UNCASVILLE, Conn. – Early Wednesday evening, the Connecticut Sun’s winning streak looked to be in serious jeopardy.
Playing their first game in eight days, the Sun looked to have no answer for the Chicago Sky’s towering frontcourt duo of Sylvia Fowles and Elena Delle Donne. Chicago looked ready to cruise to an easy win at Mohegan Sun Arena.
The thing is, Connecticut had those faltering moments in the previous games. All of them ended in wins, as did Wednesday’s game, a 79-69 win for the Sun.
From the opening tip, Connecticut (8-6) looked like a team that had not played in eight days. Chicago was always one or two steps ahead of them down the floor and exploiting defensive miscues with ease, going up by as many as 12 points in the first quarter.
That is as far ahead of the Sun as the Sky would get. Connecticut closed the gap in the second quarter, coming all the way back to take the lead. However, Chicago was used a quick run at the end of the quarter to bring a six-point lead into the half.
"I don’t feel like we get too rattled," said Katie Douglas, who finished with a season-high 19 points. "The first quarter wasn’t our greatest showing. But I liked our energy still. We were in there still talking to one another. We didn’t get extremely rattled, but that just goes to show the growth and maturity we already have."
As has generally been the case during the winning streak, the game’s back-and-forth style in the first half was replaced by Connecticut domination over the final 20 minutes.
Alyssa Thomas took her game to another level in the third quarter, going for 12 points as Connecticut came from behind to take a 66-55 lead. Thomas played more than any other Connecticut player (30:58) on Wednesday and finished with a career-high 23 points.
"She’s a tough match," Sun coach Anne Donovan said. "She’s so physical. Doesn’t have the greatest feet or the greatest handles or the prettiest jump shot, but she has one of the biggest motors in the women’s game, and that’s why we drafted her (No. 4 overall in the 2014 WNBA Draft). It’s just her energy is just, there are very few players who have that kind of energy in this league."
Epiphanny Prince tried to will Chicago back into the game in the fourth quarter, scoring seven of her nine points in the final 10 minutes. With Chicago still within single digits early in the fourth quarter, Douglas stepped up and hit back-to-back 3-pointers to put the lead back 10. The Sky would not get closer than that over the final six minutes.
Chicago’s chances of winning were severely diminished by the way the Sun – primarily Kelsey Bone – locked down on Sylvia Fowles, who scored two points in the second half after scoring 15 in the first half.
The Sun were relentless down low once they settled in, outrebounding Chicago 44-27 with 21 offensive rebounds. While that did not do much to help the score – registering only 12 second-chance points – it helped Connecticut reset possession and wear the Sky out.
"It’s not Chicago’s strength," Donovan said of the Sky’s rebounding. "It’s one of their weaknesses. So we talked about it before the game that if we really made an effort, it was going to be there for us. And I love that about this group. We can really have a game plan, you give them key points.
"Another one coming out of halftime, we knew we had to run more. We had to have better transition, and we sure did that in the third quarter well. So I just, this group is very cerebral for a young team, very cerebral."
Over the next two weeks is when Connecticut’s maturation faces its toughest test. The Sun will play ever other day through July 5, beginning with games at Washington – the last team to beat Connecticut – and New York. Still chasing Atlanta, who the Sun visit on July 8, in the Eastern Conference, the next five games will be telling in how far Connecticut has come since its slow start to the season.
For Donovan, Wednesday was a statement in itself of what the Sun have become.
"We need to play well," Donovan said. "After a week off, I was a little bit nervous about how we were going to play. We were rolling so well that I wanted to pick up, and we did in the second quarter. We didn’t in the first, but we picked up in the second quarter where we left off. So it gives us a little bit of momentum. It reminds us of what we’ve accomplished in the last six games, and now we have to be a good road team as well."