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Last night, the Connecticut Sun came a minute away from sweeping a three-game cross-country road trip against what head coach Curt Miller called a “murderer’s row” of top-level opponents.
Before ultimately falling to the defending champion Seattle Storm 90-87 in overtime, the Sun roared back from an 11-point deficit with two minutes left in the third quarter.
Rookie DiJonai Carrington — pushed into playing her first crucial late-game minutes as a pro after Natisha Hiedeman left the game in the fourth quarter with an apparent calf injury — tied the game on a reverse layup with 15 seconds left to force overtime.
The Sun hung on in extra minutes despite Sue Bird making two quick threes, but a three-pointer from Breanna Stewart ultimately made the difference, and the Sun couldn’t close the gap.
Interim head coach Brandi Poole said before the game that the Sun were going to force the Storm to beat them with someone other than Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd. Bird took the challenge, sinking four three-pointers and leading the Storm with 21 points as the Sun’s long frontcourt held Stewart to 17 points on 6-16 shooting.
Despite the heartbreaking loss in the Sun’s road trip finale, the Sun have cemented themselves as one of the top teams in the league after leaving the West Coast with wins against Phoenix and Las Vegas.
“Definitely ready to get home. A lot of travel, a lot of adjusting to the time zone, some hard tough games out there, so it’ll be nice to get home and have a day off and play back in Mohegan,” Jasmine Thomas said after last night’s game.
Any win on the road doesn’t come easy and is always huge in the WNBA, Poole said. But considering the adversity that the Sun has faced on the trip — missing Briann January for three games because of injury, traveling every other day, not having Miller for the road trip finale, Hiedeman going down in the final minutes and missing overtime — Poole said she was proud of the grit her players had through all three matches.
“If you would have told me we would have come out of this trip 2-1, I would take that,” Poole said. “These women play for each other and they play together and they fight for each other and that goes a long way to being a successful team. I’m just super proud of them for embracing our staff tonight through a little adversity and belief in us to lead them and believing in each other. It’s just a special group. “
Dating back to the team’s last home game on May 18, the Sun played four games in a span of seven days.
It won’t be the last grueling road trip for the team, but as the first, it was a crucial litmus test. Connecticut will have plenty of time to hone in on film and correct some of the little things that made a difference in this game as they play four of their next five games at home.
Jonquel Jones, who continued her dominant start to the season with 28 points and 13 rebounds, said fatigue got to the Sun at the end of their road trip, and the Storm took advantage. Still, she said she was proud of the team’s success on the road against some of the better teams in the league, and said the Sun have more confidence they are moving in the right direction.
“I'm just really proud of the team,” Jones said. “We just played a tough early schedule and we're walking away with one loss, and it was a loss that if you just tuned a few little things, we would have been in the win column.”
Jones compared the loss to a playoff game, where the winner of a close matchup will win by executing “minute things.” She said she got caught up trying to cover Stewart through all the screen actions the Storm run for her, and at times lost sight of where she needed to be to help Brionna Jones on the interior.
The Sun won’t head home unscathed, as Hiedeman had to leave the game late in the fourth quarter. Poole said after the game that Hiedeman was visiting with doctors about her calf injury. She said she didn’t know the exact injury, but said she didn’t think it was anything “significant.”
Heideman has been a huge part of the Sun’s early success, first filling in for late-arriving Jasmine Thomas, and now for Briann January, who missed the last three games after suffering an injury in the Sun’s last home game.
They’ll want Hiedeman healthy for the home stand, but Thomas said she was impressed with how Carrington filled in for her at the end of the Storm game — especially how she was able to quickly move past fouling Sue Bird to let the Storm take the lead with 30 seconds to play, and come back to tie the game with a reverse layup on the next possession.
“It’s just the mentality that we have is just always be locked in and focused and ready when your number's called,” Thomas said.
What did the “murderers row” coaches say about the Sun?
Before embarking on the road trip, Curt Miller expressed his nerves about playing three top teams in a short stretch. With the Sun now comfortably 5-1 on the other end of that road trip, it was the opposing head coaches’ turn to give their impressions of Connecticut: the Sun are very long, and very good at defense.
The Sun kicked off the three-game road trip with an 84-67 dismantling of the Phoenix Mercury, where they out-rebounded Britney Griner and company 48-24. After the loss, Mercury coach Sandy Brondello praised the Sun’s defense and said the frontcourt’s length bothered her team.
“You’ve got a 6’4 player [DeWanna Bonner] at the three, and you’ve got JJ and Brionna Jones. You know, they were better than our three in the frontcourt, to be honest,” Brondello said.
The Mercury weren’t able to set Griner up deep against Jonquel Jones, and the 6’6 forward’s length bothered her, Brondello said. Phoenix also couldn’t set up Brianna Turner when the Sun “over-helped” on Griner, she said. Brondello also praised the Sun’s bench for stepping up in Briann January’s absence.
“The bench came up and they ate. They played harder than us,” Brondello said.
The Sun continued their domination on the boards against the Las Vegas Aces, out-rebounding MVP A’ja Wilson and Liz Cambage’s team 44-26 on their way to beating the team that knocked them out of the playoffs last year 72-65.
Like Brondello, Aces coach Bill Laimbeer praised the Sun’s defense, and said the team’s long frontcourt made life difficult for his squad. Jonquel Jones wasn’t with the team when they faced the Aces in the playoff semi-finals last year, and Laimbeer said her length and ability to grab offensive rebounds made a difference.
“She’s stronger than A’ja (Wilson) and she’s longer than A’ja, which doesn’t happen very often,” Laimbeer said. “They’re physical, and we have to match that physicality on the defensive end, and we didn’t do that today.”
The Sun went into their game against the Storm having grabbed 72 more rebounds than their opponents and winning the battle on the boards in each of their first five game. Seattle put an end to that streak, winning the boards 38-37 – and it ultimately made the difference.
The Sun were still dominant in the paint – Brionna Jones shot 9-for-13 for 19 points – but struggled from three in the second half and couldn’t stop the fast break, giving up 26 points in transition.
Seattle interim head coach Noelle Quinn, who was filling in for Dan Hughes, again praised the Sun’s aggressive defense, and said it was huge for the Storm to find so much success on the fast break.
“Their guard defenders are very aggressive, they're in passing lanes, but they're very solid as well, like they don't gamble a lot,” Quinn said. “What you see is solid one-on-one defense, and then, what they do well is finish plays, they rebound the ball so you're limited to one possession.”
Though the Sun are relieved to be heading home, they don’t exactly have a cupcake schedule ahead. They’ll face the Washington Mystics at 7 p.m. on Friday, who have rebounded from a sluggish start to the season behind some monster performances from Tina Charles.
Then they’ll face the Minnesota Lynx on the road, who should be much better than they have been with Napheesa Collier back in action. After that it’s back to Connecticut for a three-game home stand that includes rematches against the Aces and Storm, and a game against the New York Liberty, who currently sit alongside the Sun at the top of the standings with a 5-1 record.
The Sun will look to continue to rely on what got them through the road trip: using their length to dominate the boards and score points and playing great defense.