June 1, 2021
Sun will look to identity to bounce back from the overtime loss
“We felt like we could have won this one, we let it get away from us and we felt like it was in our control to win", Jasmine Thomas said
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Falling 79-74 in overtime was an ugly way for the Sun to lose to the then-winless Minnesota Lynx, especially considering the Sun’s 27 first-quarter points and 12-point lead was their best start to a game all season. Minnesota outscored Connecticut in the remaining three quarters and five minutes in overtime, though the game was mostly always in the Sun’s control.
It was a tough loss considering the little things the Sun could have done to hold onto a lead they held practically all game, but the team isn’t panicking and knows it’s better to take away these learning experiences early in the season so they’ll know how to execute in the playoffs when it matters.
“We felt like we could have won this one. We let it get away from us and we felt like it was in our control to win. So moving forward, we have a quick turnaround. That’s kind of how playoffs are, too. When you look down the road, games like these allow you to win tight games in the playoffs,” Jasmine Thomas said on Sunday night.
The game came down to rebounding, an area that Connecticut’s long frontcourt has dominated all season. With a minute left in regulation, the Lynx trailed by five but grabbed four crucial rebounds to get extra chances to even up the score. Even when a last-second game-winning three from Layshia Clarendon, who the Lynx officially signed that morning, was waved off, Minnesota clearly carried that momentum into overtime and only missed one shot in the extra minutes.
“They executed better than us in crunch time,” head coach Curt Miller said after the game. “The players, tons of accountability in that locker room, have just been phenomenal. And they know it was a learning lesson. They know that they have to hold each other accountable in that situation. So I’m proud of the leadership coming out of this. Tough way at times to learn in basketball, but you know sometimes you need these kinds of lessons or it will happen again sometime down the line.”
The Sun still sit near the top of the WNBA standings at 6-2, but other teams are beginning to figure out the formula to beating the Sun: disrupting the frontcourt’s movement in the paint with a ton of bodies and beating Connecticut on the glass.
Minnesota got to the Sun where they usually do the most damage by crowding the paint and being more physical rebounders. Five different players for the Lynx had at least five rebounds. Sylvia Fowles was unstoppable in the post with 24 points, 9 rebounds, and 3 blocks, and Napheesa Collier chipped in seven, including three offensive rebounds. Crystal Dangerfield, a 5’5 guard, had a career-high seven rebounds against the Sun, and no one on Connecticut had more than six boards for the first time all season.
It was the third straight game that Connecticut lost the rebounding battle after out-rebounding opponents 206-134 during their 5-0 start to the season. Seattle and Washington grabbed one more rebound, but Minnesota out-rebounded the Sun by 10.
“They were bringing in a lot of help and a lot of attention to the paint on our bigs, which is something that we can expect to see game after game. We had some open shots, some good looks that usually go in tonight, but we also kind of need to slow down in some actions and really take our time to find our best shot that we wanted,” Thomas said. “But I think the biggest thing was just rebounding. We had a lot of pride in how we were rebounding the ball the last few games, and it looks like we were outrebounded by ten tonight, especially late, and that’s what was important.”
The Lynx were lucky at times with some crucial rebounds taking long bounces off the rim. Up by five with under a minute left in the game, the Sun watched two Kayla McBride three-point attempts clank off the rim and launch over their heads to the waiting Lynx.
On the second, Dangerfield grabbed the board at the free-throw line, pulled it back and dished over to Damiris Dantas who finally connected on the Lynx’s third three-point attempt of the possession to cut the deficit to two.
A friendlier bounce could have secured the win for Connecticut, but for the most part, Minnesota was the more physical team. On the very next possession, Bonner launched a long turnaround two, and Fowles and Collier both boxed out Jonquel Jones to allow Dangerfield an uncontested rebound that led to a game-tying jump shot.
“I thought we missed a lot of easy shots that we normally knock down,” DeWanna Bonner said. “In the end, it came down to one rebound. We didn’t secure the rebound, they hit a three, and that changed things.”
Miller attributed the surprising rebounding total to fatigue. The Sun have played the most road games and are coming off a seven-game stretch in 14 days — which Miller likened to the schedule in the bubble last season, plus traveling across the country. With long days because of early travel and COVID testing, there’s less time for practice, film sessions, or even an off-day.
Miller said every team will have a similar nightmare stretch during the season, and the Sun have gotten theirs out of the way and come out with only two overtime losses against good teams. Jonquel Jones said during her postgame that the team wasn’t imploding or overthinking because of the loss, and knows both of their losses so far could have fallen within their grasp.
