UNCASVILLE, CT — A warm — and fired up — Mohegan Sun Arena housed fans ready for the Connecticut Sun to beat down on the Phoenix Mercury. Just one game and they’d eliminate the old flame that is the Mercury.
Connecticut boasted a stronger regular season finish. Jonquel Jones shattered the WNBA rebounding record. Why didn’t all of the pieces fall in favor of the luminous Sun?
Phoenix Head Coach Sandy Brondello looked to her veterans when they were down 37-20 in the second quarter, and then at halftime after Connecticut’s fiercest scoring frenzy. She relied on her experienced players to dig down deep, and pull themselves from the quagmire they faced, and they did just that with guts and will, winning 88-83.
“It helps us a lot. The best of all of them is Diana Taurasi, she is the GOAT, and she loves these big time plays,” said Brondello. “She brings poise and confidence out on the court which is great. It’s not just putting the ball in the right people’s hands, in the big moments she will make the big play as well, and you saw that tonight she was very good for us.”
To a young roster like Connecticut, the end of a playoff game seems like the end of eternity. But, for league veterans Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner and crew, it’s just one more notch carved on the seasonal belt.
“It’s huge when you have that experience and have gone through the trenches and don’t get rattled by those things and it’s a learning experience,” explained Taurasi. “We have all been through it when we were young and the end of the game seemed like the biggest deal in the world, you know, it’s just a game and you can use that calmness to really help you down the stretch of games and we had our five veterans on the court and that really helped us.”
This is an accomplished veteran team, bursting with talent, that took over the game when the moments mattered. Players who’ve been around understanding the concept of quality over quantity. They take better shots, be it less, instead of running the ball up and down the court in a marathon against the ticking clock.
Nothing could rattle this veteran-laded force, that consists of only two players from last year’s lineup. This team has been around the league. So it was no surprise to Connecticut Head Coach Curt Miller how Phoenix handled the fall in the first half.
“They didn’t panic when they got down in double figures,” explained Miller. “They knew it was a long game and they grinded it out, and I think that speaks to their playoff experience and their veteran’s play. They have been in a lot of playoff games and Diana (Taurasi), Brittney (Griner) and Monique (Currie) made plays.”
The Sun radiates the exact opposite kind of offense - rising stars in their youth. The fact that Connecticut can keep up with the best of them, while sending four second-year players to the wood means, they’ll be a foreboding force in years to come.
The Sun didn’t strike in the wrong direction; their game plan was precise and on point. They even outrebounded Phoenix by double figures. They blasted through an uptempo first quarter, one of their finest all season, to demolish dreams of a Mercury comeback.
“When you look at the stats and see that you outscored them in the paint by well over 20, you out rebound them by double figures, and you hold them to less than 20 shots in the paint the whole night, man the game plan we thought was right,” said Miller, “but that is a veteran, incredibly talented team that made the plays necessary to win a close game.”
But what do veterans do best? Stay cool, calm, and save their fire for the final minutes that clear a young squad with semifinal hopes off the floor.
A fiery Mercury roster led by the league’s all time leading scorer Taurasi means there’s always records at stake. But, these players don’t let the numbers phase them. Taurasi is now 11-0 in winner take all playoff games, and has never lost a playoff elimination on the road. Griner hit a postseason career-high with 26 points in her 23rd playoff game. To put up the numbers, you’ve got to put in the time walking around the block.
However, Miller doesn’t feel like this is truly the end of the road.
“We lost tonight, and I feel like we won at the same time because we are starting some very special here and we look forward to the future,” said Miller.
2018, Connecticut is coming for you. But for the rest of 2017, those experience vetarans are still coming, too.