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Defensive shutdowns lift Liberty past Connecticut

Connecticut’s DiJonai Carrington (21) scored a career-high 23 points in Tuesday night’s WNBA loss to the New York Liberty, 89-81 in Uncasville.

UNCASVILLE, Conn., June 27, 2023 – Expectations were lower for the Connecticut Sun coming into the 2023 WNBA season with the trade of Jonquel Jones to New York and the Liberty and the defending WNBA champion Las Vegas Aces signing multiple star players and creating what some are calling the league’s first super teams.

But the core of the Sun that went to the 2022 WNBA finals returned and Connecticut won 12 of their first 15 games, including a win over Las Vegas on June 8 and victories in six of the last seven games.

On Tuesday night, the Sun showed that they can play with the Liberty. They erased a 16-point deficit to take a one-point lead with 3:39 remaining but the Liberty held the Sun scoreless in the final 3:39 to beat Connecticut, 89-81 before 7,344 fans at the Mohegan Sun Arena.

New York used an 8-0 burst to close out the second quarter and take a four-point halftime lead. They also had a great start in the third quarter scoring the first eight points of the second half to extend their lead to 12 points.

“We know we can be a great defensive team,” New York coach Sandy Brondello said. “We didn’t do it for 40 minutes tonight but when we needed it, we certainly buckled down. It’s a defensive minded group.”

It’s also a Liberty team blessed with some outstanding offensive talents.

Brianna Stewart had a game-high 24 points, including a pair of three-point shots and baskets that slowed down the Sun. Courtney Vandersloot, the All-Star guard who helped Chicago stun the top-seeded Sun in the playoffs in 2021, is now wearing a Liberty uniform but is still draining shots against the Sun. She finished 17 points with Betnijah Laney getting 16 points.

Connecticut wasted another stellar performance from Alyssa Thomas, who got her third triple double of the season. Thomas had 11 points, a game-high 10 rebounds, a team-high 10 assists along with a game-high five assists. DiJonai Carrington came off the bench and scored a career-high 23 points while Olivia Nelson Ododa was 6-of-6 from the floor with a career-high 14 points.

Alyssa Thomas tries to shoot over former Sun teammate Jonquel Jones in Tuesday night’s WNBA game in Uncasville. New York won, 89-81.

“It’s certainly disappointing,” Sun coach Stephanie White said. “Despite struggling defensively, to be in position to win the ballgame and not come away with it … I felt like our sense of urgency and our discipline defensively wasn’t great throughout most of the ballgame.”

With the win, New York also took the lead in securing the Eastern Conference berth in the midseason Commissioner’s Cup championship game. Connecticut and New York are both 6-3 in Commissioner Cup play against other Eastern Conference teams but the Liberty own a 2-0 edge over the Sun. New York beat Connecticut in May, 81-65 in Brooklyn.

It was also the first game for Jonquel Jones at the Mohegan Sun Arena since she was traded to the Liberty in the offseason. Jones finished with 14 points and 11 rebounds with four blocked shots.

New York had their biggest lead at 16 with 4:52 left in the third quarter after Jones completed a three-point play, 65-49. But the Sun went on a 16-3 run to cut the lead to three with Harrington scoring 11 of the 16 points.

Tyasha Harris’ three-point shot with 25.3 seconds left cut the lead to three but Jones hit a basket in the lane with 3.9 seconds left to give New York a five-point lead after three quarters.

But New York went on a 12-3 run to extend the lead to 12 points with 6:28 remaining in the game.

Again, the Sun rallied. In a 12-3 surge, Carrington hit a pair of three-point shots, and Thomas sank two shots, including one over Stewart with 3:39 remaining that gave the Sun an 81-80 lead.

But Connecticut finished the game by missing their last eight shots from the floor.

“When you have the luxury of having Kayla Thornton coming the bench (that helps),” Brondello said. “She loves to play defense. And she said, I will take Carrington. OK. Let’s go.”

New York scored the final nine points of the game. Vandersloot hit a pair of foul shots with 3:27 remaining and after the Sun missed two shots in the paint, it was Laney with an open three-point shot with 2:24 to go to extend the New York lead to four, 85-81.

Thornton hit an open jumper from the top-of-the key with 40.4 seconds to give the Liberty a six-point lead, 87-81. She hit a pair of free throws with 16.8 seconds.

“Unfortunately, we had some lapses in the fourth quarter and you can’t do that against a team like New York,” White said “The margin of error is small. We know if we want to accomplish what we want to accomplish, we have to be great for 40 minutes.”

Connecticut returns to action on Thursday with another challenging game at Las Vegas on Thursday.

NOTES: Rebecca Allen was 0-for-5 from the floor and scored just two points but she had a career-high five blocks with the Sun getting a season-high eight blocks and a season-high 44 points off the bench.

The Sun missed their final eight shots of the second quarter as New York turned a four-point deficit into a four-point halftime lead. The Sun also missed their first four shots of the second half as the Liberty hit their first three shots and turned a four-point halftime lead into a 12-point lead. Connecticut also missed their final seven shots of the game over the final 3:30 of the contest,

Earlier in the day, Thomas was named WNBA Eastern Conference player of the week for the eighth time in her 10-year professional career and the second time this season.

Last week, Thomas averaged 14.0 points, 11.7 rebounds, 8.7 assists and 2.0 steals per game as the Sun went 3-0 with victories over Seattle, Minnesota and Chicago. She recording a triple-double in two out of Connecticut’s three contests.

In the Sun’s 85-79 win over the Storm on June 20, Thomas finished with 13 points, 15 rebounds and 12 assists. To close out the week, she tallied 14 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists in the Sun’s 96-72 victory over the Sky on June 25. With those two triple-doubles, Thomas is now the league’s all-time leader in regular season triple-doubles with four in her career.

New York 89, Connecticut 81
At Uncasville, Conn.
New York (89) Laney 5-12 3-4 16, Stewart 11-17 0-0 24 Jones 6-9  1-1 14, Ionescu 2-10 2-2 6, Vandersloot 6-13 3-3 17, Thornton 2-3 3-4 7, Sabally 1-2 0-0 2, Johannes 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 34-70 12-14 89
Connecticut (81) Allen 0-5 2-2 2, Bonner 3-12 4-4 12, Thomas 5-17 1-1 11, Hayes 3-9 0-0 6, Hiedeman 3-8 0-0 6, Harris 3-11 0-0 7, Carrington 8-11 4-4 23, Nelson-Ododa 6-6 2-3 14. Totals 31-79 13-14 81
New York (10-3)             28  19  23  19  – 89
Connecticut (12-4)        29  14  22  16  — 81
Three-point shots: New York 9-20 (Laney 3-6, Stewart 2-2, Jones 1-2, Ionescu 0-3, Vandersloot 3-3, Thornton 1-3, Johannes 1-3; Connecticut 6-19 (Allen 0-3, Bonner 2-6, Hayes 0-3, Hiedeman 0-1, Harris 1-3, Carrington 3-3); Attendance: 7344

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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