In a back-and-forth contest that featured the second and third-best teams in the WNBA standings, the Connecticut Sun ultimately defeated the visiting Las Vegas Aces on Friday night, 89-85. Mainly the result of a strong second half and a combined 51 points from Alyssa Thomas and Courtney Williams, the Sun pulled away on their home court to, for the moment, move into a first-place tie with the Washington Mystics, both sitting at 20-8. The Aces fell to 19-10.
Several takeaways and notes from the highly-anticipated matchup:
The Sun continue their home-court magic
It goes without saying that the matchup served as a potential preview for a late-round series in this year’s WNBA Playoffs — the Aces came in at 19-9, the Sun at 19-8. As such, everybody present in the arena on Friday was aware of the magnitude of the contest — players, coaches and fans.
“This game had a playoff atmosphere,” the Sun’s Jonquel Jones said after the game. “You see the standings… you see how important the game is, like, we gotta get the win.”
The Sun, who are now 14-1 at home, saw a crowd of nearly 7,500 come out to propel the team past one of the more daunting opponents in the league. The savvy following provided an environment fit for a game of this caliber, one that was stood behind the Sun when they were trailing through much of the second and third quarters. Connecticut has now won eight straight at the Mohegan Sun Arena.
“That crowd deserves a lot of credit, they give us energy when our tank is on empty,” said Sun coach Curt Miller. “We don’t take it for granted, that we get to play in front of an incredible fanbase.”
Connecticut has produced several forms of magical finishes and comebacks on their home floor this year, most notably coming back from down seven with 1:26 left to defeat Seattle on August 16, 79-78. Against the Aces on Friday, the Sun were leading 23-12 in the first quarter before a 13-2 Las Vegas run in the second gave the visitors their first lead since 2-0. Connecticut responded with its own 17-2 burst in the third to reclaim the advantage, setting the stage for a tightly-contested final quarter.
“Some teams on some given nights would’ve gone away after getting down by 11, after having an 11 point lead, that’s a 22-point swing in a short amount of time. Then you could go… ‘maybe it’s not our night,'” said Miller. “But… they never quit, especially in this building. You’re going to have them fight all the way to the end.”
Connecticut’s inside-outside duo carries offensive load, plus an unlikely hero
On a big stage against formidable visitors, several of Connecticut’s core rotation players struggled to positively impact their team — Jasmine Thomas shot just 1-9 for four points, while Jonquel Jones limped through foul trouble and was limited to 2-6 shooting and seven points. Picking up the slack were Courtney Williams, who broke through for 24 points, and Alyssa Thomas, who scored 27 points — one off her career-high of 28 set earlier this season — with 12 rebounds. Williams hit a game-sealing pull-up jumper, her signature shot, to give the Sun a four-point lead with 10 seconds remaining.
In the third quarter, Thomas had a stretch where she made five straight field goal attempts in the midst of Connecticut’s run to tie the game and eventually reclaim the lead. Overall, she scored 13 of her 27 in the frame, and was also up to the task of battling against Las Vegas’ lengthy and physical frontcourt.
“[Thomas] was playing downhill all game,” Miller said. “She just continued to put pressure on [Cambage], going to the basket… and she was our engine.”
Miller also praised how Thomas leads by example, and how her game encouraged her teammates to elevate their respective levels of play.
“There’s nothing bigger in this league than peer accountability and peer modeling behavior. When [Thomas] models a behavior in a game, and her toughness and her willingness, it’s hard not to follow her.”
An unlikely hero off the Sun’s bench, Morgan Tuck provided significant contributions down the stretch of the contest. Tuck, the fourth-year player from UConn, is averaging career-lows this season in minutes (9.9) and points (3.3) per game. On Friday, Miller trusted her enough to remain in the lineup in crunch time — she responded, nailing a three-pointer to extend a one-point Sun lead to four with 3:19 remaining. She also finished a layup off an impressive dish from Jones with 1:40 left. Though she scored just seven points, her simple presence and activity on the floor works to Connecticut’s advantage.
“We were able to match [the Aces’ big lineup] with Morgan’s defensive ability but also she moves, she helps our offense run because she moves better… she’s constantly moving,” Miller said postgame. “Her minutes were invaluable.”
Part of Tuck’s minutes were due to the aforementioned foul trouble to starter Jonquel Jones, who picked up three personals in just six first half minutes. Jones trusts that her teammates will step up when she’s relegated to the bench.
“[Tuck] was in a position, that, she hasn’t played all season, she came out there, she did great things… it’s just next man up,” said Jones. “Everybody was ready.”
Aces guards struggle to complement their bigs
While the Aces received big nights from their starting post players and two leading scorers — A’ja Wilson and Liz Cambage combined for 35 points on 15-29 shooting — their guards had poor shooting nights and failed to provide sufficient help. Kelsey Plum, who’s shooting just 36% on the season, went just 3-10 for seven points, while Kayla McBride shot 3-9 for 10 points.
While the Aces’ bigs made more of an impact than the guards, Miller was satisfied with how his team defended the paint and didn’t send them to the free throw line. In the second half, Las Vegas attempted just six free throws, compared to 16 in the first.
“We played tough without fouling,” said Miller. “Maybe they let a little more contact go in the third quarter when we needed it… we were making them make some tough shots around the rim, really trying to be physical with them but be disciplined and not foul them.”
Dearica Hamby, a prime candidate for Sixth Woman of the Year and another Aces big, came off the bench and posted a double-double with 14 points and 10 boards. However, the backup guards also contributed minimally — Las Vegas received just four points from the duo of Sydney Colson and Sugar Rodgers.
Although the WNBA calendar bounces around every so often — the olympics, various international competitions and such — at least this year, championships aren’t won in Mid-August. As Curt Miller noted after the game, this wasn’t a one-and-done type scenario which has plagued the Sun’s title aspirations for consecutive years. However, it was an insightful and incredibly entertaining glimpse into what fans can expect from league’s elite come September and early October.
The Aces flashed their championship potential in the second quarter, weathering an early Connecticut start on the road to build a 56-47 halftime lead. The Sun, conversely, proved why they’re so difficult to defeat in their own arena, powering themselves past the Aces mostly stemming from an impressive third quarter as well as the performances of Williams and Thomas.
In a packed stadium and with the top of the standings on the line, fans wanted to witness their Sun face one of the WNBA’s best — the home team responded.
“A big win for us, right now as much for psyche as much as anything else, that we can step up in big games and rise to the occasion,” Miller said.
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