“With the rebounds tonight, and with Seattle, it was not starting overtime properly, so (these are) things we’re going to learn from and grow from,” Jones said. “I think you put any other team in the league in this stretch and they don’t come up with the results that we come up with.”
The Sun now have nearly a third of their road games out of the way, and they know a break is finally coming this week when they’ll have three days between home games against the Aces on Tuesday and Liberty on Saturday.
“What we’re asking these players to do is beyond me. It’s bubble season on steroids,” Miller said. “We will eventually get to our break, but we were in a brutal stretch and we were really tired. And it’s unfortunate we didn’t come away with a win because we work so hard. We are absolutely exhausted. I don’t know what we’re gonna have in the tank for Tuesday.”
Sticking to the team identity
In their wins, this season, Connecticut has been successful at moving the ball and spacing. The team was averaging 9.1 threes made per game and hitting them at a 41.2% clip before Sunday night. And while the offense definitely makes their mark in the paint, exactly a third of the production was happening outside the perimeter before they faced the Lynx.
On Sunday, the Sun were sped up on offense and only made seven threes overall on 29.2% shooting. Their overall field goal percentage of 38% wasn’t the worst they’ve shot this year — they only hit 33.8% from the floor in their first game against Las Vegas — but the team’s effort on the glass earned them 26 more shots in that win. The shot attempts were nearly even on Sunday, so even the slightest margin makes a big difference when shots just aren’t falling for Connecticut. Las Vegas on the other hand has bounced back since their loss against the Sun and head into Mohegan Sun Arena coming off back-to-back 100-point games.
The team knows what they need to do to not let another game fall out of reach. The Sun are most effective when they’re efficient in the paint, and the focus there helps contribute to the team’s inside-out game. It all comes down to honing on the team identity: defense, rebounding, and inside-out offense.
Brionna Jones wasn’t as much of a factor as she usually is against the Lynx, and she played with five fouls late against Washington and Minnesota. But the Sun are successful when she’s involved in both ends of the floor — contributing on offensive boards, being efficient in the paint, and knowing when to pass the ball.
Against the Mystics, Jones had the first two assists to Carrington to get the offense rolling in the first quarter after a slow start, one for a cutting layup and one for a three. She’s always patient and knows how to position herself to slither by defenders to get the rim. The team ended up with a season-high 11 three-pointers, two courtesy of Brionna Jones’ assists, which helped pad the lead to fend off Tina Charles from making the comeback.
“We don’t want to settle for threes and we honestly feel like we make them at a higher clip when we are playing inside and out,” Thomas said on Friday night. “That’s credit to DB, JJ, Breezy getting the ball in the paint and really demanding a lot of attention down there, and the rest of us just being ready to knock down shots. It’s different people every night, sometimes they don’t always go in, but that’s the way that we want to play. Inside and out.”
Jones had three assists in the game against the Mystics, something she’s already accomplished a few times, and is averaging 2.2 assists on the season. Even during her stellar season last year, she only recorded three assists once and often didn’t contribute at all in this area. She didn’t have to with Connecticut’s ball handlers and Alyssa Thomas, but this year it has really added another dimension to her game and shows how savvy she is when the ball’s in her hands.
“Everything has slowed down a little bit more, so even when I get a catch, I’m not just looking for myself. I’m looking for other players, too,” Jones said during shootaround on Sunday. “Especially in the double teams,… I’m definitely looking more for an open guard and I think it’s been a lot easier this year because everything’s slowed down.”
Jonquel Jones said she’s looking forward to a few days off in between games, but is focused on beating Las Vegas at home. She said the team has been successful so far because everyone is used to the system and everyone is getting involved thanks to the fluid movement on the court. She knows that will get better with time, too, as the chemistry on the court evolves.
“A lot of times when we get in trouble is when we start trying to go one-on-one too much, and when we’re not getting teams into second actions or not reversing the ball,” Jones said. “The biggest thing is the chemistry. The trust that when you’re out here, you’re going to touch the ball. Your teammates believe in you to make plays.”
The Sun will play the next three games at home within a two-week span, and only have to travel twice in June. The team knows they’ll get better so it’s a good thing that they’re getting a brutal stretch out of the way early, especially with the success they’ve had so far. They still haven’t lost a regulation game and they’re the only team that remains undefeated at home.
“We can play with any team in this league,” Jonquel Jones said. “When we handle our business, most times we come out with a win. So I’m excited about it and ready to get back to it.”