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Sun ride fast start to 77-60 win over Sparks in home opener

Mohegan — The Connecticut Sun had to play without two starters against the Los Angeles Sparks on Saturday night, yet it didn’t stop them from taking a 24-point first-half lead.

And then the Sun lost a third starter.

Jonquel Jones, last season’s WNBA MVP, fouled out with over seven minutes left in the game and Los Angeles charging its way back.

Connecticut looked to be flirting with disaster at points but closed strong to beat the Sparks, 77-60, in its 20th home opener before 5,624 at Mohegan Sun Arena.

The Sun led 47-23 with 47.3 seconds left in the first half.

Los Angeles got as close as 69-58 with 4 minutes, 18 seconds remaining.

“We expected them to come out (playing) harder (in the second half),” Connecticut’s Alyssa Thomas said about the Sparks. “We had a great first half. Really, it was just us (not playing well in the second half). Not coming to the ball. Not really executing (like) we needed to.

“Honestly, I didn’t even know it got to nine. We didn’t feel pressured. We knew that we just had to take our time, get to our spots and just attack them like we had in the first half.”

Thomas was a big reason why the Sun (1-1) withstood Los Angeles’ second-half surge. She had 23 points, 12 rebounds and five assists.

Second-year wing DiJonai Carrington, starting in the absence of DeWanna Bonner and Courtney Williams, also gave Connecticut a lift when it needed it, scoring four straight once the Sparks cut their deficit to nine points.

Carrington finished with 13 points, five rebounds and three steals.

“We’ve seen it all preseason,” Thomas said. “(We) know what she’s capable of, which is she’s just instant energy for us. You know when she’s going downhill it’s very hard to stop her. You’d be bold to start stepping in front of her.”

Brionna Jones played through five fouls and had 10 points, seven rebounds and three rebounds. She also played very well defensively against the likes of 6-foot-9 Liz Cambage (10 points, four rebounds in 20 minutes) and Nneka Ogwumike.

Jonquel Jones had 16 points and 12 rebounds in 26 minutes.

Connecticut had a resounding 45-21 edge on the glass, including 19 offensive rebounds.

“That was the big difference in the game,” said Sun head coach Curt Miller.

Bonner was on the team’s bench but didn’t dress having returned from her overseas commitments in Turkey on Friday. Miller isn’t sure when she’ll be ready to play because she could use some rest.

“It’s not just about someone’s physical health,” Miller said. “It’s about mental health. Like literally, it almost looked like she was going to fall asleep at times today. I can’t believe how jet-lagged (she) must be.”

Williams was suspended for the first two games of this season after being involved in May 2020 fight outside of an Atlanta-area club.

“It hasn’t been fun preparing without those two but it’s given other players opportunities,” Miller said. “There was a real intent to improve our offense from our second unit and I’m excited about the offensive year that DiJonai could have. We believe in T (Natisha Hiedeman). She’s a real offensive player off the bench.

“Nia Clouden (Connecticut’s first-round pick in April’s draft) is really special offensively and she’s just got to get used to the physicality and the game will slow down for her soon at this level, but she’s got a bright future."

Jordin Canada and Ogwumike both scored a team-high 12 points for the Sparks (2-2).

It was Los Angeles’ fourth game in eight days, and they haven’t played at home yet. It was also without guard Kristi Toliver, a two-time WNBA champion, because she’s an assistant coach with the Dallas Mavericks. They play at the Phoenix Suns in Game 7 of an NBA Western Conference semifinals series on Sunday.

Former UConn standout Katie Lou Samuelson, who Los Angeles traded for during the offseason, also missed the game as she just completed her overseas commitments in Spain.

Jonquel Jones’ putback with a second left in the first half gave the Sun a 49-25 halftime lead. They shot 48.5 percent from the floor (16-of-33) whereas Los Angeles made just 7 of 30 field goals (23.3-percent).

Connecticut’s offense got bogged down in the second half against what Miller believes is one of the league’s best defenses. It made just 4 of 18 field goals in the third quarter as the Sparks cut their deficit to 57-44.

Jones fouled out with 6:41 remaining and Ogwumike's two free throws whittled the Sun’s lead down to 64-52.

Canada made back-to-back baskets to cut Connecticut’s lead to 67-58 with 4:18 left in the game.

Carrington answered with a layup on the other end. Brionna Jones then tipped a pass by Los Angeles' Brittney Sykes and Carrington grabbed the ball. Sykes committed a flagrant foul against her as she drove to the basket.

Carrington made both free throws. Jones followed with another steal moments later and converted it into a layup to push the Sun ahead 73-58 with 3:14 left.

“I don’t think I would’ve believed (before the game) that we were going to score 49 points in a half against (that) defense,” Miller said. “Really, really happy with how we competed, the tempo that we played at and the way we thrived off of defense in the first half to really get out in transition and find ways to score.

“You saw in the second half what we expected. A grind at times; hard to score against them. But we had three quarters (of) over 20 points against that defense. We would take that despite as frustrating at times as it was offensively in the second half.

• Former Connecticut star Asjha Jones was honored after the game and had her jersey number (15) added to those on a banner in the Arena rafters. She spent nine seasons with Connecticut, played the second-most games in franchise history (271) and helped it reach the 2004 and 2005 WNBA Finals.

UConn head coach Geno Auriemma, current Sun general manager and former UConn standout Jennifer Rizzotti and current Wisconsin head coach and former UConn assistant Marisa Mosley were among the speakers.

Taj McWilliams-Franklin, another former Sun great and a member of the inaugural 1999 Orlando Miracle team, was also in attendance as was Scott Hawk, one of the team’s first two assistants when it relocated to Connecticut before the 2003 season.

n.griffen@theday.com

Connecticut Sun forward DiJonai Carrington (21) fouls Los Angeles Sparks guard Lexie Brown (4) as she and forward Alyssa Thomas (25) apply pressure in WNBA game action Saturday, May 14, 2022 at Mohegan Sun Arena. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Connecticut Sun forward DiJonai Carrington (21) fouls Los Angeles Sparks guard Lexie Brown (4) as she and forward Alyssa Thomas (25) apply pressure in WNBA game action Saturday, May 14, 2022 at Mohegan Sun Arena. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Sun Sparks WNBA photo gallery

For more photos from the Sun Sparks WNBA game click here.

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