An upset announced the beginning of the WNBA’s semifinal action on Sunday afternoon. After losing all four regular-season contests, the No. 3 seed Connecticut Sun defeated the No. 2 seed New York Liberty in Brooklyn, 78-63.
Out in Las Vegas, a competitive first half between the No. 4 seed Dallas Wings and No. 1 seed Las Vegas Aces turned into a rout, with the Aces rolling to the 97-83 win.
Sun eclipse Liberty with shutdown defense
Although the two MVP candidates—Breanna Stewart and Alyssa Thomas—took the top billing, Game 1 was a battle between two teams, with both scheming and strategizing to eliminate the other’s advantages.
Instantly, it was clear that Connecticut intended to make Stewart and Sabrina Ionescu fight for their offense. As Thomas stuck to Stewart, the Sun sent doubles at Ionescu, in addition to putting longer defenders in Rebecca Allen and DiJonai Carrington on her. In the first quarter, Ionescu did get loose for a pair of quick-trigger 3s, but Thomas was effective in shutting down Stewart, preventing her from scoring from the field.
Yet, Connecticut’s approach opened the door for former Sun Jonquel Jones, who was matched up with the much slighter DeWanna Bonner. New York exploited the mismatch, with Jones going 4-for-4 from the field in the first quarter for eight of her team-best 10 first-half points. The Liberty, however, trailed at the first quarter’s close, 25-21, because of too many turnovers, which the Sun quickly turned into scores. Allen had a pair of steals and a pair of 3s that helped Connecticut establish their early lead.
Once New York began to take better care of the ball, they started to chip into Connecticut’s advantage. Forced to create in the half court, the Sun had a harder time putting points on the board, although Allen found enough cracks in the Liberty defense to rise for several midrangers that contributed to her team-high 12 first-half points. Stewart, unsurprisingly, still put her imprint on the game. In the half’s final seconds, she swatted a Thomas shot before hitting a midrange runner that gave the Liberty the 40-37 halftime edge.
The Sun came out roaring and ready in the third quarter, reeling off a 14-2 run to take a nine-point lead. Natisha Hiedeman, who has had a thus far quiet playoffs, swished a pair of 3s, while Bonner and Tiffany Hayes converted tough buckets. On the other end, Connecticut continued to apply intense pressure on Ionescu.
Although Connecticut cooled after their furious start to the second half, the game’s physicality heated up. The Sun, of course, are in their comfort zone when bodies and fouls are flying. They prevented the Liberty from going on one of their signature scoring flurries, while Allen continued to cause trouble for her former team by draining two more 3s. A Bonner buzzer beater gave Connecticut a 10-point lead, 65-55, heading into the final frame.
The buzzer beater electrified Bonner, who, after a mostly inefficient afternoon, began the fourth quarter with two more buckets, giving her the Sun’s last eight points and Connecticut a 15-point advantage.
Minutes later, Stewart appeared poised to ease into a breakaway layup when Hiedeman chased her down and knocked away the attempt. If Swaggy’s swat on Stewie didn’t suggest that things were beginning to go Connecticut’s way, then Stewart’s subsequent wedgie did, as her open jumper resulted in the ball getting stuck between the rim and backboard. From there, New York’s offense, which was a scoring machine for much of the second half of the season, seemed increasingly unsettled by Connecticut’s determined and detailed defense. Among others, Olivia Nelson-Ododa provided valuable defensive contributions for Connecticut, with the sophomore giving the Sun the additional size needed to slow Jones, who scored four second-half points.
Scoring only eight total points in the fourth quarter, New York never mustered a final push, allowing Connecticut to coast to the 15-point win, 78-63. Behind 15 second-half points, Bonner finished with a game-high 20 points, with Allen adding 18 points. Thomas had eight points, 10 assists and seven rebounds. Stewart led New York with 19 points, albeit on 25 shots. Jones ended the afternoon with a double-double of 14 points and 11 rebounds. Ionescu had 12 points.
Wilson wows once again as Aces roll against Wings
Amidst a choppy beginning to Game 1, reigning MVP and back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year A’ja Wilson asserted her presence. She patrolled the paint on the defensive end, rejecting three shots in the first quarter. It was no coincidence that 2023 Most Improved Player Satou Sabally glided to the rim for her first points soon after Wilson exited in the first quarter’s final seconds.
Wilson also scored half of her team’s 20 first-quarter points, while Jackie Young contributed a pair of 3s and a long 2. Otherwise, the Aces struggled to find an offensive rhythm in the first period. Dallas remained in close contact due to the effort exerted by Natasha Howard and Teaira McCowan. The pair battled through Wilson and a swarming Aces defense for points in the paint, helping the Wings trail only by a single point, 20-19, after the first.
The game’s offensive flow picked up in the second quarter. After a scoreless first, Arike Ogunbowale scored five quick points. Then, Wilson took things up another notch. Returning to the court early in the second, she almost instantly scored six more points, extending the Vegas advantage to seven points. With the Wings now very much worried about Wilson, Kelsey Plum temporarily took over the scoring load, scoring 10 of the Aces’ next 12 points.
Vegas, however, could not pull away, as the likes of Sabally, Crystal Dangerfield, Howard and Kalani Brown answered with timely buckets, eventually cutting the margin to four points, 49-45, at the half.
But in the third quarter, there was too much Wilson for the Wings. She remained everywhere on defense and scored in a variety of ways on offense. Despite their interior size and overall athleticism, Dallas could not slow Wilson, who powered through defenders for points in the half court and ran the court for easy transition scores. Her 14 points in the quarter were more than the entire Wings team. Behind Wilson, Vegas lead 75-57 entering the fourth.
Dallas did not quit, cutting the Vegas advantage to nine points approximately two minutes into the final frame. But then Wilson returned to the court—and the Wings never threatened again. Both Sabally and Ogunbowale experienced inefficient afternoons; Sabally finished with a team-high 16 points on 14 shots, while Ogunbowale had 12 points on 14 shots. The Wings also were unable to flex the rebounding advantage they enjoy over most teams, as they were outrebounded by the Aces 36-29.
Wilson concluded the contest with 34 points on 71.4 percent shooting; she also added eight rebounds, four blocks and two steals. With five 3s, Plum scored 25 points on the afternoon. Young stuffed the box score with 19 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists and two steals.
And so the Aces cruised to the 97-83 Game 1 victory.