(ATLANTA) – Over the course of the season, Angel McCoughtry has been a one-woman wrecking crew. This might have fooled the rest of the WNBA into thinking that the Dream was a one-woman team. But in the deciding game of the Eastern Conference semi-finals, the Dream put that theory to rest in a 69-64 victory over the Connecticut Sun with four Dream starters scoring 12 points each.
"We have players that understand the system both offensively and defensively," Dream head coach Marynell Meadors said. "We’ve learned about each other over the season. The key is they have to be willing to a play a role and they do. Everyone knows what they bring to this team. We try to put players in situations where they can be successful."
"We know we aren’t going to blow anyone out, especially in the playoffs," Atlanta point guard Lindsey Harding said. "We just come in to stay close. As the time gets down to five minutes, If we are close, I feel comfortable getting our team in our sets to hopefully score. In the beginning we weren’t knocking down our shots but we started to knock them down in the end. "
Most WNBA followers would have expected a battle between Dream guard/forward Angel McCoughtry and Sun center Tina Charles, but the first quarter was surprisingly different. McCoughtry couldn’t get into her rhythm with Sun guard Kalana Greene assigned the role of defending McCoughtry, but picking up two personal fouls would put Greene back on the bench.
Dream center Erika de Souza was on fire, holding Tina Charles in lockdown and scoring eight first quarter points to keep Atlanta in the lead throughout the first. Dream guard Armintie Price added three points driving to the basket, and it was emblematic of the Sun’s woes that Charles’s best hope for points in the first were two free throws at the end of the quarter – and she missed both of them. The Dream led 16-11 after the first ten minutes.
The second quarter, however, seemed devoid of highlights. With both McCoughtry and Charles held scoreless, the game dissolved into a very sloppy back and forth marked by bad shots, turnovers, and strange foul calls. Connecticut pulled to within two points, 18-16, with six minutes to go in the half. Both teams shot poorly – in the 30 percent range – and Connecticut kept within striking distance, finally pulling ahead 27-26 with a 3-pointer by Sun guard Renee Montgomery with three minutes in the half. The Sun picked up momentum and scored nine of the next twelve points, but a questionable technical foul on Tina Charles and her errant elbow helped quench the fire. Lindsey Harding’s jumper closed the gap to 36-31 in favor of the Sun at halftime.
McCoughtry and Charles had combined for three points at halftime – and all three points belonged to Charles, with McCoughtry 0-for-4. Dream post Sancho Lyttle led with 10 points at halftime, and with Charles unavailable Sun forward Asjha Jones scored 10 points from jump shots to lead Connecticut. Montgomery’s second-quarter surge gave the Sun seven extra points and three assists.
The Dream were absolutely unable to buy a shot. With Connecticut choking off the Dream’s transition game, the Dream couldn’t hit from distance either and the Dream’s field goal percentage was ice cold, somewhere near the temperature that water freezes. McCoughtry could get nothing going and remained scoreless. Atlanta’s only solace was that Connecticut wasn’t doing much better and only were up by six points, 39-33 with five minutes to go in the third. The Sun found their rhythm before Atlanta did, and built a 46-35 late in the quarter while Atlanta looked lost in a fog.
But the fog cleared with the Dream reeling off a 7-0 run finished off by a steal from McCoughtry to close to within 46-42. Atlanta had shaken its somnambulance, and even though the Dream were down 51-44 at the end of the third the spark was back.
For the first twenty-six minutes of the game, McCoughtry was held scoreless.
"They send two and three after her," Meadors said. "If they can rough her up - which they do - hopefully, she'll get some fouls called on her. It's pretty tough for her to score with three people and that's what happening. Her game is getting better too because she’s finding people that are open. Since she’s being double and triple teamed she is looking for others. We've got to make it a little easier for her to get in easier on her and slide into shots where she can see them, and we'll work on that when we practice next time."
