Uncasville, Conn. – The Connecticut Sun rolled to an 86-77 win over the Indiana Fever Saturday to begin the season 3-0 for the first time since 2008.
Alyssa Thomas paced Connecticut with 21 points, while Rachel Banham scored a career-high 14 points off the bench in leading three other players in double figures.
Connecticut’s offensive firepower so far has them averaging 96.3 points per game – tops in the WNBA – following a league-record two straight 100-point-plus wins. The game against Indiana was no different, as they got off to a quick start and never looked back. Coach Curt Miller said a strong start was their goal.
We didn’t shy away about talking about how important May was this year,” he said. “We knew when the schedule came out and how much we are on the road in June and early July, that this three game home-stand to start the year was very important to us. Mission accomplished getting to 3-0.”
Leading by only three points after the first quarter, the Sun began the second on a 13-0 run, which pushed the lead to 37-21. But a layup form Erica Wheeler with 3:37 before the break brought the visitors to within five, 40-35. Connecticut ended the second on an 8-4 run to pad their advantage to nine points.
They continued the onslaught in the third period, going on a 20-6 run halfway through to go up 70-51 going into the fourth. The Fever brought it to within nine two times in the last frame, but the Sun answered each time.
Rookie Kelsey Mitchell led Indiana with 18 points, while Candice Dupree had 14 and rookie Victoria Vivians, 13.
Miller has been impressed with what Thomas brings to the table each game.
“She is one of the most versatile players in the league”, he said. “You can play her at the power forward position, you can play her at guard and she’s one of the elite defenders in the league. Tonight, she was the centerpiece of everything we did on both ends.”
Mitchell knocked down four three-point shots and scored 12 points in the last two quarters. Vivians scored 10 of her points in the second half. This was Mitchell’s third straight double-digit game.
Fever coach Pokey Chatman said the team’s newcomers have progressed.
“I was pleased with the effort – especially with the babies,” she said. “They are still learning things and retaining things, and I want to make sure we don’t take a step back because that is an effort thing and they gave a lot of it tonight.”
Mitchell said it has been most difficult trying to scout players who are new to her.
“It’s a huge adjustment because you have to know personnel, and I am really bad at that at this point,” she said. “I don’t know that a player like (Connecticut guard) Alex Bentley can shoot the three and put it on the floor. For us, the huge adjustment is knowing that the energy has to stay up for the entire game.”
The Sun will have some time off before kicking off its four-game road trip against the Chicago Sky on Friday.
Seattle – Her stat line may not jump off the page next to 29 points from Jewell Loyd and 28 from Breanna Stewart.
But in Friday’s come-from-behind win over the Chicago Sky, the game’s defining moments belonged to Natasha Howard.
In the span of four seconds, the fifth-year forward capped the Seattle Storm’s 14-point comeback with a put back off a Stewart miss, and then she followed it with a block on the other end to maintain an 87-87 tie.
“She saved the day for us,” Stewart said.
And though the Storm couldn’t get off a final shot to win in regulation, as far as Stewart was concerned, “we knew those [next] five minutes were ours.”
Seattle then outscored Chicago 8-to-4 in the extra period for a 95-91 victory at the Key.
Loyd’s 29 led all scorers, while Allie Quigley had a team-high 23 for the Sky on 8-of-12 shooting. Howard notched her first double-double in a Storm uniform with 16 points and 10 rebounds, along with four blocks – all in the four quarter and overtime.
Chicago (2-2) led by as many as 10 in the first half, before a late Storm run in the waning moments of the second quarter cut the advantage to three at the break.
Seattle used a 7-0 run to start the third to take a short-lived lead of its own, but trailed by 11 heading to the final period.
A lay-up from Kahleah Copper with just under six minutes to play extended the Sky lead to 14, at 80-68, before the Storm began to chip away. But more importantly, according to head coach Dan Hughes, the team turned up its defensive activity to “another level,” holding Chicago to just seven points to the end of regulation.
With the gap down to five with 35 seconds to play, Loyd hit threes on back-to-back possessions — bookending a pair of Diamond DeShields free throws — to cut the deficit to one. After Quigley split a pair of free throws, Howard’s put-back tied the score, and her ensuing block kept it that way.
