The Connecticut Sun held on for a road win in Los Angeles over the Sparks as Nneka Ogwumike’s three-point attempt at the buzzer missed just long. Chiney Ogwumike’s inbounds pass was just out of reach for teammate Jonquel Jones, giving Nneka, the oldest Ogwumike sister, a chance to scoop the errant pass and get a shot at a game-winner for the Sparks.
After rushing out to a 10-point lead at the end of the first quarter, the Sun extended their lead to 16 by halftime. Connecticut was playing one of the top teams in the WNBA on the road without two starters. Alyssa Thomas, a 2017 WNBA All-Defense and All-Star selection, has not played since suffering a separated shoulder June 13 against the Washington Mystics. Starting shooting guard Courtney Williams (personal reasons) has not been with the team on its current road trip.
More on Tuesday night’s matchup:
Banham, Bentley & Betnijah
Third-year guard Rachel Banham drew the start for Williams. Banham helped the Sun to a quick 6-2 lead by earning a trip to the free throw line with a hard drive to the rim and then hit a pull up jumper, which led to a timeout by Los Angeles head coach Brian Agler. Banham’s three-point stroke is likely seen as her biggest asset at the pro level, but her timely drives and pick and roll playmaking gave the Sun a much-needed lift against the WNBA’s third-best defense.
Veteran guard Alex Bentley shot 4 of 7 from the field in 25 minutes off the bench to go with four assists. Bentley drilled her only two three-point attempts of the night in the second quarter to help extend Connecticut’s early lead. A transition triple forced another Agler timeout at the 7:18 mark of the second with Connecticut leading 25-13. Bentley knocked down another off the bounce going to her left later in the period.
Perhaps the star of the night, though, was Betnijah Laney. Prior to Tuesday, she had played just 110 minutes in the 2018 season. Laney logged 9 of her 22 minutes off the bench in the fourth quarter. The third-year wing did not play in the WNBA in 2017. She earned a roster spot in training camp, and proved ready Tuesday night to make a difference by making quick decisions on offense and competing hard defensively on the perimeter.
Connecticut head coach and general manager Curt Miller offered some thoughts postgame on what she brings to the roster and what made her so effective in extended minutes off the bench, saying, “I think you see why she’s so valuable as a role player off the bench for us. She’s an energy kid, she’s relentless in attacking. She’s a physical guard that we don’t have. So we needed another three and a different look.
“Going into the season you think [Shekinna Stricklen] is your stretcher and your shooter, and then Alyssa Thomas can play three when you wanna play big and be a bruiser. But we don’t really have a slashing, attacking three. So she just gives us something that we don’t have.
“Tonight’s a perfect example. She got some baskets around the rim attacking, she got us some extra possessions with her hustle on the glass. And she fights defensively. Tooth and nail, she’ll fight every possession. She’s invaluable as a role player for us.”
Did Miller and the Sun come away with one of the finds of the offseason in Laney as a 3-and-D kind of wing player? Starting point guard Jasmine Thomas agreed that Laney can fit that bill for this team.
“She’ll go some games and not play, and then every time she gets in she stands out. She stands out in every way. She hustles, she plays so hard and she really makes smart, smart plays.”
Beard ignites the comeback
Speaking of defense on the perimeter, Alana Beard put together a wonderful performance defensively, especially in response to the early hole the Sparks fell into. The final box score credited the reigning Defensive Player of the Year with three steals and a block, but the number of plays she blew up easily doubled that total.
Beard made life extremely difficult for Thomas, the team’s leader and point guard. Thomas played just 19 minutes, missed her first six shots, and turned it over four times.
She just keeps the pressure up on you,” Thomas said of Beard postgame. “It’s amazing for her career and how long she’s been playing with how great of shape she’s in to be able to do that for the entire game. And she makes plays for them, she’s a leader for them defensively, and she sets the tone for their aggressiveness.”
Beard and her teammates caught the Sun by surprise with occasional full-court pressure after made baskets. And even when drawing an assignment on one of the opponent’s most important offensive players, Beard managed to double and dig down onto the post for timely deflections or steals. She even blocked Jones, 6’6, on a putback attempt after an offensive rebound.
It may still be a bit early to put Beard’s name on that trophy once again. But the first half of the 2018 season has served as a reminder of her dominance on that end of the floor, and that last season’s performance was the furthest thing from a lifetime-achievement award.
Gray lets it fly
Not a surprise: Sparks All-WNBA guard Chelsea Gray led the WNBA in three-point percentage last season at 48.2 (53-110).
A surprise: Gray has passed up some wide open threes this season, drawing visible signs of frustration from Agler on the sideline.
Gray has connected on 9 of 14 in her last three games after a 9 of 31 start from deep in her first 15 games. Over the last season-plus, Gray has done most of that damage on catch and shoot opportunities. As a result, her volume doesn’t quite match that of Diana Taurasi or Kelsey Mitchell or Allie Quigley.
Opponents won’t rest easy, though, knowing how effective Gray is getting to the rim, finishing through contact, and splashing stepback jumpers over people when forced to play in isolation. Though it’s a bit of a generalization, the Sparks become much more dangerous when Gray finds the daylight to get up more threes.
A disciplined approach to a gameplan can limit many of those looks for Gray. Just about anything else other than a wide open layup is probably a more favorable outcome than an open Gray catch and shoot look.
The triple she connected on near the midway point of the third quarter is the type of shot other teams ought to really be worried about. Gray lost her defender by running through an elevator screen from Candace Parker and Ogwumike. The two Sparks bigs closed the ‘elevator doors’ after Gray slipped between them out to the left wing. Gray’s defender got hung up trying to run through them, giving her plenty of time to fire away.
The Sparks (12-6) will travel to Minnesota to take on the Lynx on Thursday (8 ET, ESPN2). The Sun stop through Phoenix and Las Vegas to finish the week before their long-anticipated closing stretch that has them playing 11 of their final 15 games at home.