In the (playoff) picture: Sun down Wings, clinch first postseason berth since 2012

The Connecticut Sun's Alex Bentley, right, charges past 
Karima Christmas-Kelly of the Dallas Wings during Saturday night's WNBA game at Mohegan Sun Arena. The Sun won 96-88 to clinch a playoff berth for the first time since 2012. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
The Connecticut Sun's Alex Bentley, right, charges past Karima Christmas-Kelly of the Dallas Wings during Saturday night's WNBA game at Mohegan Sun Arena. The Sun won 96-88 to clinch a playoff berth for the first time since 2012. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

Mohegan — Alyssa Thomas could teach Phil "Zen Master" Jackson a thing or two about tranquility.

The Connecticut Sun went straight from their 96-88 win over the Dallas Stars on Saturday night to scoreboard watching.

Make that Twitter watching. The Sun tuned in to the broadcast of the San Antonio Stars-Atlanta Dream game, hoping that the former would beat the latter, allowing Connecticut to clinch its first playoff berth since 2012.

Thomas was asked if she was antsy.

"Not at all," Thomas said. "No matter what, clinched or not, we're still going to do what we do. We're still going to play hard. If it happens, it happens. If not, go at it the next game and the next game after that."

Whelp, Connecticut is going to the playoffs.

San Antonio beat the Dream 84-68, ending the longest playoff drought in Sun history.

"(It's) exciting, obviously," second-year Connecticut coach Curt Miller said. "I was honest with them that I didn't think it was a complete overhaul, a complete rebuild (when I took over), but we knew it was going to take some time with a young locker room.

"We're excited. That locker room certainly has bigger goals. So now we'll fight for (playoff) position and a very, very important first-round bye."

It was the fifth straight win for the Sun (17-9) and their eighth straight at home. It's their longest home winning streak since July 6-Aug. 3, 2006.

It was also Connecticut's 16th win in its last 20 games.

"And just like that, the goal is accomplished," Sun Jonquel Jones tweeted. "Time to set a new one."

And to think they started the season 0-4 and 1-5.

"It's been a fun run," Miller said. "They're warriors.

"We got the culture right and they really believe in each other on and off the court. They care for each other on and off the court. There's something special in team sports, and especially women's basketball, when you get your locker room right. A lot of good things can happen."

The Sun had to overcome athletic and relentless Dallas, as well as the fouls that piled up against them in the fourth quarter. The Wings were in the bonus with 6 minutes, 20 seconds left.

Connecticut closed the game on a 17-8 run. It did so having to play its starters longer, too. All-Star point guard Jasmine Thomas played limited minutes (14) after missing Tuesday's game to a sprained ankle. Reserve post Lynetta Kizer has been dealing with back issues and didn't play.

"I thought this game was going to come down to toughness," Miller said. "Certainly that was the word in our preparation. I have great respect for Dallas. I think they’re unbelievably athletic, unbelievably talented. I personally think they are truly one of the dangerous teams in this league. And in the playoffs, I don’t think anyone would want to face them.

"For us to compete against that athleticism, that team, with the extended minutes that we had to play our starters tonight, it just shows an absolute toughness. We could've folded. We could've had a couple of players that had stretches where they didn't play real well fold and they didn't."

Every Connecticut starter scored in double figures. Jones had 19 points, 16 rebounds, five blocks and four steals and Alyssa Thomas had 21 points, 13 rebounds and four assists.

Alex Bentley added 12 points, five assists and two steals and Shekinna Stricklen scored 15 with two steals.

Courtney Williams (19 points and five rebounds), Connecticut's fifth starter, had to show more toughness than most. Moments after hitting a go-ahead 19-foot jumper that gave the Sun an 81-80 lead with 5:18 seconds let, she was leveled by a screen, took a blow to the head and left the game.

"My teammate (Bentley) screened me," Williams laughed. "She literally screened me and gave me the meanest screen ever."

"We're never on the same page," Bentley interjected.

"I heard I got kicked in the head," Williams continued. "I didn't even know that. I didn't know."

Williams returned less than a minute later and had a three-point play that pushed Connecticut ahead 90-84 with 2:21 remaining.

Glory Johnson had 20 points, 12 rebounds and four steals for the Wings (13-16) and rookie Allisha Gray had 21 points, five rebounds and two steals.

Dallas, the only team to beat the world champion Los Angeles Sparks twice this season, shot 38.4-percent.

Perhaps the most impressive part of Connecticut's play was keeping the Wings off the boards. It had a 12-5 advantage on the offensive glass, noteworthy because Dallas averaged a league-leading 11.1 before the game.

Connecticut had a 41-28 overall edge in rebounds, too.

"They are playing really well," Dallas head coach Fred Williams said about the Sun. "Their inside presence is great. Jones, with her length and size (6-foot-6), creates a lot of havoc trying to get to the rim.

"Everybody knows we are the type of team that like to get to the rim, and when that is taken away you, have to settle for jump shots.”

The Wings beat Connecticut in their first meeting, 96-82 (June 25).

“Their speed and their intensity in transition (is better than last time)," Williams said. "They are pushing the basketball even faster. A player like Williams for them has generated a pure jump shooter from the outside, and their overall game defensively has really stepped up.”

Connecticut now gets to spend its final eight regular season games playing for positioning. The top eight teams qualify with the top two seeds getting a bye to the semifinals. The third and fourth seeds get a first-round bye.

The Sun are third in the overall standings.

“(It's) so special for all those guys who have never been in the playoffs before," Miller said. "Danielle (Adams) has been there, Kizer has been there, but a lot of that roster has never been to the playoffs, so I'm really excited for them."

"I want to try to create something that has sustained success. ... This is just step one, and we hope that we have the opportunity to be in the playoffs every year."

n.griffen@theday.com

Shekinna Stricklen, left, and Courtney Williams celebrate a foul call in the fourth quarter of Saturday's victory over the Dallas Wings at Mohegan Sun Arena. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Shekinna Stricklen, left, and Courtney Williams celebrate a foul call in the fourth quarter of Saturday's victory over the Dallas Wings at Mohegan Sun Arena. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Alyssa Thomas of the Connecticut Sun puts up a shot during Saturday's WNBA game against the Dallas Wings at Mohegan Sun Arena. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Alyssa Thomas of the Connecticut Sun puts up a shot during Saturday's WNBA game against the Dallas Wings at Mohegan Sun Arena. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

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