“We played good in spurts, but obviously in the fourth quarter we struggled taking care of the ball,” Quigley said. “I think that we let their pressure get to us and didn’t stay poised in that moment.”
A hook shot to start overtime from Stewart gave Seattle its first lead since the early moments of the third, and the Storm would not trail the rest of the way.
“For us it was an inconsistent performance,” Hughes said. “… but you have to be really proud of the team that would never doubt that they could finish the game. It’s a great lesson.”
The coach also took solace in knowing his team could pull out a win on a night when the shots weren’t falling (just 42 percent from the field). Not that it came easy.
“I’d love it to be smooth, but a lot of times understanding how to defend when our offense isn’t coming, those things don’t happen overnight,” he said.
Seattle now travels to Las Vegas for that franchise’s home opener on Sunday at the Mandalay Bay Events Center, while the Sky return home to face the Sun next Friday night.
Both teams were without key contributors down the stretch. Crystal Langhorne left the game in the second quarter with a bruised right rib and did not return, while Quigley did not play in the overtime period, after sustaining what Stocks called “an unfortunate hit … It doesn’t look good (groin injury).”
Sue Bird moved to fourth on the all-time games played list, passing former teammate Swin Cash with her 480th appearance.
SPOTTED: Tacoma native, UW grad, and Lakers guard Isaiah Thomas was on hand.
Noelle Quinn missed her third straight game for Seattle with a right knee injury, but participated in warm ups with the team.
So far, the New York Liberty’s theme for the year seems to be “challenging.”
Already exiled from Madison Square Garden to the suburb of Westchester, the Liberty enters their home opener against the defending champion Minnesota Lynx tonight with a third of its roster – including three starters – unavailable to play.
Reigning Sixth Woman of the Year Sugar Rodgers, who scored six points and grabbed six rebounds in New York’s season opener last weekend, is doubtful after sustaining a left knee sprain in practice. Epiphanny Prince returned from overseas play with a concussion, and is out indefinitely. So is Brittany Boyd, who is still recovering from a torn Achilles tendon sustained in the second game of the season last year. Center Kia Vaughn has not returned from overseas, and her due date is unknown.
That leaves eight players to suit up in beginning their quest to top last year’s 22-12 regular-season record, and to overcome a two-year first-round playoff exit record.
Katie Smith helms the team after serving four years as assistant coach under Bill Laimbeer, who left last year to coach the start-up franchise Las Vegas Aces. Smith is a league veteran and a Hall-of-Famer who was honored at the Final Four in Columbus, Ohio in April.
To take that last little step to post-season success, Smith will have to engineer improved guard play, and get more from All-Star center Tina Charles. Smith said it begins with expanding the eight-year veteran’s versatility.
“Tina is phenomenal. . . “ Smith told the NBA’s Area 21 sports program. “Now, you put her on the block, she’ll murder you. She’s quick, she can rip it, she can shoot it. But she’s expanded her game, can shoot the three well. We need to get her to drive, take the contact, and get the and-ones.”
Charles is a great player and is always in the discussion for league MVP – an award she won in 2012. But she may have fallen in love with the jump shot, and thereby diminished her low post effectiveness. Her rebounding is down over the last five years, from 11.7 RPG in 2010 to 9.4 last season. Her blocks are way down, from 60 in 2011 to just 24 last year. Her field goal percentage, just under 50 percent in her MVP season, has not come very close since, hovering around 45 percent. Finally, her offensive rebounds have sunk from 123 in 2012 to just 69 in 2017. That’s a lot of second-chance points and possessions the Liberty have missed.
Charles shares the paint with Kiah Stokes, now in her fourth year. The UConn product is an excellent rim protector and rebounder, but a less-than-stellar scorer. This isn’t optimal, as the league now includes a number of tall fours and a few fives who, like Charles, can score from the perimeter. Those players sometimes force Charles to go out with them, which takes her away from rebounding country.
