October 1, 2023
Connecticut Sun outnumbered in Game 3 loss
The Sun desperately missed 'glue player' Rebecca Allen, who didn't play because of illness
UNCASVILLE, Conn. – About 15 minutes before tip-off on Friday night, Connecticut Sun head coach Stephanie White learned that wing Rebecca Allen — the hero of their semifinal Game 1 win and a key to their defense without center Brionna Jones — would likely not be available because of a non-Covid illness.
The Sun knew the opportunity they had in front of them heading into Game 3 at home on Friday. After splitting two games with the New York Liberty on the road at Barclays Center, the Sun had home-court advantage.
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But the Sun got off to their worst start all postseason, putting themselves in a 37-16 hole after the first 10 minutes that was too much to climb out of and taking an emotional 92-81 loss. Connecticut now faces its second elimination game of the postseason on Sunday, down 2-1 to New York in the best-of-five series.
Allen was dressed and went through warm-ups but never checked into the game. She briefly spent time in the locker room in the second quarter but mostly watched her teammates from the bench.
Her absence was felt immediately. Without her length and versatility on the defensive end, her ability to attack the basket and her outside shooting, the Sun were outrebounded 10-5 in the first quarter and shot 0-for-5 from the perimeter before making their first 3-pointer less than two minutes before halftime.
“[I’m] disappointed, certainly, with the way that we started the game. I felt like our energy level from the beginning was just really poor for whatever reason,” White said. “I’m proud of our group for the second through the fourth quarter, but that’s not good enough when you’re playing for an opportunity to go to the final[s].”
Despite the dreadful start, the Sun outscored the Liberty by 10 points in the last 30 minutes. White thought her team was better on both ends in that span, which made Allen’s absence sting a little bit more.
“Bec just has a presence about her. Bec’s just one of those glue players. She’s a good teammate, people like being around her, she’s got a calming presence on the floor, she’s a communicator, all those things,” White said. “So when you’re missing a piece like that, what she brings from a basketball perspective, from a size perspective and from the intangibles, it makes a difference, and we had to kind of filter through that.”
Center Olivia Nelson-Ododa, who started in place of Allen on Friday, said that it was evident how much they missed her in the game, from her skillset to her veteran experience.
“She brings defense [and] offense. She’s a long player; she gets really good deflections, blocks, steals; and she’s able to shoot the three-ball and also attack off the dribble, too,” Nelson-Ododa said at the postgame press conference.
“Everything,” guard Ty Harris, sitting next to Nelson-Ododa, interjected with a laugh.
“Yeah, everything,” Nelson-Ododa agreed.
Early fouls, perceived no-calls and miscommunications on both ends frustrated the Sun in the first quarter, which trickled into the next frame.
Down 34-16 with 30 seconds left in the first quarter, guard DiJonai Carrington attempted a long three but was blocked by Liberty forward Breanna Stewart, who immediately started running in transition. Liberty guard Betnijah Laney corralled the loose ball for a long pass to Stewart at the rim, and she made the layup through a hard foul from Carrington.
Then, down 37-16 with about 16 seconds left, Nelson-Ododa threw the ball out of bounds after miscommunicating with guard Natisha Hiedeman.
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When the quarter ended, Carrington had words for Nelson-Ododa as they headed to the bench. Veteran guard/forward DeWanna Bonner quickly separated them, pushing Carrington back and pointing to the locker room before she took a seat on the bench.
Carrington put her warm-ups back on and did not check into the game after that. Without Allen and Carrington, the Sun were essentially down to a six-player rotation, while also missing Bonner and guard Tiffany Hayes for a few minutes at different points in the second half when they went to the locker room after hard hits on the court.
Although rotations tighten up in the postseason, White said after the game that depth was certainly a factor for the Sun, especially playing against a deeper team with many scoring threats. On the other side, the Liberty took advantage of a big lead to lean on guard Marine Johannes much more than they had early in the series.
“I was proud of the group that went out there that fought and that battled, but we gotta be all in and it’s gonna take all of us,” White said. “We gotta all be in together in order for this to work and for us to continue to fight for that opportunity to play for the finals.”
White was asked about potentially playing Carrington, who has played less than 10 total minutes in the semifinals, in critical minutes in Game 4. She said Carrington is a capable player who is important to what the team does, but with everything on the line, it comes down to having the right mindset.
“This time of year, you just don’t get as many opportunities to play through things as you do in the regular season,” White said. “Everybody’s got to be ready to go from jump. From preparation, to shootaround, to game, no matter when your number is called.”
Sun forward Alyssa Thomas had her best scoring game of the series so far, working efficiently at the rim and in the midrange to score 23 points. She added 14 assists and nine rebounds. But she struggled to find much help in the first half and was clearly frustrated that the team had fallen so far behind.
With the Sun down 18 with about five minutes to play in the first half, the Liberty forced Connecticut into a shot clock violation. Thomas turned to look at her bench and started yelling, hoping to inspire some fire in her teammates.
“Does somebody want to play tonight?!” she yelled. “Anybody? Does anybody want to play tonight?”
During a time-out with about two minutes to go in the half — and the Sun down by 20 — White walked to her players on the bench, took a breath and threw her clipboard on the ground. She said after the game that she doesn’t remember what she said in the huddle — something about energy, communication, being focused and staying together.
“It’s unacceptable the way that we started the game. There’s no doubt about it, and that’s on all of us,” White said. “That’s on all of us.”
Whatever she said, she said it loudly and forcefully. And the Sun got the message, responding with their best run of the game to that point.
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Thomas found Harris open on the perimeter, and she cashed in the team’s first 3-pointer of the night. After a steal, Hayes followed up with another 3-pointer. The Sun were aggressive on both sides of the ball and went on an 8-0 run to close out the half before Jones halted the Sun’s momentum with a put-back to beat the buzzer.
In the second half, the Sun continued to slowly cut into the lead, getting within single digits with about 55 seconds left in the third quarter. Entering the fourth quarter down 11, the Sun surrendered an early 8-2 run, and White ended up pulling Thomas and Bonner with less than three minutes left in the game.
It was the first time Thomas had come out of a game since Game 1 of the first-round series with the Minnesota Lynx — 197 consecutive minutes, nearly five full games in a row.
After the game, Harris said that even when emotions run high and adversity hits, the team is still a sisterhood.
“We love each other. We’re all sisters. So we talk about it. We come together. That’s pretty much it, honestly,” Harris said. “It’s a game of runs, basketball. Things get heated, but we still love each other. We’re gonna come together and bring a better effort next game.”
White said it comes down to dealing with frustrations in games, especially not getting the foul calls they want. That was a major source of frustration as the Sun fell behind in the first quarter while being called for eight fouls to New York’s two.
Disagreement with the refs is nothing new for the Sun, but they can usually make their objections known without losing focus. White said they have to refocus their energy toward controlling what they can control.
“The officials are not one of them,” White said. “There are times it’s an emotional game. There are times where emotions can get the best of us; there’s no doubt about it. But finding ways to channel our emotion into something positive is going to be important. It’s always important.”
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Having Allen back and healthy would be a major boost for the Sun looking to avoid elimination on Sunday, as would a big scoring night from Bonner. But if the Sun are going to force a Game 5 on Sunday, it starts with a better first quarter.
“First things first, we have to come out a lot better,” Harris said.