August 31, 2022 

Did the Connecticut Sun finally figure out the formula to beating the Chicago Sky?

'We were scrambling on defense and I think that just set the tone'

The Connecticut Sun knew they needed to get out to a better start against the Chicago Sky if they wanted to steal a game on the road. They fell behind in the first quarter of each matchup during the regular season, and came up short in four straight close losses.

Continue reading with a subscription to The Next

Get unlimited access to women’s basketball coverage and help support our hardworking staff of writers, editors, and photographers by subscribing today.

Join today

From the tip on Sunday, Chicago looked like they might run away with an early lead again as Kahleah Copper immediately scored two quick transition buckets. But the Sun locked in on defense and countered with an 11-0 run.

It wasn’t pretty, but the Sun clawed out a gritty 68-63 win in Game 1 of the semifinals, finally beating the Sky for the first time since Game 2 of last year’s semifinals. And by attacking the Sky early with a long, swarming defense that forced six Sky turnovers in the first six minutes of the game, the Sun may have found a formula to disrupt the Sky’s free-flowing offense that has looked unstoppable all season.

Head coach Curt Miller wanted the team to “play messy” to have a shot at beating the Sky. That meant playing with “energy and effort” from the opening tip. That wasn’t something the Sun did in four games against the Sky in the regular season, being outscored 107-63 in the first quarter across all regular season matches this year.

The Sun always managed to come from behind and pull within a possession or two in the final minutes, but it was never enough to overcome rough starts. This game, the Sun wanted to force Chicago to take the first time out, turning the tables to put the defending champions on their heels. When Sky coach James Wade called time out to stop the Sun’s 11-0 first-quarter run, the Sun knew they could make the game messy, Miller said.

“We knew we had to come up with energy and effort,” Brionna Jones said after the game. “We were scrambling on defense and I think that just set the tone for the whole game for us.”

The Sun hedged aggressively to disrupt Courtney Vandersloot on screens, and scrambled to contest as many shots as possible. After the game, the Sky chalked the loss up to missing open shots, but the Sun disrupted the flow of a Chicago offense that assists on more baskets than anyone — forcing the Sky to rush shots and end the night shooting just 35 percent from the field, including 8 for 30 from three.

Chicago 6’6 forward Azura Stevens said after the game that she was surprised by the Sun hedging early and their physicality, saying that the Sun haven’t played them like that all year. 

“They just sort of threw different things at us. They hedged and then they didn’t hedge,” Stevens said. We were sort of like, I don’t want to say confused, but I guess we didn’t really respond quick enough to what they were doing.”

The Sky’s confusion led to 20 Sun points off 12 Chicago turnovers. The Sun’s leading scorer DeWanna Bonner, who shot 3-15 on a night when Connecticut’s offense also struggled, said the team’s defense was so successful because of the constant scrambling movement and communication. 

“We know they’re a team that moves. They move the ball, they move on the weak side, so we’re never standing still,” Bonner said. “I think that communication on defense was huge tonight letting everybody know we had each other’s back. When you ‘re playing against a chicago team that plays that well and has one of the best point guards in the world, you got to be that way, you got to keep believing in each other.”

Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley shot a combined 5-for-18 for 12 points. Quigley was 0-for-5 from 3-point range and Vandersloot had a season-low two assists and two turnovers. In four games during the regular season, Quigley and Vandersloot outscored the Connecticut Sun guard trio of Courtney Williams, Natisha Hiedeman, and DiJonai Carrington 101-73. 

Miller said guarding Vandersloot is a team effort, and it took throwing different schemes at her to keep her off balance. Vandersloot is too good to settle into one defensive scheme against for 40 minutes, he said.

In Game 1, the Sun’s backcourt struggled on offense, but did enough to make one of the most productive backcourts in the league uncomfortable. Natisha Hiedeman has been focusing on her defense all season to pick up the defensive boost the Sun lost without point guard Jasmine Thomas, and work paid off on Sunday. 

Odyssey Sims, who the Sun brought in late in the season, has also brought back some of the edge Connecticut had guarding the perimeter last year with Thomas and Briann January. Coming off the bench, Sims goes all-out on defense, going step for step with ball handlers and bringing full-court pressure. Hiedeman said Sims has been a boost to her own defense, bringing positive energy and telling her how she can improve.

“She really tells me what I need to hear, like, ‘You can do it,’” Hiedeman said. “And she goes in there and she guards crazy, so she’s telling me what she’s doing to help me do that. She’s just really encouraged me to play my best defense.”

“We’re still working on her defense,” Sims said with a smile. “She’s not there all the way, but that’s why she’s got me.”

The Next, a 24/7/365 women’s basketball newsroom

The Next: A basketball newsroom brought to you by The IX. 24/7/365 women’s basketball coverage, written, edited and photographed by our young, diverse staff and dedicated to breaking news, analysis, historical deep dives and projections about the game we love.

The Sun’s Game 1 win will be characterized by an aggressive start, but in the fourth quarter, they found themselves in a similar position to almost every game they’ve played against the Sky going back to last year’s playoffs — defending a slim lead against a Chicago team that thrives in the clutch.

But this time it was the Sun’s veteran players who stepped up. Jonquel Jones, who was quiet on offense most of the night, came through with a key bucket and a block on Candace Parker in the final minutes. Just like they did to start the game, the Sun’s defense locked in, keeping Chicago from scoring for the last 2:11 of the game.

If finally taking a win from the Sky in a packed Wintrust Arena was a relief for the Sun, they didn’t show it. Bonner said after the game that Connecticut is taking one game at a time, and is going into Game 2 on Wednesday night as if the series is 0-0. 

The Connecticut Sun know the Sky are going to be ready from the tip to defend their home court before the series moves to Mohegan Sun Arena for Game 3. They need to execute better on offense after shooting just 37 percent on Sunday, but mainly they need to keep the same mindset and intensity on defense, Sims said.

“We know they’re gonna come out with a vengeance as well. They’re probably gonna throw the first punch, the second punch, the third punch,” Sims said. “We just want to make sure that we stay together and play Connecticut Sun basketball.”

Written by Jacqueline LeBlanc

Jacqueline LeBlanc is the Connecticut Sun beat reporter for The Next. Prior to The Next, Jacqueline has written for Her Hoop Stats and Sports Illustrated.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.