Smith did not say Charles would “murder” opponents from beyond the arc, and she won’t. Charles should be playing the post, taking contact and finishing with an old-fashioned three-point play, as her coach suggested. If one were to ask WNBA coaches whether they prefer Charles on the block or on the perimeter, a vast majority would prefer she shoot threes. Smith’s comments may indicate that she will encourage Charles to move back into the post, and save the three for situational use.
New York is flush with guards, many of them talented. Bria Hartley is the indispensable point guard and coach-on-the-floor, and has her position solidified. She is very fast with the ball and runs the offense well, but she does not dish a lot of assists, because all the team’s guards share that load. That part is good.
The other guards – Prince, Rodgers, Boyd and veteran Shavonte Zellous – are very alike, and maybe too much so. All are 5-9 or 5-10, all score 10.5-13 points per game, and all have similar assists and turnovers numbers. All grab around 3.5-4 rebounds per game and all are athletic. All can drive the lane or hit pull-up jumpers, and all shoot nearly identical 34 percent from three-point range. Rodgers is a high-volume shooter, second only to Charles last year, and she makes a lot of shots. Yet, she misses nearly two in three.
They are not identical, but except for Zellous’ ability to get to the free throw line and her superior defense, their coach really cannot get different looks on offense from the guards. As the Liberty approach their first home game in the new arena, however, the wisdom of having so many guards is demonstrated, as three are out.
The similarity of the guard corps is one reason Smith is so thrilled that Kia Nurse was available as the tenth pick in the draft, because the Husky standout is different.
The six-foot Nurse is a big guard who is known for her smothering defense and for above-average three-point shooting. In her WNBA debut she scored 17 points, second only to Charles.
“Nurse handles the ball well, shoots it well,” Smith said during the preseason. “But the thing that I love most about her, now that I know her better, is her toughness. She’ll guard anybody. She’ll get knocked around, but she’ll get right back up. . . . That’s what you want everybody to have. She’s bringing it every day, and I’m really impressed with that.”
In fact, Smith’s picture of Nurse could easily have described her coach as a player: tough, smart, relentless, and a winner. Nurse, like Smith, is primarily a shooting guard, but she has point experience, and has the quickness and size to guard and to play the three on occasion. The biggest surprise for Smith was her foot speed.
“I didn’t know about her jets,” Smith said. “Her and Bria Hartley are going to have a heck of some races. I don’t think Bria has ever been beaten, but Kia is going to put her to the test. They can just put their heads down and roll. When that ball changes possession, they are out. And that puts pressure on the defense. . . . ‘I’m going to fly, get some easy buckets.’ It’s going to help our team.”
During training camp New York acquired veteran guard Marissa Coleman after she was cut from the Indiana Fever roster. At 6-1, Coleman has better size than the other guards, and she has nine years of WNBA experience. She has been at times a serious three-point threat, though in the last three years her percentage has dropped off sharply from the 40 percent she managed in 2013. Coleman is physically strong and durable, missing just two games in the last 272.
Small forward Rebecca Allen, a 6-2 player who got little playing time last year, is back on the roster for the second year.
Joining Charles in the post are a trio of players who don’t quite seem to have fulfilled their potential. That seems a strange observation given that Laimbeer, the quintessential power forward in his NBA playing days, coached them for years.
Stokes is a 6-4 shot-blocker and defensive specialist who rarely leaves the low post. She has averaged 6.7 boards per game in her three years, playing about 22 minutes. Her shooting percentage is high, but neither in the pros nor in college does she think “shoot first” when she grabs an offensive rebound.
Vaughn is more or less a duplicate of Stokes. At 6-4, she has averaged 20 minutes, 4.5 rebounds and 5.8 points in her nine year career. Does Smith really need two of them?
Finally, 6-5 Amanda Zahui B seems to be an enigma. Although she was the number two pick in the 2015 draft, she has played sparingly and without making much of an impression beyond her unusual name. Last year, she logged just 2.1 minutes per game. She is a bit less agile than Stokes and Vaughn, and it is unclear what her value is to the team.
In Vaughn’s absence, second-round draft pick Mercedes Russell was signed to a 10-day contract. The 6-6 athletic post from Tennessee was cut on the final day that rosters were due, and has thus far filled her role well for the ailing team.
