Prior to the start of Sunday’s game against the Seattle Storm, Connecticut Sun head coach and general manager Curt Miller said he wasn’t sure how much his players had “in the tank.”
The Sun were playing their third game in four days, each in a different city on the West Coast with travel in between.
The wear and tear of the recent stretch showed, especially early on, but Connecticut (9-3) fought past the fatigue to escape with a 93-86 victory over Seattle (5-5) at Climate Pledge Arena.
“I can’t begin to compliment these guys enough for their toughness, their will, their determination,” Miller said. “When we looked at the schedule, at this road trip playing nine games in 17 days and ending with three in the last four, I just didn’t even comprehend that we could sweep these three. So it’s just an unbelievably gutty performance by our players, and another fourth quarter where there was just a determination to find the way to the finish line.”
Jonquel Jones led the Sun in scoring with 25 points, also recording eight rebounds and six assists. DeWanna Bonner had 21 points and shot 6 of 9 on 3-point attempts. Brionna Jones also recorded 21 points, along with seven rebounds and four assists off the bench. Alyssa Thomas grabbed 11 rebounds and dished 12 assists, in addition to scoring eight points, while DiJonai Carrington had 12 points.
The Storm jumped out to a sizable lead early. Looking a step slow from the opening tip, Connecticut allowed Seattle to shoot 66.7% from the field in the first quarter, at the end of which it trailed 26-20.
“I think the first half was the hardest part,” Jonquel Jones said of the fatigue. “Just getting our bodies to really be locked in and just getting to that game level.”
The deficit may have been more if not for the play of Carrington and Brionna Jones off the bench. The duo combined for 13 points without a single miss in the opening frame.
“Bri’s doing what Breezy does, what she’s been doing for years,” Jonquel Jones said of Brionna Jones. “But to have her from her in that [off the bench] role, it really is invaluable. You can’t really put a number on it. You can’t really properly articulate how important it is for us because I was not ready. I ain’t gonna lie. I was not ready. I felt it. And to have Breezy be able to step in… it’s amazing for us. We need it.”
With 4:19 left in the second quarter and Connecticut facing its biggest deficit of the afternoon, trailing Seattle by 13 points, Miller called a timeout. It was a different game from there, as the Sun suddenly found life and went on a 14-2 run to end the quarter. Jonquel Jones scored six of those points, also assisting on a bucket.
“With our veteran lineups that we have, we find a way … even when we’re down to not panic or anything,” Brionna Jones said. “We were setting in, finding our place and scoring, getting stops when we needed to.”
The Sun trailed 43-42 at halftime. At that point, after the impressive run, it looked like Connecticut players had fought past fatigue and were ready to take control of the game. But that wasn’t the case.
The Storm opened the third quarter on a 10-2 run behind the play of Sue Bird. She splashed home a 3-pointer to open the quarter and hit another less than two minutes later to extend Seattle’s lead to 53-44 and force Miller to call a timeout.
The Sun couldn’t regroup for a run following the timeout as they did in the first half, instead trailing 67-61 at the end of the third quarter. But they found their groove to open the fourth.
Bonner and Carrington drained back-to-back 3-pointers to tie the score with under nine minutes left. Connecticut regained the lead for the first time since the first minute off a Jonquel Jones layup shortly after, which she followed with a triple.
“From there we really dominated the fourth quarter and the paint,” Miller said, “and we just hung in there.”
After opening the fourth quarter with a 16-2 run, the Sun led 77-69 with under six minutes left. They managed to hold on from there, winning their third straight game on this stretch despite a late push from the Storm to make it a four-point game with under two minutes left.
“I feel like in the past, we knew that we were a pretty team,” Jonquel Jones said. “We knew that when things were going well for us, we were going to win a game. And I feel like we didn’t really know how we were in terms of adversity, because in the past we would separate a little bit or things just wouldn’t feel the same, like that chemistry would kind of just go away.
“And so I feel like this stretch that we just played, it showed us that we can win ugly games, that we can come back from deficits and still be able to stay in the game and win. And so, it’s a good character builder for our team for sure.”
How former UConn stars fared
Bird started for the Storm after sitting out the last two games because of health and safety protocols.
The WNBA’s all-time assists leader is one of five Seattle players to deal with COVID-19 issues so far this season, with fellow former UConn star Breanna Stewart out for two games in May. With Bird and center Ezi Magbegor back in action along with center Mercedes Russell recently returning from a non-basketball related injury, the Storm had their full roster available for the first time this season.
Bird got off to a quick start. She assisted on two of the Storm’s first four baskets and then drained a 3-pointer from the corner. On the following possession, she took advantage of the Sun defense and drove to the basket for a layup. The Storm led 15-7 at the first half timeout in the first quarter, at which point Bird already had five points and two assists.
Bird, who said she had a headache and didn’t feel that well while recovering from COVID-19, finished with a season-high 17 points, including five 3-pointers on 50% shooting from deep. She also had six assists and two rebounds.
“I feel like I missed a lot of shots that I should’ve made, so that’s a little disappointing,” Bird said. “It is nice to see the ball go through the net, though, because obviously for me personally I haven’t really started the season off shooting well. So yeah, just going to keep trying to keep building on that.”
Stewart tallied 12 points, three assists and three rebounds, while fellow former Husky Gabby Williams had four points, four rebounds and three assists. Magbegor (not a UConn alum) made a big difference in her return for the Storm, too, recording a team-high 19 points, along with seven rebounds and three assists.