The Connecticut Sun held on to an 80-78 lead with 4.8 seconds left Thursday night at Mohegan Sun Arena, and — in a way — they were also holding on to their playoff hopes.
Trailing the Washington Mystics by 3 1/2 games for the last Eastern Conference playoff spot entering their game against the Phoenix Mercury, the Sun needed to snap their five-game losing streak and return to winning ways.
But Leilani Mitchell wouldn't let that happen. Though the last shot was supposed to go to DeWanna Bonner, Mitchell said, she was tripped up. So Noelle Quinn kicked it out to Mitchell instead, and she sank a three-pointer from the top of the arc as time expired to lift the Mercury to an 81-80 victory and compound on the Sun's misery.
"We made an aggressive play, and we got lucky," Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said. "Do we deserve the win? Probably not."
Phoenix gave up an 11-point lead in the second quarter in a matter of minutes, with the Sun ending the half on a 25-7 run. Mitchell finished the game shooting 4 of 7 from beyond the arc, which accounted for all of her 16 points. Bonner led the team with 26 points, and Brittney Griner scored 14 points and grabbed 12 rebounds.
Connecticut entered the game without leading scorer Alex Bentley for the third game in a row, who was sidelined with an ankle injury, but Jasmine Thomas accommodated for her absence with a career-high 21 points, including some late baskets that looked to have sent the team on its way to a much-needed win.
Despite the loss, the Sun had recovered from a dismal offensive performance Tuesday in their 71-57 loss to the Atlanta Dream.
"We played more aggressive ... and those shots that didn't go in Atlanta, went in today," Thomas said.
Thomas started the game as if she had been the Sun's top offensive option all season. She scored the team's first 10 points, single-handedly keeping it close with Phoenix during the game's first four-and-a-half minutes. Thomas finished the quarter with 13 points on 4 of 6 shooting, but other players struggled to hit shots.
The Mercury, on the other hand, kept on getting to the free throw line, especially Bonner, who was 7 of 8 from the charity stripe in the first period. As a team, Phoenix was 13 of 14 from the free-throw line, and Mitchell hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to lift it to a 26-17 lead at the end of the first quarter.
The Mercury looked as if that would continue that momentum into the second quarter, as well. Mitchell sank two more from beyond the arc, helping Phoenix take a 34-23 lead and forcing Sun coach Anne Donovan to take a timeout with 7:08 left in the half.
From there, Connecticut turned things around, scoring 17 unanswered points over roughly five minutes to take a 40-34 lead with 2:30 remaining. DeWanna Bonner ended Phoenix's scoring drought with an and-1 layup, but the team still entered the half behind, 48-41.
The Mercury chipped away at the deficit in the third period. They held the Sun to 14 points in the quarter and were more efficient on the offensive end. Mistie Bass' driving layup cut the Sun's lead to 62-58 entering the fourth quarter.
"I think we picked it up on defense in the second half," Bonner said. "We started having each others backs and rebounded the ball better. Connecticut played a great game having such a limited team right now. We are lucky to come out of here with the win."
Thomas' jumper from just beyond the free-throw line gave the Sun's a one-point lead with 9.6 seconds remaining, and she hit one of two free throws a few seconds later to make it 80-78. However, Mitchell's game-winner off of what she called a "broken play" meant Thomas' late efforts were in vein.
"I feel like we just left everything out there that we could've possibly left out there, and I think we deserved that win," Sun coach Anne Donovan said. "But that's the unfortunate thing about sports. You don't get what you deserve a lot of times or what you worked for, but this was one of those games where I feel like we did a lot of things right."