The question going forward is whether the addition of Nurse and Coleman can change the dynamic enough for the Liberty to compete with other teams – particularly the powerhouse Connecticut Sun, who already look like title contenders with two 100-point games to begin the season. Unless one of the Liberty’s core players becomes a star, they may not be in that third spot by September playoff time.
Tonight will mark the 22-year-old team’s first appearance in Westchester, 30 miles from their longtime home, Madison Square Garden.
The Madison Square Garden Company, which owns the franchise, banished the Liberty this year from the Garden (where they will play just two games), to the Westchester County Center in suburban White Plains, N.Y. This move out of Manhattan and a basketball Mecca to a venue more than an hour away from the team’s previous home could be seen as: an attempt to harm attendance and bankrupt the team; an attempt to reach a suburban audience with fewer nearby entertainment options than city residents can select; or merely a reflection of MSG CEO James Dolan’s long-standing animus against the women’s team.
To be fair, the arena is, at best, just over an hour on the Harlem Railroad Line from downtown Manhattan, and getting to the Garden from four of five boroughs probably takes that long now. MSG has been trying to find a buyer for the Liberty for some time now. Their lack of interest in the team is further shown by the fact that most links on the official website are to 2017 information.
Uncasville, Conn. – The Connecticut Sun clamped down on defense and upped their offense in the fourth quarter Thursday to surge past the Los Angeles, Sparks, 102-94. It was the second straight 100-plus point outing for the Sun – the first WNBA team in history to have such a start.
Chiney Ogwumike led six Connecticut players in double figures with 18 points. Jonquel Jones scored 17 and Alyssa Thomas, 15, in a match up that featured 17 lead changes, 16 ties, and a 37-17 fourth quarter run by the Sun, who shot 62.5 percent on the night.
Both teams were in offensive rhythm, but in different ways. Through three quarters, the Sparks’ drive and dish left players completely unguarded for threes, and they hit five in the first period. After three, Los Angeles led by nine points – the largest margin by either team in the game.
“Both teams shot incredibly well,” Connecticut coach Curt Miller said. “Offense against defenses that were really working. But both offenses were better than defenses tonight, that’s for sure.”
The Sun’s success was more on the inside, where spacing, ball movement and an ability to finish at the rim kept them in the game. They outscored the Sparks, 50-26, in the paint. Certainly part of that inside dominance was that neither All-Star Candace Parker, out with a back injury, nor Jantel Lavender, who is still overseas played.
The win, however, was not necessarily because Los Angeles was short-handed. Neither of the missing posts shot 54.7 percent last year, which the Sparks shot as a team in this game. Defensively, they well could have made a difference, but Miller pointed out that this same lineup defeated Minnesota earlier in the week. The Connecticut advantage in rebounding was offset by their more numerous turnovers. Each team had 64 shot attempts.
The Sun entered the fourth quarter with a nine-point deficit, but noticeably tightened up their defense and took back the lead with a 10-0 run. Los Angeles immediately came back to the lead by as many as four points midway through the period. Connecticut surged ahead for good on a series of plays led by Jones, that showed her versatility. First, she drove inside and kicked the ball to Alex Bentley on the perimeter for a three. On the next possession, she drove the ball past Nneka Ogwumike for a bucket at the rim. And on the next possession, she stepped out to the left arc for a three-pointer to give her team a four point lead.
“Jonquel can give you an offensive put-back that others can’t, at times,” Miller said. “She can provide length around the rim. But what’s really, really unique and special about her is the way she can open up the floor and spread you out and play productively at 22-23 feet. Her threes were really big tonight.”
Jones scored ten of her 17 points in the final period. Thomas was everywhere in the Sun’s sprint to victory, scoring nine of her 15 points in the fourth, along with five rebounds, two steals, and a blocked shot. The Sun out-rebounded the Sparks 11-3 in the quarter.
Chelsea Gray led four Los Angeles players in double figures with 21 points, while Odyssey Sims notched 20.
Connecticut’s 37 points in the last frame was a team record. They appeared to have more energy than the Sparks, who played their third game in five days.
