August 31, 2023 

It’s time for Connecticut Sun to put their ‘big girl pants on’ as potential playoff path takes shape

The Sun know what they need to clean up before playoffs start

The Connecticut Sun faced a brutal reality check when they let a 20-point second-half lead slip away in a 95-90 overtime loss to the New York Liberty on August 24.

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The Sun fell to 0-3 on the season to a Liberty team that could stand between them and a return to the Finals. Now, Connecticut will have to overcome the pressure, continue to shoot confidently, keep their energy level high and make good decisions with the game on the line.

From Aug. 12 to Aug. 24, the Sun were outscored in the fourth quarter in five consecutive games, including back-to-back losses to Dallas on the road and at home. In the overtime loss to the Liberty, the Sun were outscored 29-19 in the fourth quarter.

“We got stagnant. We stopped taking our shots,” White told The Next on Tuesday. “There were multiple times in multiple possessions in a row where we had two or three players turn down open shots, and we can’t do that.”

The Sun held off runs from the Liberty through the first half of the fourth quarter and a Tiffany Hayes layup kept the lead at 11 with 4:38 to play. After a New York three, Hayes attacked the rim again, drew the double team, and dumped the ball off to Bec Allen open in the lane. But Allen passed up the layup, and the Sun couldn’t score.

Two possessions later, Hayes rose up for a floater, changed her mind mid-air and tried to drop off the ball to Ty Harris. Looking for the rebound instead of the pass, the ball bounced off Harris’ hands. Hayes was quickly called for her sixth foul, and with DiJonai Carrington out with a foot injury, the Sun had no subs for Harris and Natisha Hiedeman — who combined for just two points the rest of the game.

Allen and Hayes are both shooting above 35% from three, and they’re too good of shooters to pass up those shots, White said. And teams in the league, and the Liberty in particular, are too good on defense for the Sun to give up opportunities that might not come around again.

White said they’ve addressed it in practice.

“I think more than anything, it’s just to reiterate how much confidence we have in every person on the floor taking those kinds of shots,” White said. “We believe in them.”

Connecticut got contributions from their guards in the first half of that game, but the backcourt struggled to find a rhythm in the second half when the Sun needed an answer to Liberty run. Everyone who logged playing time in the second half outside of DeWanna Bonner and Alyssa Thomas – Allen, Hayes, Hiedeman and Harris – combined for 11 points in the last 25 minutes of play. 

In those situations, it comes down to playing with more confidence.

“You gotta put your big girl pants on,” Thomas said after the Liberty loss. “You’re out there for a reason. We’re professionals, so there’s no more holding hands. It’s crunch time now with playoffs coming up and we believe in them, but you got to go out there with confidence in yourself and be ready and be able to execute gameplay and knock down shots.”

White said the game came down to making shots in the fourth quarter. The Liberty made shots, and the Sun didn’t.

“I felt like 36 minutes we played really good basketball,” White said. “We just got to be able to put 40 together.”

An offensive putback from Breanna Stewart put the Liberty within two points with four seconds left in regulation. And then what should have been clockwork – an Alyssa Thomas inbounds pass to DeWanna Bonner – ended up in the hands of Courtney Vandersloot.

She tossed it to Ionescu on the wing, who put up a desperation three as Allen, trying to block the shot, crashed into her. Ionescu sent the game to overtime, and the Sun didn’t have enough in the tank to take back the lead.

Connecticut Sun guard Rebecca Allen (9) looks at a referee in disbelief after she is called for a shooting foul on New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu during the WNBA game between the New York Liberty and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on August 24, 2023. Photo Credit: Domenic Allegra

Bonner said a great team like the Liberty is going to make runs, but they can’t get so rattled, especially down the stretch.

“That last play towards the end when we fouled or we turned it over, all we had to do is settle down, get the ball in, they’re gonna foul, and you know, take two free throws,” Bonner said. “So we just learned from that and learned how we can keep our composure towards the fourth quarter.”

Bonner led both teams with 30 points on six made threes and 12 rebounds, while Thomas put up 22 points, 12 assists, seven rebounds, and three steals in the loss. Bonner played a little more than 43 minutes; Thomas, who has rarely come out of games in recent weeks, logged a full 45 minutes.

White said part of the reason the Sun couldn’t hang on was that they were gassed, and that she needs to do a better job subbing players out in the first half.

“I keep saying it, but it’s just really hard,” White said. “We’ve got to get back to changing it up a little bit more so that we can conserve some more energy throughout the game and still dictate the way that we want to. So in terms of just overall game management, I think we still have to try to do a better job from the sidelines, too.”

White chose not to play second-year forward Olivia Nelson-Ododa for the first time all season against the Liberty in the overtime loss, giving her a break to keep her confidence after a tough stretch of games, she said.

But Nelson-Ododa was a big part of the Sun’s bounce-back win, playing 26 minutes and recording her second double-double of the season against her former team the Los Angeles Sparks, who came into Connecticut with a league-best six-game win streak.

White said Nelson-Ododa was aggressive, confident and mobile on Sunday, giving the Sun the spark they needed off the bench. She rebounded the ball well and played defense, which is what they needed from her, she said.

“Her on ball screen defense was pretty good, and that’s critical,” White said. “Every team wants to put the five in a pick and roll, and she’s got to be active, aware, and have a high level of communication.”

Connecticut Sun center Olivia Nelson-Ododa (10) Los Angeles Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike (30) and Connecticut Sun guard Rebecca Allen (9) work for rebounding position during the WNBA game between the Los Angeles Sparks and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on August 27, 2023. Photo Credit: Chris Poss

The Sun missed Carrington because of a foot injury against the Liberty and the Sparks, but the Sun managed to look fresher in the fourth quarter on Sunday— surging ahead to a 19-point lead before pulling the starters for good. It ended a stretch of five consecutive games where the Sun lost the fourth quarter, as they outscored Los Angeles 14-11 in the final frame.

After watching the Liberty claw back from the Sun’s strong first-half performance on Thursday, Connecticut stepped up the defensive intensity in the second half against the Sparks. After forcing only six turnovers and scoring no points off them in the first half, the Sun tightened up their rotations and forced 10 turnovers leading to 17 points in the second half.

While a first-round matchup with the Sparks is possible, the current standings would have the Sun facing the Liberty in the semifinals if both advance past the first round. New York could stand between the Sun and a return trip to the WNBA Finals.

The Sun will have a playoff-esque test with their first back-to-back of the season facing the Phoenix Mercury – who are 2-0 against the Sun this season – at home on Thursday night before a final regular season test against the Liberty at Barclays Center on Friday night. After starting the season series 0-3 against New York, figuring out the formula to finally closing their Northeast rivals out could be a confidence boost heading into the playoffs.

“The great thing about this league is you have to turn the page very quickly,” White said. ”[Thursday night] was a missed opportunity, I think we know that. But we don’t get those opportunities back. We had to come right back to play against a really good LA team, and then we got to turn around and prepare for Phoenix, and then go on the road to New York.”

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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