The Connecticut Sun drew first blood in the first round of the 2023 WNBA Playoffs when they shellacked the Minnesota Lynx 90-60 in front of an announced crowd of 5,056 at Mohegan Sun Arena on Wednesday night.
Sun guard Tiffany Hayes took it upon herself to get things started right off the bat. She connected on a bank shot for a three-pointer to start the game, when her teammate, forward DeWanna Bonner scored a three-pointer. After a layup by Lynx forward Dorka Juhasz, Hayes scored yet another three-pointer to put Connecticut up 9-2 in the game’s first three minutes.
After the quick start, the pace slowed down as neither team could get their shots to drop.
With the score 14-5 in favor of Connecticut after a three-pointer by Sun guard Natisha Hiedeman with 3:38 left on the clock, Minnesota forward Napheesa Collier was fouled by Hayes. Collier hit both free throws to cut the deficit to seven. Then her teammate woke up.
Lynx guard Kayla McBride hit a hook shot, which was answered by Sun forward Alyssa Thomas’s cutting layup. Then McBride connected on a jump shot followed by a three-pointer. Thomas answered with a turnaround hook shot. McBride finished the scoring in the quarter with a 16-foot floater. The quarter ended with the Sun holding onto an 18-16 led. McBride scored the last nine points for Minnesota.
When play resumed, Minnesota guard Aerial Powers was fouled by Sun guard Rebecca Allen. Powers made both free throws and the score was tied 18-18.
Sun guard Tyasha Harris scored on a jumper, which gave the home team the lead, but Hayes fouled McBride. Her free throws tied the score again. Thirty seconds later, Lynx forward Nikolina Milic went to the free throw line after being fouled by Sun center Olivia Nelson-Ododa. Her two free throws gave the Lynx the 22-20 lead with 8:35 remaining in the half.
Nelson-Ododa tied the game at 22-22 with her layup, which was answered by Lynx forward Bridget Carleton’s fadeaway jumper with 7:46 left in the half. It would be Minnesota’s last lead in the game.
Connecticut stepped on the gas. Harris hit back to back three-pointers. Bonner hit a trey. Hayes hit a triple. The only answer from the Lynx was a two-point jumper from guard Rachel Banham. Connecticut’s 12-2 run was only stopped when Hayes fouled Juhasz, who went one-for-two from the charity stripe. Connecticut held a comfortable 34-27 lead with 4:12 left in the half.
For the Sun, the free throw attempts by Juhasz would be a quick breather before they continued a much larger run. This time it was forward DiJonal Carrington who took over the game. She scored on a layup and was fouled by Lynx guard Diamond Miller for the and-one. She then hit two back-to-back layups in transition and then Thomas hit a jumper. It was 43-27 with 1:28 left on the clock and the Sun holding onto a 16 point lead.
McBride tried willing the Lynx to halftime by hitting a three-pointer that ended the Connecticut run, and Carleton scored on a layup thirty seconds later. The Sun’s Allen hit on a three-pointer just before halftime. It was 46-32 in favor of Connecticut at the halftime break.
The third quarter appeared to be a repeat of the second quarter. Connecticut began on a 10-4 run and Minnesota was forced to take a timeout to regroup with 7:06 on the clock and the Sun with the 56-36 lead.
Coming out of the timeout, Lynx forward Collier began to assert herself more on offense, but each time she scored, the Sun had an answer. The quarter ended with Connecticut leading 69-52.
The Lynx were plagued by turnovers and missed shots in the fourth quarter as they attempted to come back from such a large deficit. Minnesota went 3-for-16 for only 18.8 percent in the fourth quarter. Sun guard Rebecca Allen had five three-pointers on the night, including three in the fourth quarter. The Sun buried the Lynx 90-60 to take Game 1 on their home court.
Connecticut shot 33-for-70 from the field (47.1 percent); 16-for-30 in three point shooting (53.3 percent); and 8-for-12 in free throws (66.7 percent). They turned the ball over 13 times which led to nine Minnesota points.
