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    Thursday, June 20, 2024

    UConn’s Collier leading the Lynx as they meet Sun in decisive Game 3 Wednesday

    Minnesota’s Napheesa Collier, left, and Connecticut’s Alyssa Thomas (25) dive after a loose ball during Game 2 of their WNBA first-round playoff series on Sunday at Mohegan Sun Arena. The two teams will play a deciding Game 3 on Wednesday night in Minneapolis. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    From the moment 6-foot-1 forward Napheesa Collier set foot in a gym as a member of the Minnesota Lynx, a first-round WNBA Draft pick for the organization in 2019, head coach Cheryl Reeve knew one thing to be true.

    “She’s the same all the time,” Reeve said of Collier. “Whether we’re in difficult moments, great moments, I’m yelling at her, I’m not yelling at her, whatever it is she’s the same.

    “I recall mentioning to her parents how thankful I was at the job that they did in raising her because it’s what makes her super special ... her belief in herself, her want to. I mean, Napheesa Collier’s a hell of a basketball player and so you can’t hold those kind of players down.”

    That’s how Reeve knew the 26-year-old Collier, who was disappointed in her performance during Game 1 of the ongoing first-round playoff series against the Connecticut Sun, a 90-60 loss, would rise to the occasion in Sunday’s Game 2.

    Collier responded with 26 points, 13 rebounds, two assists, two steals and a blocked shot as the sixth-seeded Lynx evened the best-of-three series with an 82-75 victory over the No. 3 Sun.

    A decisive Game 3 is scheduled for 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Target Center in Minneapolis (ESPN), with the winner advancing to the semifinals beginning Sunday.

    Collier, a three-time All-Star, including this season, and the former WNBA Rookie of the Year, averaged 21.5 points and 8.5 rebounds during the regular season, helping lead a team with two rookies in the starting lineup to a 19-21 record after an 0-6 start.

    An All-American and a member of UConn’s 2016 national championship team, Collier played for the U.S. Olympic Team which won the gold medal in Tokyo. She missed the bulk of the 2022 season after giving birth to her daughter Mila on May 25.

    “I was really disappointed, obviously, in the outcome of the game and how I performed,” said Collier of her playoff-opening 14-point performance in last Wednesday’s loss.

    “I know what my job is, so when you feel like you don’t do your job and you let your team down, of course you want to go out there and prove yourself to them and to yourself again.”

    Reeve said what Collier has achieved, all-star status despite missing nearly an entire season a year ago on maternity leave, is remarkable. There were things she wanted to work on with her game, getting down the floor in transition, for instance, but first had to return to playing shape.

    Reeve called Collier “a superstar that’s easy to cheer for.”

    ”She’s probably exceeded, maybe, the expectations that we had for her as you come back from giving birth to a child and going through changes and being out of the league,“ Reeve said. ”That’s not something that’s easy to do.

    “So for her to come back the way she did and carry our team ... Phee is always fun to be around, a tremendous person, a tremendous leader, somebody that you want in your franchise forever. She just has a hunger for, ‘OK, what did I not do well? I want to be better.’”

    Collier said she never doubted her teammates, who include fellow UConn grad Dorka Juhasz, even at 0-6. She was waiting for the chemistry the Lynx have off the court to catch up on the court.

    “I think just coming in with the mentality that my role’s a little bit different,” she said of this year’s young Lynx squad following the retirement of one of the game’s all-time greats in Sylvia Fowles. “It’s a little bit bigger this year and that’s a great responsibility to have.

    “We did have highs and lows throughout the season but I never doubted us.”

    The Sun, meanwhile, were led by their own superstars Sunday in Alyssa Thomas, with 26 points, eight rebounds and six assists, and DeWanna Bonner with 24 points, including six 3-pointers.

    Connecticut wasn’t as well-balanced as it was in Game 1 and allowed 20 points off turnovers to the Lynx, as well as 15 second-chance points.

    The Sun are trying to get back to the WNBA Finals, where they lost last year to the Las Vegas Aces. Connecticut has experience in playing a winner-take-all Game 3 on the road, having to do so last year in Dallas to advance to the semifinals.

    “I think the biggest thing is not letting what happened (Sunday) ... we didn’t come out ready to play,” Thomas said of the Sun. “We knew what was at stake and now, unfortunately, we’ve got to go play on their home court, which is a tough thing to do.

    “They outworked us. They killed us on the boards. They got transition points on us. We can’t let that happen. We’d have a great possession on defense and not secure the rebound and it takes a team out there, everyone locked in and being ready to play. We can’t let things like that happen.”

    v.fulkerson@theday.com

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