UNCASVILLE, Conn., August 23 – Alyssa Thomas was quite at home on the floor of the Mohegan Sun Arena Friday night. The sixth-year forward from Maryland never left it.
Thomas played all 40 minutes. She scored a game-high 27 points, including 11 points in a span of 2:06 in the third quarter when the Connecticut Sun erased an 11-point deficit. With backup guards Rachel Banham, Layshia Clarendon and Natisha Hiedeman unavailable due to injuries, the 6-foot-2 Thomas also played some point guard in the second half.
“Whatever I can do to give (starting point guard Jasmine Thomas) a break,” Alyssa Thomas said in a business-as-usual manner.
The Sun played with a playoff-like fierceness to beat the visiting Las Vegas Aces Friday with an 89-85 WNBA victory before 7,463 fans. Connecticut’s Courtney Williams scored 24 points, including 12 points in the second half.
Connecticut (20-8) has now won 20 games for the third consecutive year under head coach and general manager Curt Miller – a franchise best. The victory boosted the Sun into the No. 1 spot in the league in seeding for the playoffs with Washington (20-8) losing to Chicago on Friday night.
It also enabled Connecticut to win the season series with Las Vegas (19-10) as the Sun look to secure the top two seeds in the playoffs and earn an automatic bye into the best-of-5 WNBA semifinals in September.
It was a big win on the night that the Sun retired the number (13) of former point guard Lindsay Whalen, who twice led Connecticut to the WNBA finals in 2004 and 2005.
The Sun got big plays from virtually all nine players that were dressed to play. Morgan Tuck hit a crucial three-point shot from the corner with 3:19 remaining that gave Connecticut a four-point lead. Las Vegas cut the lead to two, 85-83, on a basket from Liz Cambage with 2:50 remaining.
With 2:17 remaining, it was Connecticut’s Jonquel Jones with a block of Las Vegas’ A’ja Wilson and a crucial rebound. About 20 seconds later, Tuck scored on a driving layup with 1:40 remaining after a nice pass from Jones to push the lead back to four, 87-83.
Las Vegas cut the lead to two again on another Wilson basket with 54.8 seconds remaining. The Aces had a chance to tie the game with 34 seconds left but it was Shekinna Stricklen with a block of a shot by Jackie Young, leading to a rebound by Williams.
She brought the ball upcourt and looked for the open player. She dribbled and dribbled as the time ticked away. Finally, she drained a 17-foot pullup shot with 10.4 seconds left to push the lead back to four, 89-84, as the Mohegan Sun crowd shrieked with joy. The Sun celebrated afterward, too.
Williams was comfortable having the ball in her hands as the seconds fell off the game clock.
“That’s how I’m set up,” she said. “You know, I want the ball, I know I can score whenever. That’s how I felt. I wanted the ball in my hand. I feel like everybody got a confidence in me and know I can go get a bucket so I put a ball in my hand.”
“That’s a big win in an incredible environment,” Miller said. “That’s a big win for us. Right now, as much for psyche as anything else that we can step up in big games and rise to the occasion. So (I am) really proud.”
Miller praised the Mohegan Sun Arena crowd, too. “That crowd deserves a lot of credit,” he said. “They give us energy when our tank is on empty and they continue to give us energy.”
Cambage, a 6-foot-8 center from Australia, led the Aces with 18 points while Wilson, a second-year slashing guard from South Carolina, had 17 points. Dearica Hamby had 14 points for Las Vegas.
It was a gutty performance against another Bill Laimbeer-coached team that always plays hard and physical. A decade ago, Laimbeer was coaching the Detroit Shock against the Sun as the two teams battled for supremacy in the Eastern Conference. Las Vegas plays just as hard.
“We dug ourselves a little bit of a hole and they Aces are so difficult to keep out of the paint,” Miller said. “They were crushing us with points in the paint at that one stretch. But the combination of Alyssa Thomas, Courtney Williams, willing us at the offensive end and then some intense defensive stops in the second half, a better job of keeping them off the foul line really contributed to a big win.”
The Sun had an 11-point lead in the first half, fueled in part by several steals. But Las Vegas pounded the ball inside to Cambage and Wilson and took an 11-point lead of their own in the second quarter.
Las Vegas led by 11 with 5:36 left in the third quarter before Alyssa Thomas took over. The Sun went on a 13-2 run to tie the game with Alyssa Thomas scoring 11 points on driving layups, bulling her way through the lane.
“She was going crazy,” Williams said. “I don’t have the words. She bulling (past) people, finishing at the rack (basket) and hitting free throws.”
Alyssa Thomas said, “I found myself being more aggressive. I felt I could make a move on (Cambage). Everytime (we) drew up a play, I went as hard as I could.”
Connecticut closed out the third quarter by not allowing the Aces a field goal in the final 5:36 and on a 15-2 run. Las Vegas was 0-for-11 in the final five minutes of the third quarter and it was a ballgame again.
“Well you just try to keep Alyssa Thomas in front of you,” Laimbeer said. “She played a very fine game, a lot of spin moves, making hard shots with a hand in her face. Give them a lot of credit.”
Connecticut doesn’t get to rest on their laurels. The Sun are flying out to Los Angeles on Saturday to face the Sparks on Sunday night at 5 p.m., followed by a trip up the West Coast to Seattle for a game on Tuesday night at 10 p.m.
NOTES: Alyssa Thomas wasn’t fazed by playing point guard and bringing up the ball. She frequently does it anyway after ripping down a rebound to spark a fast break. “I played some point in college (at Maryland),” she said. … Jonquel Jones played just six minutes in the first half after picking up three fouls. She still finished with a game-high six blocked shots. … Morgan Tuck finished with seven points – all in the fourth quarter. … Jonquel Jones and Shekinna Stricklen each had seven points for Connecticut while Bria Holmes had eight points off the bench. … The Sun are now 14-1 at home this season. … Alyssa Thomas’ 27 points were one point shy of her career-high 28 that she had in June against Dallas.
There are six games left in the regular season that ends on September 8 when the Sun visit Indiana. Connecticut returns home to host Dallas on September 4. … Clarendon had season-ended surgery on her right ankle in June. Banham is dealing with a left ankle injury while Hiedeman is dealing with an injured food. … Connecticut has several tiebreaking advantages. They have won the season series, 2-1, with Washington, Las Vegas and Seattle. The winner of Sunday’s game in Los Angeles wins the the season series.
Former Sun teammates Taj McWilliams-Franklin and Nykesha Sales were on hand to see Whalen’s number raised to the rafters at halftime. Whalen’s No. 13 joins Sales (42), Margo Dydek (12) and Katie Douglas (23) as numbers retired by Connecticut. … Banham wore Whalen’s No. 13 jersey on the bench.