Sun stun Sparks, 73-59, to reach WNBA semifinals
The Connecticut Sun have loved to play the underdog the previous two WNBA postseasons. They've turned finding doubters and criticism, whether real or self-perceived, into an art form.
The Sun went as far as selling t-shirts during last year's playoff run to the WNBA finals with the word "DisrespeCT" printed them.
Connecticut was seeded seventh out of eight teams in this year's playoffs. It played the third-seeded Los Angeles Sparks late Thursday night in a second-round, single-elimination game. L.A. had beaten the Sun in both regular season meetings.
Sun veteran DeWanna Bonner, winner of two WNBA titles with the Phoenix Mercury, took it upon herself to throw down the disrespect card in her team's locker room before the game.
"Man, nobody counted (on) us to win this game tonight," Bonner said. "Not one person, and when I said that to my team, it was 'let's go. Let's go'."
The Sun are now going to the WNBA semifinals. They rode a huge first half to stun Los Angeles, 73-59, at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.
Connecticut (12-12) will play the top-seeded Las Vegas Aces (18-4) in the best-of-five semifinals. Game 1 is Sunday at the same site (1 p.m., ESPN).
The Aces beat the Sun twice this season — 99-78 (Aug. 20), and 93-78 (Sept. 3).
Connecticut was the third team to reach the playoffs after an 0-5 start.
"At this time of the year, you just got to use whatever you can to fuel yourself and your team, and that (underdog role) was one of them," Bonner said. "We know they beat us two times already. ... We just wanted to go out there and prove a couple of people wrong.
"Actually, Connecticut has been doing that for very long time, so why stop now? You just use that as motivation."
All five Sun starters scored in double figures. Bonner had 17 points, 13 rebounds, five assists and two steals and Alyssa Thomas had 19 points, seven rebounds, five assists and two steals.
Jasmine Thomas had 10 points, six assists and two steals, Brionna Jones had 10 points and eight rebounds, and Briann January made all three of her 3-pointers for 11 points with four assists.
"We have felt at times like we were a top four team in this league," Sun head coach Curt Miller said. "We just haven't been able to put it all together at the offensive end.''
It was the second straight postseason that the Sun eliminated Los Angeles (15-8) from the playoffs. The latter was without star power Nneka Ogwumike due to a migraine. She was the team's third-leading scorer (13.3 ppg), and they were 1-4 without her this season.
"Just devastating for our league not to have a player like Nneka in a playoff game on national television," Miller said. "First, (she's) one of the best humans there is and such a huge part of our league. I feel bad for her. I feel bad for L.A.
"(She's) such a big offensive weapon and then just a tremendous defender. ... It's unfortunate any team has to lose a player like that with very little time to adjust. You feel bad for them, but certainly, I don't want to take away from our performance tonight, regardless of if Nneka played or not."
The Sun played tremendous defense against a team that was second in the league in field goal percentage (48.1) during the regular season, tops at shooting the three (39.8-percent) and averaged 84.9 points.
Los Angeles shot 33.3 percent, including missing 16 of 18 threes. They scored a season-low eight in the first quarter and scored under 70 for the first time all year.
Chelsea Gray, one of the world's best point guards, averaged 21 points against the Sun during the regular season.
Gary shot 2 of 9 for four points with no assists. The last time she had no assists was in Game 5 of the WNBA Finals on Oct. 20, 2016.
"Man, it just starts with those two (guards Jasmine Thomas and January)," Bonner said. "They're gritty. ... I wouldn't want to play against them. They're two of the best guard defenders we have in the league and I'm so proud to have them on my team."
Candace Parker had 22 points, 14 rebounds and five assists for the Sparks. Reserve Seimone Augustus was their only other player who scored in double figures (10).
“I think we kind of knew (that Ogwumike wasn’t going to play)," Parker said. "I'm not going to say we were caught off guard and that’s why we came out (the way we did) in the first quarter, no.
"We played three terrible games (to end the season). We went from not losing two in a row all season to losing three straight. Everybody can talk about defense, but it's our offense. We didn’t score. It was (22-8) in the first quarter.”
Ah, that first quarter. It set the tone for the game after, oddly enough, Connecticut going over three minutes without a point to start the game.
The Sun went on a 15-0 run with six minutes left in that quarter. January started it with a three. Bonner's 14-foot pullup jumper put Connecticut ahead, 7-6, with 5:21 left in the quarter.
The Sun never trailed again, and they continued to pour it on.
January hit another three and Jasmine Thomas added another. Jones finished the run with two free throws to give Connecticut a 17-6 lead with 2:04 remaining in the quarter.
Rookie Kaila Charles made the Sun's fourth 3-pointer with under a minute left and Alyssa Thomas 14-foot shot gave her team a 22-8 lead.
Connecticut was the league's second-worst 3-point shooting team during the regular season (31.3-percent) and tied for the fewest a game (5.9).
The Sun shot 4 of 6 behind the arc in the first quarter.
"We have shooters," January said. "We know we can knock down shots. For us, we had the confidence in our shot. (They) might not have fallen the majority of the season and we had some struggles, but we've got to continue to shoot it.
"When we've played inside-out the past couple of games, we have looked really good, and that's because we're stepping up to the (3-point line) to shoot shots confidently."
Bonner scored moments into the second quarter to increase Connecticut’s lead to 24-8.
Parker proceeded to rally the Sparks. She scored seven of her team's points during a 9-3 run to cut their deficit to 27-17 with 7:21 left in the first half.
Parker later grabbed a rebound and threw it ahead to Kristine Anigwe for a transition layup as Los Angeles shrank the Sun's lead to 29-23 with 3:38 reining in the quarter.
Connecticut proceeded to end the second quarter as strongly as it did the first.
Alyssa Thomas turned a layup into a three-point playing coming out of a timeout. She made a nine-foot jumper on her team's next possession, followed by a steal and layup by Bonner.
Jones drove to the rim late in the quarter and kicked out to an open Bonner in the left corner across from the Los Angeles' bench.
Bonner's three pushed the Sun’s lead to 39-23 at halftime. It was their sixth 3-pointer of the half.
Connecticut led by 14-or-more points the rest of the game.
January's three gave the Sun a 62-42 lead with 9:21 remaining in the game.
"I don't think any of us are surprised (to go from 0-5 to the semifinals)," Alyssa Thomas said. "We love when people doubt us, but, as you could see tonight, we mean business."