With the Connecticut Sun up 56-46 over the Washington Mystics at halftime in Game 2 of the WNBA Finals, Sun coach Curt Miller had an important message for his players.
“We’re gonna take this one and we’re going to go back home,” he said.
The Sun did just that, clinching a 99-87 victory to tie the series 1-1.
The Sun’s strong first half
To get it done, Connecticut had to prevent the Mystics from pulling off their No. 1 trick: scoring 30 points in the first quarter and forcing their opponent to play uphill. In Game 1, Washington got out to a 30-17 first-quarter advantage. In Game 2, the Sun held a 29-17 advantage after the first period, forcing the Mystics to play uphill.
Connecticut checked this important task of its list because the referees let the players play through quite a bit of contact on both ends of the floor and because MVP Elena Delle Donne left the court with back spasms just three minutes into the game.
But it’d be total #disrespeCT to say the Sun got off to a hot start solely because of Delle Donne’s absence. If anything, Connecticut benefited temporarily from her sudden departure because the Mystics were forced to make adjustments mid-play. But this team features sharpshooters like Emma Meesseman and Kristi Toliver, not to mention Tianna Hawkins and Ariel Atkins. A little regrouping of their rotations and sets — and, yes, composure — laid the foundation for a Washington run that put a dent in its 14-point deficit.
But no player was more successful in getting the Sun off to a solid first-half start than Jonquel Jones who, by the end of the game, had made WNBA Finals history and been nicknamed by ESPN broadcaster Rebecca Lobo “The Bahamian Beast.”
Jones scored 18 points and tied a WNBA record for rebounds in a half, with 10.
The Sun’s strong finish
To start the third, Delle Donne was still listed as questionable to return, with ESPN’s Holly Rowe reporting that between six and eight medical professionals were working on her in the Mystics’ locker room.
The Sun held steady. Jones collected her seventh offensive rebound of the game and Jasmine Thomas, who has struggled with shooting in this series, made a few timely buckets. Courtney Williams picked up where she left off in Game 1 with sizzling shooting from everywhere on the court. To give her a breather and create some defensive mismatches, Miller subbed in Morgan Tuck in an experiment that didn’t quite work as intended. Washington disrupted the Sun’s offense late in the third to the tune of empty possessions, and Aerial Powers was a big part of it. On offense, Powers made a driving layup that forced Jones into her fourth foul (on a very questionable call), sending her to the bench. Powers banked a free throw to make it a three-point play and a four-point game.
With Jones still on the bench, Williams returned. But Powers’ made layup on an assist from Toliver with seconds in the third period put the Mystics within two points, forcing Miller to call a timeout to help his team regroup. After another streak of empty possessions, Williams swished in a huge two-pointer from range to put the lead back up to four points.
With the score 73-69 to start the fourth quarter, Delle Donne was officially ruled out. Bria Holmes had a chance to stretch Connecticut’s lead with a steal converted into a fast break. Perhaps getting a little too cute with it, she blew the layup, with Washington gaining possession and getting the ball to Toliver who tossed in a big shot to tie the game.
Alyssa Thomas played every minute of the game and did a superb job of containing Natasha Cloud. But without Jones on the court to clean up the glass, the Sun struggled to generate offense, forcing Miller to call her number once again. When the final buzzer sounded, “The Bahamian Beast” had scored 32 points and collected 18 records — a WNBA Finals record. Even more impressive? Nine of her rebounds were off the offensive glass, also a WNBA postseason record.
To keep things lively, Jones also recorded three blocks.
A timely deep two from Jasmine Thomas gave the Sun even more breathing room. Jones picked up her fifth foul and Meesseman took note, telling her teammates, “She’s got five fouls.” But it didn’t matter. Jones completed a cutting layup with 41 seconds left. Meesseman answered on the other end with a fadeaway jumper. Not to be outdone, “The Bahamian Beast” got the last word: a three-pointer with seven seconds on the clock.
A look ahead to Game 3
The series moves to Connecticut for Game 3 on Sunday. The four-day break between competition will be important to both teams.
Does the Delle Donne injury mean postseason déjà vu?
Mystics coach Mike Thibault said in his postgame presser that Delle Donne will get an MRI on Wednesday to determine the nature of her injury. According to him, she rose up, came down and immediately asked to be subbed out.
“It didn’t look good,” he said.
The Mystics fought hard in the absence of their league MVP but emotionally seemed the most subdued we’ve seen them at any point this postseason. Her early exit must hearken to last year’s postseason fate: Delle Donne’s hyperextended knee in the semifinals and the Mystics’ loss via three-game sweep in the Finals. If Delle Donne can’t play, everything changes for the Mystics, who have the talent to win without her as they’ve done for stretches this season but who perhaps lack the confidence to do so.
When will the big minutes for the Sun starters become just too much?
The Sun bench contributed an unacceptable nine points in Game 2 (to the Mystics’ 52). So, for Connecticut, it’s a matter of getting rest for the starters. Holmes scored those nine points, while Tuck went scoreless in just under seven minutes before Miller nixed his experiment with her. If her shot wasn’t falling, helping with defense would have justified keeping her on the floor. But goose eggs across the box score for -13 forced the team to stay with the starters, including Alyssa Thomas, whose 40 minutes resulted in an impressive 21 points, 12 rebounds (six on offense, six on defense) and six assists.
Twenty-three of the Mystics bench’s 52 points came from Meesseman, who clocked 36 minutes in Delle Donne’s absence. But Hawkins (16 points) and Powers (11 points) also scored in double figures. With Delle Donne or without her, the Sun will not have a cakewalk, not even at Mohegan Sun, where they have the best home record in the league. The Sun bench needs to contribute something to keep the starters from flaming out from fatigue.
Game 3 tips off on Sunday, Oct. 6, at 3:30 p.m. ET (ABC), with potential for a major momentum swing and everything on the line.