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Poised, veteran Phoenix squad send Sun home from the playoffs

Connecticut’s Alyssa Thomas scored 20 points and pulled down 10 rebounds but the Sun lost in the second round of the WNBA playoffs to Phoenix.

UNCASVILLE, Sept. 10 – The Connecticut Sun were making their first WNBA playoff appearance in four years. This was nothing new for the Phoenix Mercury or their leader, UConn legend Diana Taurasi.

The Mercury weren’t rattled by a 17-point deficit in the second quarter nor a 10-point deficit in the third quarter. Taurasi scored 23 points and Brittney Griner added 26 points and pulled down nine rebounds as Phoenix ended Connecticut’s season with an 88-83 victory in the second round of the WNBA playoffs Sunday at the Mohegan Sun Arena.

The win puts Phoenix into the best-of-five WNBA semifinals against the Los Angeles Sparks, the No. 2 seed in the playoffs. Game 1 is Tuesday night.

Taurasi is now 11-0 in playoff elimination games in her WNBA career. She was part of a fourth quarter surge that saw the Mercury sink three-point shots in three consecutive possessions and turn a one-point deficit into a five-point lead, 84-79, with 2:31 left in the game.

“They didn’t panic when they got down in double figures,” Sun coach Curt Miller said. “They knew it was a long game and they grinded it out and I think that speaks to their playoff experience and their veteran’s play. They have been in a lot of playoff games and Diana (Taurasi), Brittney (Griner) and Monique (Currie) made plays.”

Connecticut cut the lead to three thanks to a pair of free throws from Jonquel Jones with 59 seconds left, 84-81. After Griner missed a fadeaway jumper with 34 seconds left, Courtney Williams pulled down the rebound for the Sun.

Alyssa Thomas missed a three-point shot with 14.9 seconds left and Williams again pulled down the rebound, allowing the Sun to keep possession. Shekinna Stricklen was fouled with 11.4 seconds remaining but she missed both free throws.

Thomas led the Sun with 20 points and 10 rebounds while Jones had 19 points and 15 rebounds. Four Connecticut players scored in double figures with Jasmine Thomas scoring 15 and Williams adding 10 points.

“It was a great game and I am so proud of our team with our start tonight,” Miller said. The Sun led 29-18 after one quarter and had a 17-point lead in the second quarter. The Sun led 50-38 at halftime.

“We had not played a lot of great first quarters as of late, and the team came out focused and with tons of energy. We got the game up-tempo like we wanted which made it an incredible first quarter for us scoring 50 points in the first half,” he said.

“You have to give Phoenix a lot of credit. We wanted to try to take their legs away from them and keep the game up-tempo as much as possible but they were the ones that made big threes in the fourth quarter. They made three straight threes in one stretch which I thought was the back breaker,” Miller said.

The Sun led 76-75 with 4:19 remaining in the game. Leilani Mitchell hit a three-point shot with 3:35 left to give Phoenix their first lead of the second half, 78-76. Jones sank one-of-two foul shots with 3:17 left to cut the Mercury lead to one, 78-77.

Phoenix came downcourt and Taurasi drained a three-point shot with 3:03 remaining for an 81-77 lead. Thomas hit a bank shot with 2:48 remaining to cut the lead to two, 81-79.

But again, Phoenix drained a three-point shot with Monique Currie scoring for an 84-79 lead with 2:31 left in the game. The Sun missed their next three shots from the floor.

As Connecticut basketball fans have seen for years, Taurasi made the difference.

“It helps us a lot,” Phoenix coach Sandy Brondello said. “The best of all of them is Diana Taurasi, she is the (greatest of all time) and she loves these big time plays. She brings poise and confidence out on the court which is great. It’s not just putting the ball in the right people’s hands, in the big moments she will make the big play as well and you saw that tonight she was very good for us.”

Added Taurasi, “We were down 37-20 in the second (quarter) and we called a time out and I think everyone was just searching for something.

“There comes a time in games if you are just going to lay down or fight back and try to get back into it and that moment we said let’s just go back take each possession and try to do our best and we did that and that turned the game around.”

The game ended a magical season for the Sun that saw them win 21 games, finish second in the Eastern Conference and earn their first playoff appearance since 2012.

“I am incredibly excited (about the future of this team),” Miller said. “We had double-doubles out of both our post players tonight (Jonquet Jones and Alyssa Thomas) and JJ has only scratched the surface of her talent and is going to get better. With the only person comparable to Alyssa (Thomas) now in the league is (Los Angeles’) Candace Parker as a facilitating four, it is just amazing what she is capable of doing at the four.

“When we made a run in the second quarter and we were playing well I looked out there and we had four second-year players on the court at one time. Even though Rachel (Banham) and Morgan (Tuck) did not get extended time tonight, it just speaks to the youth that we are playing good basketball with that many young players on the floor,” Miller said. “As we infuse Chiney (Ogwumike) back into our post depth, as we continue to build for the future, I can’t be more pleased with our core group that is under contract and that we have coming back.”

Phoenix 88, Connecticut 83
At Uncasville, Conn.
Phoenix (88) Diana Taurasi 11-3-23, Camille Little 1-2-4, Brittney Griner 7-12-26, Yvonne Turner 7-0-11, Leilani Mitchell 5-4-12, Monique Currie 5-2-12
Connecticut (83) Shekinna Stricklen 3-0-5, Alyssa Thomas 8-4-20, Jonquel Jones 7-7-19, Courtney Williams 5-0-10, Jasmine Thomas 7-1-15, Alex Bentley 2-1-5, Morgan Tuck 1-1-3, Rachel Banham 1-0-3
Phoenix                18  25  25  20  — 88
Connecticut         29  21  18  15  — 83
Three-point goals: Taurasi 2, Turner 3, Mitchell 2, Currie 2; Stricken, Jones 2, Banham


Gerry deSimas, Jr., is the editor and founder of The Collinsville Press. He is an award-winning writer and has been covering sports in Connecticut and New England for more than 40 years. He was inducted into the New England High School Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2018.

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