August 18, 2022 

How the Connecticut Sun can clip the Dallas Wings

'We have to play with desire, and effort, and togetherness'

The matchup between No. 3-seed Connecticut and sixth-seeded Wings may look clear-cut by the teams’ records, but the Sun aren’t underestimating a Dallas team that has been hot since the All-Star break.

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Courtney Williams, ready to play her first playoff game since she was last with Connecticut in 2019, said the team isn’t driven by the same underdog mentality they had in the year of #DisrespeCT.

They’re a team of All-Stars, and they know nobody is sleeping on them this time around. And as the team that made it to the finals in 2019, despite proclamations they were just a collection of role players without a true superstar, they know just how dangerous Dallas can be.

The Wings will be without franchise player Arike Ogunbowale, but Dallas has still been able to find an extra gear in their final four games of the season — and the Sun know the Wings aren’t a pushover, and are capable of ending Connecticut’s title hopes if it doesn’t stay locked-in.

“I feel like it’s a level playing field,” Williams said. “I think we all understand that, if we don’t come with it, any of us can get sent home.”

So how do the Sun advance, and what will this series likely come down to?

How Sun can maximize guard play

Without Ogunbowale, the Wings offense has adapted. Their pace has slowed down intentionally as Vickie Johnson’s team focuses on playing through center Teaira McCowan. They have been more efficient with their shot selection, taken fewer attempts from three, and their assist rate has increased.

Marina Mabrey and Allisha Gray have been dangerous weapons for the Wings all season, but have been on a different level over the last five games, four of which were without Ogunbowale. Mabrey has averaged 21 points on 48.8% shooting, while Gray has been lights out from three in that stretch, shooting 48.1% from behind the arc on 5.4 attempts per game.

Connecticut head coach Curt Miller said that he believes the Sun’s success will ultimately boil down to his own backcourt’s efficiency — which hurt them in their semifinals loss to Chicago last year.

Natisha Hiedeman is the team’s biggest three-point threat, and she is coming off a game where she went 4-for-8 from three against Minnesota. She’s averaging nearly two threes a game on the season and hit at least four three-pointers in a game six different times in the regular season.

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“She can really shoot it,” Miller said. “She helps stretch the floor [and] that gets bigger gaps for our dominant post game. We don’t need Natisha to do anything outside of herself, but she’s [a] very capable three-point shooter.”

Miller brought Williams back in free agency to be the dynamic scoring guard Connecticut was missing at times last year. But her role on the Sun looks different from when she last took the floor during the postseason in 2019, when Williams was the team’s second-leading scorer behind Jonquel Jones.

Williams has had big shooting nights throughout the season, including a season-high 25 points on 70% shooting against Dallas in their last match during the regular season. But with Connecticut’s offense running through an All-Star frontcourt, Williams has said she’ll do whatever she needs to do to win, whether it’s her night to score or not.

“I’m here to do whatever I need to do to win.” Williams said. “So if that means rebound, if that means guard the best player on the other team, [if] that means be the biggest cheerleader if it’s not my night, that’s what I’m gonna do.

“There might be a night where I have to go for 20 or 25 [points], there might be a game where I just need to have 8-to-10, and I’m cool with that. I just want to win. All of us have that mentality. It’s not about individual stats. It’s about getting wins. So if that means it’s [Alyssa Thomas]’s night, or [DeWanna Bonner]’s night, or [Hiedeman]’s night, we are going to do what we got to do to win games.”

Connecticut frontcourt challenges

Dallas has done a good job of keeping the Sun off the glass this season, even with McCowan on the bench in the three games they played this year. And the Wings have been strong on the boards all season — Dallas has the league’s second-best rebounding rate and is third in second-chance points.

The Sun lead the league in rebounding, but lost the rebounding battle in both losses during the regular season. In their last matchup in July, Connecticut only had four offensive rebounds — and Alyssa Thomas had the lone offensive board from the group of Thomas, Jonquel Jones and Brionna Jones.

The Sun’s frontcourt will need to focus on boxing-out and getting every rebound they can to keep from giving the Wings extra possessions, especially with how hot Dallas has been shooting recently.

They will also need to focus on McCowan, who has been a force since being inserted into the starting lineup shortly after the All-Star break in July. Over that span, McCowan has averaged 16.2 points and 10.0 rebounds — leading the Wings to an 8-5 record and a 110 offensive rating. For reference, that stretch of games is better than the Aces’ league-leading 108 offensive rating across the whole regular season, and almost matches the record-setting 2019 Washington Mystics.

McCowan has been dominant on both ends — she has an effective field goal percentage of 58.4% and she’s second to only Sylvia Fowles in total rebounding percentage since taking the starting role.

But she’ll have a giant test in facing a rotation of Jonquel Jones, Thomas, and Brionna Jones. Miller said the key will be making McCowan work on defense — drawing her out to the perimeter to guard Jonquel Jones, or forcing her to stay in front of Thomas in open space.

Playing Fowles in the regular-season finale was a good tune up for how to frustrate McCowan’s offense, Miller said. They need to congest the passing lanes around her, and give her a lot of attention when she gets the ball in the post.

“She’s really talented when she can get to her spots, so how do we keep her off of her spots?” Miller said. “That’s the challenge with Teaira, and if she’s gonna play 30 minutes, we have to make her work at the defensive end.”

Can Connecticut cut turnovers?

Dallas has cut down on turnovers in their successful stretch with McCowan in the starting lineup and are averaging the second fewest turnovers in the league since then. The Sun lead the league in steals, but have given up the third most turnovers in that same span of games. Whether the Sun can continue to force turnovers against a careful Dallas team will have an impact.

Dallas can force its fair share of turnovers with a rotation of long, athletic players led by defensive stalwart Gray. And turnovers – especially self-inflicted turnovers – have been the Sun’s weakness all year.

The Sun’s defense is hard to score against when it gets set in the half court, but giving up turnovers makes it much easier for the opposing team to score, Miller said. Without their floor general in Jasmine Thomas, they will need to put extra effort into taking care of the ball. And even when they do lose possession, they need to stay focused.

We have to play with desire, and effort, and togetherness, regardless of what’s going on on the floor,” Miller said.

The Sun know what’s at stake, and they know that any team can end their pursuit of the franchise’s first WNBA title on any night. But they are a team that is confident in their ability to match up with anyone, and they are carrying that confidence and extra focus into their matchup with Dallas.

“We feel good. It’s not like this crazy, intense feeling. But I also think it’s a different type of focus. It’s a different type of being locked in,” Williams said. “We understand this is what you play all season for. This moment right here. So, you know, we can’t take it lightly. We gotta rise to the occasion.”

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.

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