Two teams on different tracks met up
WHITE PLAINS, NY — With the playoff race settled, at least in terms of who is in and who is out, a battle between the haves from Connecticut and the have-nots of Westchester took on different meanings for each side.
Ultimately, the Sun prevailed, 94-84, and learned some things about how they will weather road adversity when the games get more meaningful.
Here’s how the Sun managed to win Friday night:
Courtney Williams can fly, Courtney Williams can lead
It’s easy to observe the way Courtney Williams’ athleticism stands out, with a vertical leap that is both higher and longer than anyone else in the league. But the practical effects of that were on display early against a Liberty team she’d torched for 28 points earlier this season.
Leave Williams open, and she can bury the midrange, even the three. But close out too hard on her, and she can drive past and to the basket, a result Amanda Zahui B. tried to avoid early in the game by sagging off her. The result? An open two from 15 feet out.
“Well, she’s really in a groove right now, and we really needed it,” Sun coach Curt Miller said after the game. “She really just put us on her back, and made tough twos.” Miller pointed out that while he and the rest of the coaching staff have urged her to drive more, “that’s not really who she is”, and on Friday night, after she scored 26 points, it’s clearer than ever that who she is is plenty for the Sun to win.
But even on strong defensive possessions — Kia Nurse, harkening back to AAC days, did a solid job when she drew Williams — Williams’ ability to rise and remain in the air impossibly long means that anytime she wants her shot, she gets it.
Nor is it purely an offensive talent — on the opening possession of the second quarter, Williams came from behind and blocked the shot of 6’9 Han Xu.
“I think we all do what we need to do,” Williams said, spreading credit to her teammates. “I think that’s why we’re in the position we’re in.”
But it is safe to say if Williams didn’t do what she did Friday night, the Sun wouldn’t have won.
The Sun know who they are
Likely as a result of the years of continuity, this Sun team seamlessly finds the weak link in the opposition. A switch gets a shorter defender like Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe on Jonquel Jones, and the interior pass quickly follows. A fast break late in the second quarter materialized both because Jasmine Thomas recognized the opportunity and Bria Holmes broke ahead of the defense, then Thomas found her. Alyssa Thomas fires 80-foot bounce passes, something she told me postgame she’s always done, and her teammates know when to expect them.
The Liberty played well, but the Sun executed, making five of six three-point attempts in the first half alone, crisply implementing the plays Curt Miller called, and making life difficult on the defensive end for New York, even when unfamiliar lineups they couldn’t have prepared for stepped on the court (Han Xu and Amanda Zahui B. together, anyone?).
Even with Jonquel Jones playing just 16 minutes, Brionna Jones added physicality and efficient finishing, taking a greater number of minutes at Jonquel’s normal spot and providing seamless production. Miller said after the game it wasn’t anything Jonquel wasn’t doing so much as what Brionna could provide.
“Bri gave us a physicality in the paint,” Miller said. “We ran some things in the paint. She made some extra passes. So as it got going, the productive minutes of Bri were really, really important. Plus, she did a little bit better job on the perimeter, with all their actions and being able to jump out and disrupt them a little bit. So Bri Jones, MVP tonight, those were big minutes.”
Responding to adversity
The Sun have made no secret of their championship aspirations, and a trip to the WNBA finals is going to include taking some punches and countering. So the trio of technical fouls on Alyssa Thomas, Jasmine Thomas and Curt Miller in rapid succession, followed by a pair of New York baskets, trimmed the Connecticut lead to 52-48. A pair of buckets by Marie Johannès and Amanda Zahui B., the latter on a fast break, led to a timeout, the Sun clinging to a 53-52 lead. A 5-0 run out of the timeout for the Liberty, and Miller called another, New York ahead, 57-53 with 4:08 left.
Even that failed to slow a Liberty team that, let’s remember, had already been eliminated from playoff contention. And two overlapping problems were presenting themselves: the Sun were just 7-8 on the road entering the game. And a loss would drop them to 1.5 games behind the Mystics for home court advantage throughout the playoffs.
But after the game knotted at 61, Courtney Williams took control on consecutive possessions, with a pullup jumper on one occasion, then a perfect feed to a cutting Brionna Jones at the hoop the next time down to give the Sun a four-point lead.
A leadership role from Williams is going to be critical as the calendar turns to fall, and she looked ready for the task. Strong defense on New York’s last possession of the quarter, after two more Jones free throws, put Connecticut ahead, 67-61.
Williams pressed the matter further in the fourth, quickly sinking a pair of pullups around a steal to further solidify the Connecticut lead. An unscheduled Han Xu rainstorm of threes did not, in the end, overcome what Williams helped her team do at both ends, with Jonquel Jones on the bench for almost all of it, returning with 3:30 left in the game and the Sun up 10. With under two minutes, Williams scored again, this one to put the game out of reach.
For her part, Williams insists that she doesn’t find another level at these times, that she is just Courtney Williams, pure and complete, all the time.
“I mean, I don’t really think that deep,” Williams said. “I just do what I do. And that’s getting a bucket, that’s just getting a stop, that’s just getting a rebound. Whatever it needs to be, that’s what I’ll take, long as we get a W.”
The Sun did, and with it, clinched a top-four finish once again, with a top-two, and the double bye, entirely within their own destiny with three games left in the regular season. Miller indicated that the team would be eager observers tomorrow, when their magic number to clinch that top-two berth can be reduced to one. Even the top overall seed remains in reach.
All of that happened because on a night when the Sun easily could have faltered, Courtney Williams didn’t let them. The question of who Curt Miller will rely on most in the critical moments has hovered over this franchise for several years now. Friday night provided the best indication yet that the choice will be Courtney Williams. In Westchester, she looked ready for the task.
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