For three quarters of Sunday’s WNBA season opening game against the Minnesota Lynx, it looked like the Connecticut Sun had not missed a step.
The Sun went to the WNBA championship series a year ago, falling to Washington in game five. On Sunday, the Sun looked like champions early. Led by Alyssa Thomas and DeWanna Bonner, Connecticut led by as many as 11 points and had a nine-point lead with 1:09 remaining in the third quarter.
But the Sun ran out of gas in the fourth quarter, losing their shooting touch as two former UConn stars Napheesa Collier and Crystal Dangerfield hit some big buckets to help the Minnesota Lynx beat Connecticut, 77-69, in the WNBA season opener for both teams at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.
Collier scored nine of her 11 points in the final 4:54 of the game and Dangerfield, the 5-foot-5 rookie, had seven her 10 points in the fourth quarter of her professional debut. Minnesota outscored Connecticut, 25-8 in the first nine minutes of the fourth quarter, a period that saw the Sun make just two field goals.
Minnesota center Sylvia Fowles led the way with 17 points, 18 rebounds and blocked four shots. She sank 7 of 11 shots from the field.
Connecticut was led by Alyssa Thomas, who had 20 points, eight rebounds and four steals with Bonner adding 19 points and pulling down eight rebounds in her Sun debut. Bonner was 0-for-6 from three-point range while the Sun sank just two of 21 three-point shots.
But it was the two former Huskies – Collier and Dangerfield making things happen for Minnesota in the fourth quarter.
Collier, last year’s WNBA Rookie of the Year, didn’t score a point in the first half when picked up three fouls. She played much of the fourth quarter in foul trouble, scoring seven points playing with five fouls.
“Collier is an elite player,” Sun coach Curt Miller said. “They did a real good job in the fourth quarter of getting her in motion and screened well with the ball in her hands.”
“We weren’t going to give up,” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeves said. “We thought if we could get three stops in a row, we could get back in the game and hang in there.”
The Sun led by seven points after three quarters but Dangerfield and Collier helped ignite the Lynx with two big plays in the span of 30 seconds.
Dangerfield stole an errant inbounds pass and drove straight to the basket for two points. After the Sun missed on a three-point shot, Collier pulled down the rebound and gave it to Dangerfield, who drove in for a layup that cut the Connecticut lead to two, 57-55 with 7:55 left in the game.
The Sun hit only two field goals in the next seven minutes. “At times, we looked good but when we couldn’t get what we were looking, we stood around and waited for one player to make a play,” Miller said.
Connecticut led by one, 63-62 with 4:21 remaining after a pair of free throws from Bonner but Collier and Dangerfield continued to make big plays.
“We know that Napheesa will never quit. She will leave it all out there,” Reeves said. “She made her own breaks and started cashing in on her shots. She is a big reason we won the game.”
Playing with five fouls, Collier drained a three-point shot with 4:05 left to give the Lynx the lead. Brionna Jones sank a rebound in the lane to tie the game for Connecticut but it was Dangerfield who drained a three-point shot with 3:20 remaining to give the Lynx the lead for good.
Collier was double-teamed in the lane and she fired it back out to a wide-open Dangerfield, who hit the shot for a 68-65 lead.
“Our plan was that Crystal wouldn’t see significant minutes but we were looking for something different (in the lineup in the third quarter),” Reeves said. “And she made the most of it. That is what UConn players do. She was ready. She is confident.”
With 2:44 remaining, Collier drove to the basket for a layup to increase the lead to five, 70-65. She hit a turnaround jumper with 1:46 left before fouling out of the game.
For three quarters, the Sun looked good. The Lynx shot just 32.1 percent from the floor in the first half and Alyssa Thomas was outstanding with 16 points on 6-of-6 shooting along with six rebounds and two assists.
The Sun ran the floor well after causing turnovers and pulling down rebounds. The problem in the fourth quarter was that Connecticut pulled down few rebounds – losing opportunities to run — and hit too few baskets.
“We took off running and gunning so (getting tired) is to be expected if we run like that for three quarters,” Bonner said.
Bonner vowed to sink some three-point shots in Connecticut’s next game on Tuesday night against WNBA champion Washington.
“I am very proud of our team,” she said. “I don’t people expected us to play that way. We surprised a lot of people. We just broke down in the fourth quarter.”
NOTABLE: Connecticut’s Brionna Jones made her first WNBA start and scored 10 points on 4-of-6 shooting. She pulled down five rebounds. … Playing in her 305th career WNBA game, Sun guard Jasmine Thomas scored six points and had four assists. … Bria Holmes, the former All-State sensation from Hillhouse High in New Haven, became the first Connecticut native to start a game for the Sun since Bloomfield’s Nykesha Sales did in August 2007 in a playoff game against Indiana. Holmes was 1-for-7 from the floor and scored three points.
This was the first of four games for the Sun this week.
Tuesday, July 28: Washington, 7 p.m. (NESN Plus)
Thursday, July 30: Los Angeles, 10 p.m. (ESPN)
Saturday, August 1: Minnesota, 4 p.m. (NESN)