The Connecticut Sun had this moment in mind last February when the Sun acquired DeWanna Bonner and Briann January in separate deals from the Phoenix Mercury and grabbed Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis from the Seattle Storm.
It was part of the reason when the Sun picked up Essence Carlson from the defending WNBA champion Washington Mystics earlier in August.
“This is what we are built for – right now,” Sun head coach and general manager Curt Miller said Tuesday night after the Sun beat Chicago to advance to the second round of the WNBA playoffs. “We brought in champions. DeWanna Bonner has won (WNBA) championships. Briann January has won championships. Kaleena has won championships. Essence has won a championship. It wasn’t always a smooth ride to get here but this is the experience you need at playoff time.”
Connecticut will look to advance to the WNBA semifinals for the second year in a row if they can beat Los Angeles Sparks tonight at 9 p.m. (ESPN) in a single-elimination contest.
Los Angeles (15-7), the No. 3 seed in the WNBA playoffs, beat No. 7 Connecticut twice in this pandemic-shortened season.
The Sparks won the first game by erasing a six-point lead in the final six minutes in an 81-76 win in game three of the season. On August 28, Sparks guard Chelsea Gray scored 27 points and Los Angeles gave up two field goals in the final six minutes to earn an 80-76 win. A season-high 23 turnovers did not help Connecticut’s cause.
“We’ve been a bit inconsistent shooting the ball so we have to get second opportunities,” Miller said. “We have to play through the paint and get on the boards (and pull down rebounds).
Veteran Candace Parker leads the Sparks, averaging 14.7 points and a league-leading 9.7 rebounds a game with Gray close behind with 14.0 points per game. Nneka Oguwmike is averaging 13.3 points with Riquna Williams averaging 10.5 points.
Los Angeles leads the WNBA in turnovers forced (17.6) and is third in steals per game (9.0). The Sparks lead the league with 22.6 points a game off turnovers.
Sparks coach Derek Fisher hopes his team is a bit tougher than they were a year ago when they were swept by the Sun, 3-0, in the WNBA semifinals.
“You still need to find a way to be strong together and be willing to compete as hard or harder than your opponent,” Fisher said. “Last season, Connecticut was a better team in that regard. We have an opportunity to show that we have grown in that area and that we are willing to fight for every single possession and every single opportunity to win the game.”
When you talk toughness and Connecticut, you need to start with veteran forward Alyssa Thomas (15.5 ppg, 9.0 rpg), who had 26 points and 13 rebounds in the 94-81 win over Chicago on Tuesday night. Thomas is playing with torn labrium in both of her shoulders and has been playing with an injured hand for the later half of this season.
“That shoulder thing has been a thing my whole career so that’s nothing new,” Thomas said before the game. “I just play whether I am in pain or not. I’m just coming in playing my basketball and trying to get a win.
Added Bonner, “She is the most competitive person on our team. When she gets going, everyone gets going and works a little bit harder.”
Bonner, who had 23 points and 12 rebounds in the win over Chicago, will be the focal point along with Thomas and Brionna Jones, who had 12 points and six key offensive rebounds against the Sky.
“We will have to play through DeWanna, (Alyssa Thomas) and Bri(onna) Jones,” Miller said. “And we have to play through the paint and that should give us stretches that will open it up from the outside.”
The pressure will be on guards Jasmine Thomas, who is battling plantar fasciitis (a painful heel injury), January, who is playing with a dislocated finger and Alyssa Thomas, who frequently brings up the ball upcourt after a rebound.
“We’re built for this,” Miller repeated. “We have experience. This is why we went out and got a veteran team to win in these moments.”
A win for the Sun would put them into the best-of-5 WNBA semifinals against top-seeded Las Vegas Aces, coached by Bill Laimbeer.