September 10, 2022 

How the Connecticut Sun found their fire en route to the WNBA Finals

The Sun closed out Game 5 of the semifinals on an 18-0 run

The Connecticut Sun are heading to their second WNBA Finals in four years, but with 10 minutes left in the semifinals, that looked almost impossible.

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Momentum is a difficult thing to figure out, Sun head coach Curt Miller said, and heading into the fourth quarter of Game 5 on Thursday night, it felt like Chicago had all the momentum in the world.

The Sun had an abysmal eight-point, eight-turnover third quarter after an evenly matched first half. In the fourth quarter, Chicago built an 11-point lead, and Connecticut’s offense was a mess. About halfway through the quarter, the Sun had made 21 total field goals in the game to pair with 21 total turnovers.

But the momentum flipped with 3:46 left, as Chicago guard/forward Kahleah Copper fouled Connecticut forward/guard DeWanna Bonner on a layup to cut the score to 63-56. Bonner turned around and screamed to punctuate the foul.

Copper didn’t appreciate the scream and shoved her right arm into Bonner’s chest. Bonner shoved back. Connecticut forward Jonquel Jones came in, gave Copper a push, and offered some choice words while Chicago forward/center Candace Parker tried to coax Jones away from her teammate. Sky head coach James Wade rushed onto the court towards the scrum, then quickly backed away, trying to call a timeout.

The officials under the basket originally called a double technical on Bonner and Copper for the scuffle. But the officials concluded after a lengthy review that, in fact, nothing happened after the layup.

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Even with emotions running high, the Sun used the long review to gather on the sidelines and reset. They knew Bonner would get at least one free throw to try to make it a two-possession game. Bonner said they took some deep breaths, realized how much time they had, and locked in.

“That’s all the fire we needed,” she said.

The review had the opposite effect on the Sky, who came out in a daze. After the game, Chicago point guard Courtney Vandersloot said the Sky stopped attacking and were playing not to lose rather than playing to win.

They coughed up several uncharacteristic turnovers and never scored another point as the Sun finished the game on an 18-0 run to secure a 72-63 victory and a spot on the WNBA’s charter jet to Las Vegas for the Finals.

That was the largest run to end a playoff game in WNBA history. And after an eight-point third quarter looked like it might close the book on Connecticut’s season, the Sun outscored the Sky 24-5 in the final 10 minutes. It was the most pressure-packed quarter of the season, but Bonner said the Sun were able to come back by having fun and being themselves.

Bonner said the team played too uptight early in the playoffs, including the first three games of this series, when they fell behind two games to one. They were so concerned about missing shots that it caused them to miss easy looks because of the pressure they put on themselves.

They got loose in Game 4 and to start Game 5. But when the pressure built to hold the early lead against Chicago, they got uptight again. In the fourth quarter, they settled in and started to have fun again, she said.

“We want to have fun, and we can’t have fun if we’re playing uptight. Everybody played not to make a mistake,” Bonner said. “Who cares? Make a mistake, miss a shot. It’s basketball. At the end of the score, you’re either going home or you’re going to Vegas, either way. So just play.”

Bonner said the team’s 104-80 win to force Game 5 was the confidence booster it had been searching for throughout the entire playoffs – something she felt like the team never found in its first-round series against the Dallas Wings.

“I felt like those last [few] minutes, we brought back the Game [4] mentality and we had fun,” Bonner said. “I’m just so happy to see that because we weren’t ourselves the first couple games of this series. And as a matter of fact, the whole playoffs I felt like we just weren’t ourselves.”

Half of the Sun’s current players were on the 2019 team that made it to Game 5 of the Finals: Courtney Williams, Jonquel Jones, Brionna Jones, Alyssa Thomas, Natisha Hiedeman and Jasmine Thomas

But Bonner is the only player on the team with a WNBA championship, having won two with the Phoenix Mercury. The Sun have drawn on her experience, trusting that she knows what it takes to get them a ring. It’s a big reason why Miller brought her over in a sign-and-trade deal after losing in 2019.

“DB is a champion. That’s it. She’s a champion,” Hiedeman said. “She’s been there; she knows what it takes. Her speeches have been on point recently, so we’ve been feeding off of that.”

After Connecticut’s messy Game 3 loss to Chicago, Bonner told Miller she wanted him to cancel the film portion of shootaround so she could have a heart-to-heart with the team. Intensive film study is a part of Miller’s coaching identity, but he trusted his veteran leader, and it paid off.

Connecticut’s regular-season series with Chicago was characterized by the Sun falling behind fast and playing catch-up. Bonner knew if they could get off to a good start, they could carry their confidence through the entire game, but they needed to be comfortable and confident in themselves to make it happen. She said she sat her teammates down and told them they needed to play “like us.”

“Yeah we got down in the third, but it still didn’t feel like we lost that confidence. We still had that swag and that mojo,” Bonner said. “And I just [kept] saying, ‘Keep it right there, keep it right there. We’re down six, we’re down eight — we’re going to be okay.’ And I think we just settled down and we just found that.”

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The Sun were ecstatic after the win, finally returning to the Finals after two straight semifinals losses. But as much as it means for them to finally get past a Chicago Sky team that has — as Bonner said — “kicked our asses” over the last two seasons, the ultimate goal is a championship.

As Hiedeman said, “Job not done yet.”

To get that elusive first championship, the Sun will have to find a way to contain a supernova Aces offense led by WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson and Chelsea Gray, the Aces’ veteran with championship experience who has been unstoppable in the first two rounds.

The Aces already boasted the best offense in the league during the regular season, scoring 90.4 points per game, a full four points more than the Chicago Sky. The Aces took the season series against the Sun 2-1, but neither team was at full strength for any game.

And both teams are playing on another level from the regular season — Gray is shooting nearly 63% from the field, and the Sun held the Sky to fewer than 74 points per game.

It will be another battle of an unstoppable offense against an impenetrable defense, and the Sun will need to clog the paint to stop Wilson from getting touches and attack the wings to try to make Gray, Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young uncomfortable.

Thomas and Bonner will have their hands full between Gray and Wilson, so it will be crucial for Hiedeman to keep up the defensive intensity she has found throughout the playoffs to keep Plum in check.

The Sun might find some confidence in the success of another defensive-minded team, the Washington Mystics, who swept their season series with the Aces by holding Las Vegas to fewer than 77 points per game in regulation.

Bonner said the Sun need to bottle up the same energy and confidence they had in Games 4 and 5 and take it to Vegas. If they are playing like themselves and having fun, they’re confident they can match up with anyone. And Hiedeman said they will continue to bet on themselves, even when no one else does.

“It’s us. We just talk to each other out there. We believe in each other, and sometimes when adversity hits, we fold. Not no more. We’re not folding no more,” Hiedeman said. “As y’all saw in the third quarter, we picked it right back up. And won the game. And now we’re going to the championship.”

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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