The Dream rode the wave right into the fourth quarter. Atlanta began whittling down the Sun’s lead, with a drive by Dream reserve guard Iziane Castro Marques closing the gap to one point, 55-54. Iziane’s play kept the Dream close, and with 3:26 left in the quarter Lindsey Harding found the hoop on an Atlanta drive to put the Dream up for the first time in the second half, 58-57 with 3:26 left.
"Izi has given us a huge lift— two big threes in Connecticut the other night, two days ago, and then she hit another big three today," Meadors said. "When she hits a three it kind of ignites everyone else, and I thought that she did that. She came in and she played really well defensively and she moved the ball offensively. She had an open shot and she knocked it down.
Atlanta had found its defensive mojo. The Dream's lead was part of an 11-1 run in the final five minutes that had the crowd on its feet and Connecticut on the ropes. The Sun closed to 67-62 but a long 3-pointer from Connecticut guard Kara Lawson fell short with 16.9 seconds left and when the Dream got the ball back the Sun sent McCoughtry to the free throw, where she scored her 11th and 12th points of the night to put the game away. The Dream had outscored Connecticut 25-13 in the final quarter for an amazing comeback.
"It had nothing to do with us," Meadors said with regard to the Atlanta coaching role. "It was all about the players."
"We did everything we could defensively," Connecticut head coach Mike Thibault said. "Our offense gave it back to them. We didn’t shoot a great percentage and our 17 turnovers killed us. You can’t have 17 [turnovers] in a playoff game and expect to win."
The Dream knew the importance of not losing the advantage they had gained in Uncasville. "Not many people win at Connecticut so we knew that winning the first game was huge," Harding said. "We wanted to play in front of our fans and put their backs against the wall. We knew if we had to go back there that they would have an advantage. They went 15-2 at home."
No one could say that the game was a one-woman effort - four players scored 12 points for Atlanta. Each made important contributions. Angel McCoughtry surged in the fourth quarter. Erika de Souza added 10 rebounds for a double-double and made Charles work in the first quarter. Lindsey Harding played 38 minutes and added six assists, and Sancho Lyttle added to Atlanta's post presence. From the bench, Iziane Castro Marques shot 4-for-7 for nine points.
The Sun were led by Asjha Jones who scored 15 points on 7-for-21 shooting - Jones took more shots than any player in the game. Tina Charles added 13 points and 17 rebounds to set the franchise record for playoff rebounds in a losing effort. Renee Montgomery added 10 points and six assists for Connecticut.
The Atlanta Dream will play the winner of the Indiana Fever-New York Liberty game on Monday in the Eastern Conference finals. Atlanta will have home court advantage if New York wins, else Indiana will have the advantage.
* The Connecticut Sun have not won a game - regular season or otherwise - in Philips Arena since 2008, the Dream's inaugural year when they finished 4-30. Since the Sun's 98-72 victory on August 29, 2008, the Sun have lost seven straight in Atlanta.
* This is the lowest scoring game between Atlanta and Connecticut this year. The lowest scoring game before this one was an 85-74 Atlanta victory on September 6th, and Meadors drew attention to this score versus the others. "It was all about defense," she said. "And not only our defense, it was their defense, too."
* Including the playoffs, Connecticut's season record was 15-3 at home, but 6-12 on the road.
* Arminite Price sat down in the fourth quarter from what seemed to be an injury. According to Meadors, it was a case of both legs cramping up due to dehydration.
* Atlanta is glad not to come back to Connecticut, for reasons beyond the tough Sun team. "If we had not won, we would go back to Connecticut, and that's an all-day trip to get there. Trust me, once you land it takes you at least an hour to get to the Mohegan Sun. It's a nice place to stay but we're glad we're not going anywhere. We're going to stay in Atlanta in our own beds tonight."
* Meadors has no stated preference for either Indiana or New York in the conference finals. "Me? Bring them on, we don't care. We don't care."