to stop her.
“She does so much for her team. She distributes, she gets to the rim, she scores, she knocks down shots. She is the leader of the team,” January said. “It will take us showing bodies, showing congestion, keeping her in front of us and everyone doing the job off (the) ball will help us defend her.”
Brionna Jones (14.2 ppg) will get the start at center for Connecticut with Jasmine Thomas in the backcourt with January. Jasmine Thomas has been slowed by painful plantar fasciitis, which is pain the heel. January is playing with a dislocated finger. “It’s not pleasant but it is doable,” January said. “We’ve all played through these things.”
The winner of Connecticut’s game with Chicago will face the winner of Tuesday night’s second game between Phoenix and Washington on Thursday night in another single-elimination contest.
NOTES: Connecticut and Chicago split their two-game series this summer. Chicago beat the Sun, 100-93 on August 8 but the Sun won the rematch on August 14 with a 77-74 victory thanks to some solid defense in the final minutes of the game.