It was a little more than a month ago that the Connecticut Sun were 0-5 in the pandemic-condensed WNBA schedule. But in the 34 days since, the Sun have won 10 of their last 15 games.
On Monday night, Connecticut turned it one of their best performances of the season to snap Phoenix’s six-game winning streak and clinch a spot in the 2020 WNBA playoffs with an 85-70 victory at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.
Connecticut (10-10) poured cold water on a red-hot Mercury offense that was humming on the strength of outstanding shooting from Diana Taurasi, the 38-year-old legend, who had 32 points and seven 3-point shots in a win over Las Vegas on Tuesday and Skylar Diggins-Smith, who had 30 points on Sunday in a win over New York and at least 20 points in the last five games.
Taurasi had 19 points while Diggins-Smith had 16 but the Sun limited Phoenix to just 35 percent shooting – their second-worst performance of the season and caused 17 turnovers which resulted in 22 points for Connecticut.
“That was maybe our most complete game of the season,” Sun head coach and general manager Curt Miller said. “Defensively, you can’t ask for much more. We were able to disrupt them and get them to turn (the ball) over. To hold that talented of an offensive team to 21 field goals is a really outstanding effort for us.”
Connecticut was led by DeWanna Bonner with 25 points and eight rebounds while Alyssa Thomas had 22 points, nine rebounds and nine assists. Brionna Jones had 10 points and once again the Sun bench came up with some big points and big shots from Natisha Hiedeman with eight points and Kalia Charles with six points.
For Bonner, it was a bit emotional for her with her first game against her old team since getting traded to Connecticut in a blockbuster deal last winter. Bonner spent the first 10 years of her WNBA career with Phoenix, winning two WNBA championships and earning three All-Star berths.
And it was an emotional game for the Sun, who clinched a berth in the playoffs for the fourth straight year under Miller.
“I am pretty sure a lot of people counted us out when we were 0-5 but we grinded it out,” Bonner said. “It says a lot about the character of this team in how we bounced back. Now, we are there (in the playoffs). This is the fun part of basketball. “
The Sun become just the third team in WNBA history to lose their first five games and earn a playoff berth – an impressive feat in a 22-game regular season thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Los Angeles made the playoffs after an 0-7 start in 2015 and the New York qualified after an 0-5 start in 2012 but both teams had a 34-game schedule to play and more time to make up ground.
Connecticut led from start to finish. They raced out to an early 9-0 lead but lost Jasmine Thomas early when she rolled an ankle, stepping on the foot of a player while vying for a rebound. She didn’t return. And Briann January, playing with a dislocated finger that it makes it difficult to catch the ball, played just the first 3:35 of the game before sitting out the remainder of the first half with three fouls.
“Earlier in the year, there was a drop off (in production) with the bench,” Connecticut’s Alyssa Thomas said. But now, Hiedeman is healthy and Charles and Beatrice Mompremier are playing with more confidence and aggressiveness.
Taurasi was her usual blunt self afterwards. “They played better than us and kicked out but. No excuses. They played with a little more energy,” she said.
Miller was thrilled with the team defensive effort. “Our post players (were) jumping out and disrupting certain actions (and) our guards (were) staying in plays,” he said.
The Sun led by six at halftime and saw Phoenix (12-8) cut the lead to three points when Diggins-Smith drained a three-point shot over Jones with 5:55 remaining in the third quarter, 45-42.
But Connecticut responded with consecutive three-point shots from Bonner and a 10-0 run to take command of the contest.
The run started with defense. Alyssa Thomas drove to the basket and missed a basket in close when it rolled off the rim. Phoenix’s Kia Vaughn pulled down the rebound in front of Thomas, who got right in her face. She didn’t allow Vaughn to easily dribble up the court.
Thomas kept the pressure on her and that led to an errant pass that was grabbed by Jones, who dished it off to January, who fed Bonner, who drained a 26-foot three-point shot to increase the lead to six points. 48-42.
About 30 seconds later, it was Charles feeding Bonner, who drained another three-point shot to extend the lead to nine. January hit a jumper from the top of the key and Mompremier scored on a layup off a nice feed from Thomas for a 13-point lead, 55-45.
Phoenix did cut the lead to nine twice in the fourth quarter but Connecticut responded each time. A three-point play from Taurasi with 2:25 left cut the lead but Connecticut responded with a quick seven-point surge in the span of 32 seconds to ice the game.
“This is really exciting,“ Miller said. “I think our team has a real chance to be special defensively and our offense was more efficient. You can see the chemistry growing.”
Connecticut has two games remaining in the regular season. They face Phoenix again on Wednesday night at 7 p.m. (Facebook) and close out the regular season on Friday against Atlanta (Facebook) at 7 p.m. To watch a game on Facebook, go to the WNBA’s Facebook page.
— Connecticut Sun (@ConnecticutSun) September 8, 2020
NOTES: Alyssa Thomas scored more than 20 points for the sixth time this season. She finished with 22 points, nine rebounds and nine assists and marks just the tenth time in WNBA history that a player has scored 22 points with nine rebounds and nine assists. It is the first time in team history. … Brionna Jones (10 points) scored in double digits for the 13th time this season. … Bonner has scored in double digits for 14 straight games. … Connecticut assisted on 22 baskets, had seven steals and just nine turnovers.