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Mystics outlast Sun on day that women’s basketball pioneer Anne Donovan dies

Connecticut’s Courtney Williams, left, shoots over two Washington defenders late in the fourth quarter of Wednesday night’s WNBA game. Williams finished with a career-high 34 points. The Mystics held off Connecticut, 95-91.

UNCASVILLE, Conn., June 13 – There was no joy in Mike Thibault’s voice or his eyes after his Washington Mystics beat the Connecticut Sun Wednesday night at the Mohegan Sun Arena, 95-91, outscoring the Sun, 6-2 in the final 42 seconds to secure the victory.

He met with a large crowd of reporters and, like most people in the women’s basketball community, was in shock upon learning of the death of Hall of Fame player and coach Anne Donovan, who coached the Connecticut Sun for three years from 2013-15.

Thibault was an assistant coach under Donovan on the U.S. women’s Olympic basketball team in 2008 that won a gold medal at the Beijing Olympics. He coached with Donovan for 3½ years with USA Basketball.

“It’s just shocking,” Thibault said. “All the basketball stuff goes away when something like this happens. It’s hard to celebrate when something like happens to a close friend.”

Anne Donovan with the Sun in 2014

Donovan, 56, died of heart failure according to published reports. She won a national championship as a player at Old Dominion, two Olympic gold medals and coached the United States to the gold medal in 2008. She also was the first woman to coach WNBA championship team when she led Seattle to the title in 2004. She was a part of four world championship teams as either a player or coach.

She was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield in 1995. She was elected to the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999 and the FIBA Hall of Fame in 2015.

“It certainly puts the game of basketball into perspective,” Sun coach Curt Miller said. “We lost such a great pioneer of the game of women’s basketball. She will be missed but her legacy will live on. She touched this game in so many ways.”

Connecticut’s Chiney Ogwumike steals the ball from Elena Delle Donne and goes in for a layup that gave the Sun a one-point lead with 1:29 remaining.

Connecticut’s Chiney Ogwumike and Alyssa Thomas were rookies with the Sun in 2014, Donovan’s second season in Connecticut.

“We didn’t appreciate her as much then,” Ogwumike said. “She gave us that fierce mentality and that we should be proud to be the Connecticut Sun. She made us fighters. Alyssa and I were rookies and she was our first (professional) coach. She empowered us. The Alyssa Thomas you see today who is tough on the glass and pushes through (is because) she gave Alyssa confidence. She gave me confidence.”

Some of that fighting spirit came through Wednesday as the Sun erased a 30-point deficit to take the lead in the fourth quarter. It’s the largest deficit that the Sun have erased in team history. Connecticut took a one-point lead, 87-86, on an Ogwumike basket following a rebound with 1:15 left in regulation. The play began with an Ogwumike steal from Washington’s Elena Della Donne and a length-of-the-floor drive to the basket.

But Washington’s Kristi Toliver hit a wide-open 28-foot three-point shot that gave the Mystics (6-4) the lead for good, 89-87 with 58 seconds remaining. Washington was a perfect 6-for-6 on the foul line in the final 30 seconds to secure the win.

Washington’s Elena Delle Donne was spectacular with a game-high and season-high 36 points. Toliver added 25 points.

For the Sun (7-2), guard Courtney Williams had a career-high 34 points, sinking a franchise record 15 of 29 shots from the floor. It was just one point shy of the franchise record of 35 set by Shannon Johnson against Cleveland in triple overtime in 2002. Ogwumike had 19 points and a game-high 13 rebounds and played all 40 minutes.

Washington’s Elena Della Donne (11) blocks Connecticut’s Courtney Williams (10) in Wednesday night’s WNBA game. The Mystics prevailed, 95-91.

It was amazing that the Sun had a chance to win. They missed their first eight shots of the game and missed 15 of their first 20 shots from the floor. They trailed by 30 points, 61-31, with 1:43 left in the second quarter.

But Connecticut sank 12 field goals in the third quarter and gave up just three as they cut the lead to six points. Williams had 16 points in the third quarter as the Sun outrebounded the Mystics 14-5.

“We made some subtle adjustments, but basically they just played harder (in the second half), stayed in plays and made baskets more difficult for (Della Donne and Toliver),” Miller said. “We’re disappointed that we didn’t get to the finish line (with a win) but proud of their fight.”

The Sun took their first lead with 7:21 left in the game when Williams drove to the basket with an 11-foot jumper. Connecticut stretched the lead to three, 79-76 on a pair of free throws from Shekinna Stricklen.

But Della Donne scored on three consecutive trips for the Mystics, scoring eight points on a three-pointer, a seven-foot pull up shot and a three-point play with 4:34 remaining. It was nip and tuck to the finish.

“Everything was clicking (in the first half) and I know that’s how we can play every night, but they are a great team and they came out and made adjustments,” Della Donne said. “We kind of tightened up and started played not to lose instead of to win, but super thrilled with our grit in the end just being able to push through especially on their home court, they had the crowd behind them. It was a great win for us.”

Alyssa Thomas did hurt her shoulder with 1:34 left in the third quarter and did not return to the game. She was having it examined after the game.

The Sun left the arena immediately after the game to head to Bradley International Airport for a flight Thursday morning to Seattle for Friday night’s game against the Storm. It begins a stretch of five straight road games in 11 days. The Sun will be in Phoenix on Saturday night to face the Mercury.

Nine of Connecticut’s next 10 games will be on the road.

NOTES: Connecticut tied their own WNBA record for the largest deficit overcome to take a lead. The Sun also rallied from 30 points down to force overtime and take a lead in an 111-103 loss to Minnesota on August 3, 2010. … Monique Currie had 13 points off the bench for the Mystics. … Jasmine Thomas scored 13 points for Connecticut while Alyssa Thomas scored just two points on 1-of-4 shooting from the field. Jonquel Jones added nine for the Sun. … Anne Donovan also coached the WNBA’s New York Liberty, Charlotte Sting and Indiana Fever along with the Philadelphia Rage in the American Basketball League in 1997-98.

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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