When Connecticut’s Alyssa Thomas crumbled to the hard floor at the IMG Academy early in game two of Tuesday night’s WNBA semifinal series with the Las Vegas Aces, some may have wondered if the Sun’s chances to beat the top-seeded team in the league went to the floor with her.
Thomas was locked up with this year’s WNBA Most Valuable Player, A’ja Wilson, when she hurt her right shoulder with 5:05 left in the first quarter. Thomas is a player who has played much of her career with torn labrums in both of her shoulders. And she has been playing much of the season with a banged-up hand.
“I just play whether I am in pain or not,” she said prior to the playoffs about playing with injuries. However this time, Thomas didn’t get up and when she did, she left the building to get her shoulder examined.
Her teammates fought for her and nearly took a commanding lead in this best-of-5 series. Connecticut led by six early in the fourth quarter but committed too many turnovers in the fourth quarter as Las Vegas tied the series at 1-1 with an 83-75 victory.
Wilson showed why she was named the MVP of the league but hitting two huge three-point plays in the final minute. She scored a game-high 29 points, pulled down seven rebounds and set a new franchise playoff record with seven blocks.
Tied at 75, Wilson drove to the basket, was fouled and sank the free throw for a 78-75 lead with 1:03 left in regulation. The Sun turned the ball over when DeWanna Bonner tried to force a pass to Brionna Jones, who was double-covered in the lane.
Las Vegas came back again with Wilson, who dribbled into the lane, nearly lost the ball, put it in off glass and was fouled by Jones with 29.2 seconds left for an 80-75 lead. Wilson missed the foul shot but Dearica Hamby powered her way to the rim, grabbed the rebound and scored to extend the lead to 82-75.
“I just know I needed a bucket, attack the basket and lead my team,” said Wilson, who had last scored with 6:09 left in the fourth quarter. “I had to change gears. I felt that I was in cruise control and I can’t do that in the playoffs.”
“She kept us in the game the whole way and then won the game for us down the stretch.” Las Vegas coach Bill Laimbeer said. “That’s what leaders do. That is what MVPs do. We got one and she made the plays.”
“(Wilson) was very aggressive and when take the best defender in the world (Thomas) off the floor, it makes it tougher,” Sun head coach and general manager Curt Miller said.
The Aces outscored Connecticut, 24-12 in the fourth quarter and forced six turnovers.
Wilson’s seven blocked shots tied a WNBA playoff record previously set by Phoenix’s Britney Griner and Los Angeles’ Lisa Lesile (three times). “I knew I had to protect the basket for my teammates they trust that I am there,” Wilson said.
“I was really proud of our tenacity and our fight,” Miller said. “We were right there. I know they are disappointed they didn’t get to the finish line. We just turned it over too much and needed more shots on goal.”
Twelve of Connecticut’s 17 turnovers came in the second half.
Bonner and Briann January tried to carry the load. Bonner had 23 points, including 11 points during a two-minute burst in the third quarter. January had 20 points and hit 3-of-4 from three-point range. Jasmine Thomas and Brionna Jones had 10 points each.
“We expect to win and we had a fourth quarter lead and it got away from us,” Miller said. “They know (Alyssa Thomas) is a huge piece but there are lot of competitors in that (Sun) locker room and they know we can compete without AT.”
Miller had no word on the extend of Alyssa Thomas’ injury but said the speculation on the Sun bench was a dislocated shoulder. Alyssa Thomas returned to the bench in the waning minutes of the contest with her right arm in a sling.
She was Connecticut’s leading scorer in the playoffs with 21 points, 8.7 rebounds, six assists and 2.67 steals a game. Alyssa Thomas hardly left the floor, averaging 35.2 minutes in Connecticut’s three previous playoff wins.
“We’ll show up tomorrow, look at what we need to adjust and show up ready to play the next time we step on that court,” January said. “I have appreciated all season the way this team shows shows up and fights every time we’re on the court. And it’s a team thing. Everyone is giving everything they have every game.”
It was a physical contest with 14 lead changes and 20 ties.
Bonner scored eight points in the final 4:46 of the first period after Alyssa Thomas left the game and the Sun led, 23-21 after one quarter.
Wilson, who had 17 points and four blocks in the first half, carried Las Vegas through the first two quarters. Connecticut led 39-38 at the half after a nice off-the-glass jumper from January with 4.4 seconds left.
Connecticut’s 6-foot-4 rookie Beatrice Mompremier had an impressive second quarter. She drew the inevitable task of guarding Wilson and did well. Mompremier had seven rebounds and three blocked shots in the first half.
In the third quarter, the Sun went on a 12-2 surge with four consecutive three-point shots to take a 53-46 lead with 7:10 left in the third quarter. But Las Vegas answered with an 8-0 run of their own. Connecticut led 63-59 after three quarter thanks to a jumper from Jasmine Thomas with 44.3 seconds left and a steal and breakaway layup from Jasmine Thomas with 23.6 seconds remaining in the quarter.
Las Vegas led 75-73 with three minutes remaining. The Sun tied the game when Wilson tipped a shot from Bonner with 1:19 remaining. But Jones was in the low post and grabbed the fading shot and used an underhanded motion to tie the game at 75-75.
NOTES: Las Vegas had three players with 11 points each – Kayla McBridge, Dearica Hamby and Angel McCoughtry. … Connecticut’s Beatrice Mompremier finished with nine rebounds and three blocks. She is just the fourth player in WNBA playoff history to get nine rebounds and three blocks off the bench.
Connecticut vs. Las Vegas
Sunday, September 20
Connecticut 87, Las Vegas 62
Tuesday, September 22
Las Vegas 83, Connecticut 75, series tied 1-1
Thursday, September 24
Connecticut vs. Las Vegas, 9:30 p.m., ESPN2
To be determined