“Defense” and “disrespeCT” drove the Connecticut Sun to an 84-75 WNBA playoffs semifinal Game 1 victory over the Los Angeles Sparks Tuesday.
Alyssa Thomas led the second-seeded Sun with 22 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and five steals, but she credited her team’s defense for the win.
Also underlying the win for Connecticut was also the continuing disrespect the team has received from the media. It began in May, when they were an afterthought in preseason predictions, and continued last week when their supposed lack of big-name superstars was cited repeatedly as a reason they were underdogs in the semifinals. At the same time, the team has felt that they were not getting recognition for their outstanding play. Perhaps the most insulting was an ESPN commentator calling the team “role players” without a “mega-star,” while point guard Jasmine Thomas was sitting on the same TV set.
This week, the Sun reacted publicly, first with a series of re-tweets of the commentary and then with a tee-shirt saying “disrespeCT.” While it was not overt, the media coverage is providing a bit of an edge for the team.
“It does get frustrating sometimes that they don’t acknowledge that we have all-stars, we have people that are reaching milestones, setting records, doing amazing things,” Thomas said after the game.
“We have people on this team that are really talented. We get overlooked because we don’t have those big names. We know what the story is, but it doesn’t really affect us. We stay together in this locker room, we stay focused on what we want to do, and it’s great for the media to have something to talk about, but they don’t affect our goals and what we really believe in.”
The Sparks, in contrast, have plenty of star power. Candace Parker, looking like the all-star she has been for five of her 12 years in the league, contributed 24 points, 10 boards, and six blocks for her team in the loss. Nneka Ogwumike added 20 points and 10 rebounds. Those two, however, scored nearly half of Los Angeles’ points and grabbed two-thirds of the rebounds. The Connecticut defense held Sparks guards Chelsea Gray and Riquana Williams to just eight points – 15 below their average – and turned them over seven times.
The Sun had balanced scoring and committed just nine turnovers.
The match up, however, was rough for the hosts at first, as they air-balled their first three shots. Los Angeles out-scored them in the second quarter and took a 40-37 lead into the break.
“That was a scary start, wasn’t it?” Connecticut coach Curt Miller said. “That was first game jitters, that’s rust for not playing for nearly 10 days (due to first and second round byes) and excitement by our team. I was excited when we finally hit the rim after the first three air balls.”
Alyssa Thomas scored the first nine Sun points, and 13 of their 21 points in the first quarter on 6-7 shooting. As an interior scorer, she saw she was needed early on.
“I think we were just really amped for the game,” Thomas said. “You could tell by the shots. Everything was long or going over the backboard.”
“Being that I like to get to the rim, I just took it upon myself to really attack. I just, you know, was feeling good and things were rolling for me and my teammates just kept giving me the ball.”
The Sparks offense kicked into high gear in the second quarter, threatening to take over the game. All eight players scored, and the team shot 78.6 percent (11-14). Connecticut did not let the second quarter carry into the second half, as they hit threes on their first three possessions to take a six-point lead. There followed a riveting 10 minutes of basketball that saw both teams battling on every possession. The quarter featured five lead changes and two ties, ending with the Sun barely ahead at 59-58.
Even though the game remained so tight, Los Angeles coach Derek Fisher thought the third quarter marked the turning point of the game.
“It’s always hard to pinpoint one kind of breaking point in a game,” he said. But, I thought the start of the third quarter for us.”
“After fighting really hard to have a three-point lead going into the half, we didn’t start the third quarter in the right way. And they scored nine points in one minute and 23 seconds on things that weren’t difficult for us to cover. You know we just didn’t start it with the right sense of urgency. And I thought the momentum turned a little bit at that point.”
In the final period, the Connecticut defense locked in again, holding the Sparks to just 17 points, stymieing everyone except Parker. At the same time, the Sun offense found opportunities for center Jonquel Jones, who had 8 of her 16 points in the period, including two threes midway through the quarter that opened a seven-point lead that they never relinquished. The game ended on Stricklen free throw following a technical foul on Fisher.
Game 2 on Thursday will likely be a different kind of match up.
Los Angeles needs to reduce the turnovers and get their guards free of the Connecticut trap.
I don’t know if it was necessarily all 19 turnovers came from us just [being trapped],” Parker said after the game.
“We started the game with unforced turnovers. I think it’s those we’re talking about. It’s the unforced errors that kind of take away from what we do. I think we shot like 49-40-something percent from the field so 19 turnovers — we get a shot on goal we have a 40-something percent opportunity to score. And we’re taking it away by turning it over and then we’re giving them a chance to play against a defense that’s not set. So, I think it’s more than just turnovers.”
The Sun need to find an answer to the terrible second quarters that have hurt them all year. But they are still at home, and they have been building to this series since Miller took over in 2016, with a plan to build this core group of players. Connecticut’s starters have been together for four years – the longest of any starting group in the WNBA.
“We don’t need some external person wondering if we have a mega-super-star or not,” Miller said. “We think we’re built for this moment.”
“We circled this time on our calendar four years ago. This is our time, and we’re going to go for it. But we know LA came here to split. Game two is going to be a war.”