Sun dominate Sparks to take 2-0 series lead

Connecticut Sun forward Alyssa Thomas (25) goes to the basket as Los Angeles Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike (30) defends during the WNBA Semi-Finals between the Los Angeles Sparks and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on September 19, 2019. Photo Credit: Chris Poss
Connecticut Sun forward Alyssa Thomas (25) goes to the basket as Los Angeles Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike (30) defends during the WNBA Semi-Finals between the Los Angeles Sparks and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on September 19, 2019. Photo Credit: Chris Poss

The Connecticut Sun used a strong second half to rout the Los Angeles Sparks, 94-68, in game 2 of the WNBA semifinals Thursday and take a 2-0 lead in the series.

Jonquel Jones led Connecticut with 27 points and 13 rebounds, while Courtney Williams had 25 points and Alyssa Thomas scored 12 points and grabbed 13 rebounds.

The Sun shook off a slow start, which led to adjustments.

“To their credit, I thought they came out and were really physical,” coach Curt Miller said. “I thought they threw the first punch.”

“I ‘m not sure we were ready for the physicality. (LA) put us on our heels. I thought finally the game settled in, we got a chance to relax and realize we had to match that physicality; we had to match the aggressiveness they came out with. And when we started to do that the game settled in.”

The surge looked as though the Sun had flipped an energy switch, and they began a march to victory in the second quarter that eventually became a sprint, leaving Los Angeles far behind. They outscored the visitors in the second half, 53-28, and out-rebounded them for the game, 46-24.

“LA came out, and they just hit us in our mouth,” Williams said. “And I think we had to come out and withstand that run, stay mentally strong, you know we know that basketball is a game of runs. So we went on our run and put our foot on the gas.”

Connecticut banished their season-long second-quarter woes to tie the game, 31-31 at 4:26. During their comeback they dominated the boards, 17-6 in the quarter, including eight offensive boards they converted to 11 points. Their 29 rebounds in the first half set a WNBA playoff record.

The half closed with the Sun leading 41-40, despite shooting a miserable 2-16 from three and just 36 percent overall.

Connecticut remembered how to shoot in the third period, hitting six of their first nine shots. Their defense was smothering for most of the quarter, and they continued to dominate on the glass. The combination led to a 12-1 run to lead by eight half way through the quarter. They extended that lead on the strength of four threes and more defensive stops to take a 70-57 lead by the end of the third quarter. That 13-point lead, not coincidentally, equaled Williams’ point total for the period.

The Sun did not let up, opening the fourth on a 10-2 run to take a 21 point lead, 80-59 at 6:51.

Nneka Ogwumike led the Sparks with 18 points, while Riquna Williams had 14. Candace Parker was held to just three points.

Miller predicted a “war” in the game after Los Angeles coach Derek Fisher earned a technical late in game one by taunting Thomas: “we’re going to kick your ass” in game two. But instead, the Sparks need a major reboot if they are to survive the series and advance to the Finals.

The officials were certainly prepared for war. They did a remarkable job – rare in this league that underpays its referees – of letting professionals play a contact sport without disrupting the flow with foul calls.

Los Angeles Sparks forward Chiney Ogwumike (13) Connecticut Sun center Jonquel Jones (35) and Los Angeles Sparks guard Sydney Wiese (24) battle for position during the WNBA Semi-Finals between the Los Angeles Sparks and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on September 19, 2019. Photo Credit: Chris Poss
Los Angeles Sparks forward Chiney Ogwumike (13) Connecticut Sun center Jonquel Jones (35) and Los Angeles Sparks guard Sydney Wiese (24) battle for position during the WNBA Semi-Finals between the Los Angeles Sparks and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on September 19, 2019. Photo Credit: Chris Poss

Jones demonstrated the skills that made her an all-star, and will be a key to stealing a win in Los Angeles, where the series moves Sunday. She was powerful on the boards, with seven offensive boards of her 13 total; she finished shots through contact, and demanded the ball in the post.

Her inside dominance grew from disappointment with her game one rebounding.

“I think in the first game just going back and watching it . . . I felt kind of disappointed in my rebounding,” Jones said. “I felt like I was getting my hands on the ball but I just wasn’t finishing and being able to pull it away.”

When Connecticut’s lead reached 23 with 5:31 remaining, Fisher pulled his starters, conceding the blowout.

Shortly thereafter, Thomas – who is the key to the Sun’s success this season – went to the bench for the first time in this series. Her defensive prowess was recognized by the WNBA coaches, who selected her the the all-defensive second team. Her contributions on offense, however, are just as crucial.

Miller said Thomas’ presence is at the center of the team’s movement.

“This series has two of the best facilitating forwards in the league, with Candace Parker and Alyssa Thomas,” he said. “[Thomas] allows us to play downhill. Not only in transition, but in the half court we have another person that can get the ball into the paint and be able to distribute and put pressure on the defense.”

Thomas movement and shooting have been limited by torn labrums in both shoulders that she has played through for two seasons. But in this playoff series she has played 74 ½ minutes, scored 34 points, grabbed 23 boards, dished nine assists, and stolen the ball six times.

The Sparks need to be concerned that they faded so badly after a very strong start. Fisher had no explanation for the lapse.

“Their energy increased and ours slowly dipped and we were not able to sustain the energy and effort on the defensive end that made them uncomfortable to start the game,” he said.

“In the third quarter they over ran us. . . . “We have struggled to have a first quarter lead on the road in quite some time and so we were definitely pleased with the start. Over time were not able to sustain the fight, the intensity, the energy that it takes to win these type of games on the road.”

Particularly concerning was Parker’s passiveness. After scoring 24 in the first game, she attempted just three shots in the second. She had ten boards in game one, and just one in game two.

Game three is at Long Beach State Sunday, which is 26 miles south of their home court at Staples Center, where they won their final 14 home games.

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