“We just didn’t defend down the stretch,” Los Angeles coach Brian Agler said. “We were a step slow in everything we were doing. Our defense wasn’t as active as it was earlier in the game, and they hit some timely shots.”
Fatigue will be a regular concern this season, where the WNBA schedule has been compressed to avoid a conflict with the FIBA World Championships in late September.
“Luckily this has been a week when we only had three in seven days,” Miller said. “That sounds like a lot of games, but that’s literally a vacation during this compacted schedule.”
The two teams meet twice more this season: July 3 in Los Angeles, and Aug. 19 back at Mohegan Sun Arena.
Connecticut plays Indiana Saturday, and then has six days off before beginning a tough stretch of five games in eight days, with four on the road. The Sparks play Phoenix Sunday at home, then get a full week off after playing four games in seven days.
Minneapolis – The match up everyone came to see in the Minnesota Lynx’s 76-68 win over the Dallas Wings Wednesday was the one between their centers: 6-6 Sylvia Fowles and 6-8 Liz Cambage.
Fowles, the reigning MVP for Minnesota, and Cambage, the Australian who returned to the league for the first time since 2011, didn’t disappoint. But it was Fowles who came out on top, as she scored 23 points, grabbed 20 rebounds and had five steals to become the only player in WNBA history to have such a stat line.
She dominated the game from the start, scoring the first six points for the Lynx and finishing with the 18th 20-point/20-rebound game in the history of the WNBA regular season. It was also the first 20/20 game in the 20-year history of the Minnesota Lynx.
“She set the tone for us,” said Lynx forward Maya Moore, who finished with 12 points. “It was really fun to just watch her be aggressive and be in her element, focus and stay with it.”
The announced Target Center crowd of 7,834 was enthralled with the match up down low, cheering on Fowles whenever she touched the ball and cheering even louder when Cambage missed. Cambage was visibly frustrated, and earned a first-half technical foul. She finished the game with 14 points and 12 rebounds.
“She brings it out of you,” Fowles said of her opponent. “She’s a big body. She’s aggressive, she’s smart, she’s long and you definitely ain’t moving her. I like it when I have challenges like that. She makes you think two steps ahead of her.”
Minnesota held just a four-point lead after the first quarter, but locked down defensively in the second, allowing just four Dallas points. Cambage made a layup with 8:28 remaining in the first half, and Skylar Diggins-Smith hit a 19-footer less than a minute later. But that was the last Wings basket until 9:28 remaining in the third quarter.
“It was tough,” Cambage said about guarding Fowles. “I mean, there is a reason she’s MVP. She just gets better every year, and you know she’s so smart the way she seals me and uses her body. It was a big learning lesson for me tonight. I got to come out next time ready to play.”
Playing without Glory Johnson (hamstring), Theresa Plaisance (ACL) and Aerial Powers (quad), Dallas was down to nine players. With Minnesota up 25 at halftime, many guessed the Wings would throw in the towel and move on, but instead they continued to push the ball and work it in and out of the post to create some open looks. The Lynx started missing the shots that were falling in the first half, and before both teams knew it, the lead was down to just 15.
“I didn’t love the energy when we came out of the locker room,” coach Cheryl Reeve said. “I thought we were flat.”
In the fourth quarter the Lynx were back to themselves, playing good enough defensively to escape with the single-digit victory. Dallas shot just seven free throws after attempting 18 and 28 in the first two games of the season.
“I’m not sure what it was, we just didn’t come out ready to play,” Cambage said. “Championship team, their home court, they had just lost on the buzzer (Sunday) to LA, we knew they would be hungry, and we had to come out hungry, and we didn’t. We had a bad start against Phoenix, we had a bad start against Atlanta, and another bad start tonight. I don’t know what it is, if we play a whole game we will win it, instead of just coming out at halftime. We have to be ready from the start.”
Minnesota is now 40-13 against the Wings in the regular season, winning the last nine consecutive and 22 of 27 in Minnesota. Last year the Lynx swept the season series between the two teams, with an average win margin of 15 points. They are now 1-1 on the season, while Dallas falls to 1-2.
Minnesota now travels to New York to take on the Liberty May 25, while the Wings face the Dream in Atlanta Saturday.