“I think it’s the closest we’ve been all season to 40 consistent minutes,” said Sun head coach Stephanie White. “We had a little bit of a lull in the third when they got going and we got a little soft defensively, but we answered it.”
Minnesota shot 21-for-60 from the field (35 percent); 5-for-25 in three point shooting (20 percent); and 13-for-16 from the charity stripe (81.2 percent). Connecticut was able to turn the Lynx 19 turnovers into 30 points, which was the difference in the game’s final score.
“It seems like we were surprised at Connecticut’s aggression for some reason,” said Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve. “We didn’t see anything that we didn’t think we were going to see. We just didn’t handle it. Awfully disappointing.”
The Sun led Minnesota 26-22 in points-in-the-paint; 12-3 in second chance points; and 16-3 in fast break points. Connecticut had assists in 28 of their 33 shots while the Lynx dished out 13 dimes on their 21 shots.
“I really feel like we came out, especially on the defensive end of the floor, and we were just aggressive. We had a high level of intensity and action and that carried over offensively,” said White. “We certainly understand that the job is not done but it’s a good start.”
Reeve said, “Give them credit for how they came out and how aggressive they were. For some reason we were surprised by that. We’ve got to be more ready for it. We’ve got to be able to answer physically and mentally in the playoffs and when you play the Connecticut Sun.”
Connecticut forward DeWanna Bonner led all scorers with 17. Rebecca Allen and Alyssa Thomas each scored 15, Tiffany Hayes added 14 and Tyasha Harris chipped in 12 for the Sun. Bonner also led all rebounders with 15.
“It’s really nice when the ball is moving like that and defensively as well. When you feel so connected, it does make it a really enjoyable game,” said Allen. “It was a great job winning like we did, but let’s do it again.”
The Lynx were led by 16 points from Kayla McBride and Napheesa Collier added 14. Collier and Dorka Juhasz led Minnesota with six rebounds each.
“It’s really disappointing. I’m disappointed in myself,” said Collier. “It’s not how I wanted to come out for our first playoff game, so we’ll have to learn from it and do better next year.”
Both coaches know what to expect in playoff series like this one. They faced each other in the 2015 WNBA Finals when White was coaching the Indiana Fever and Reeve was in her fourth WNBA Finals at the helm of the Lynx. Reeve’s Lynx won the championship series 3-2 in a decisive Game 5 at Target Center.
“When you’re playing a great team, a well-balanced team and a well-coached team, you’ve got to try to play percentages. We knew that we had to force them into contested three’s. We couldn’t give them wide open ones,” said White.
“Of course you’ve got McBride. You’ve got to be on Phee [Collier]. Anybody can get hot at any moment but the priority is to contain the ball first…They’re all pro’s. They can knock down shots. We just wanted to make it as difficult as possible when they were taking those shots,” White added.
“We’ve had hard times before. We’ve gotten smacked before. We were 0-6. This team always gets up. We’re not going to not get up,” said Reeve. “The highs are high in a playoff series and the lows are lows. And so we’re low and obviously Connecticut is high. That’s the beauty of a series, the ups and the downs. We’re on to the next 40 minutes. That’s our mindset. We’ll see if we can be better.”
Reeve admitted that there was one thing bothering her in the entire game.
“I don’t know why we looked like we weren’t ready to go to another gear. Do we have another gear?” she asked. “We’re going to have to find that out about ourselves because that’s what’s necessary. That’s what we talk about a lot. This team hasn’t experienced this together so that was a lot of learning going on in that game.”
McBride admits that the Sun found another gear.
“I think they just found another gear. After that first quarter, I thought we hung tough but they came out and just had another gear. That’s what experienced teams do,” said McBride. “We know that they have another gear and now it’s time to show what gears we have.”
The Sun leads the Round 1 best-of-three series 1-0. Game 2 is slated for Sunday at Noon CT from Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn.