Professional Basketball

Liberty Buries Sun in Quarter 1, Take Series Lead


New York Liberty center Jonquel Jones and Connecticut Sun forward DeWanna Bonner do battle during Friday night’s WNBA Semifinal Game 3 at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn. Photo by James C. Garman/Sportspage Magazine

The New York Liberty began Friday’s WNBA Finals Game 3 on a high gear, taking a 20-2 first quarter run that the Connecticut Sun could not overcome, as the Liberty downed the Sun 91-81 in front of 9,162 at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn.

Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu canned a three-pointer after the opening tip for the game’s first points, but the Sun held tough in front of their home crowd. The teams traded baskets in the first few minutes, with New York holding a lead that fluctuated between one and six points.

With the score 10-8 in favor of the Liberty, Ionescu fired off another three-pointer with 5:45 remaining in the quarter to extend the New York lead to five. Then her teammates chimed in with scores of their own. Guard Courtney Vandersloot scored on a layup, then stole a pass from Sun guard Tyasha Harris which she converted into a three-foot bank shot. Forward Breanna Stewart and forward Betnijah Laney each scored twice, and Vandersloot converted two free shots. When the run was over, New York held a commanding 28-10 lead with 2:27 remaining in the opening quarter. The only response from the Sun was a layup from guard Tiffany Hayes.

Connecticut forward Alyssa Thomas tried to rally the Sun back from the run but each time she made a basket, the Liberty answered with one of their own. The score was 37-16 in favor of the Liberty when the quarter ended.

The challenge was on for the Sun to use the remaining three quarters to chip away at the 21-point deficit to get back into the ballgame. Forward DeWanna Bonner connected on two free throws, which was followed by a layup from center Oliva Nelson-Ododa as the second quarter began.

New York Liberty forward Breanna Stewart attempts a jump shot with Connecticut Sun forward Alyssa Thomas in her face during Friday night’s WNBA Semifinal Game 3 at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn. Photo by James C. Garman/Sportspage Magazine

Connecticut went on a 6-2 run with a layup from guard Tiffany Hayes, layup from Nelson-Ododa and a field goal from forward Alyssa Thomas, which was answered by a 7-0 run by New York as guard Marine Johannes scored on a three-point shot, followed by baskets from Stewart and Laney. New York led 48-26 with 4:38 remaining in the half, which would be their largest lead of the game.

The Sun finally got things going in the right direction. Hayes converted two free throws and a three-pointer. Harris hit on a three-pointer, a jump shot and a layup. Bonner nailed a jump shot. The 14-4 Sun run ended when New York center Jonquel Jones scored on a put back layup as time expired in the quarter. New York led 54-40 at the half.

Bonner and Laney traded baskets to begin the third quarter. Then came the drought. Both teams combined to miss the next six consecutive shots over the next 2:10 when Connecticut’s Hayes scored on a floater. Then Thomas scored on a layup and was fouled by Liberty’s Harris. After the free throw, the score was 57-47 in favor of the Liberty. The Sun only had a ten point deficit with 6:48 left in the third quarter.

The Liberty didn’t take too kindly to the Sun making it a contest, and went on a 9-1 run of their own with scores from Ionescu, Jones, Laney and Stewart. The lead was back to 18 with the score 66-48 with 3:40 left in the quarter.

Sun forward Alyssa Thomas took the moment to rally her team. She scored the next three baskets for Connecticut which led to a 11-2 Connecticut run to trim the deficit to nine. Breanna Stewart scored on a layup with 25.1 second left in the frame to give the Liberty the 72-61 led at the end of the third quarter.

Connecticut Sun guard Natisha Hiedeman shoots a short jumper as New York Liberty forward Betnijah Laney tries to defend during Friday nights WNBA Semifinals Game 3 at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn. Photo by James C. Garman/Sportspage Magazine

New York opened the fourth on an 8-2 run, which forced the Sun to call timeout with 8:20 left in regulation. Now the Sun were fighting the Liberty and the game clock in their final push at victory.

The best they could muster was trading baskets. Thomas hit a jumper. Vandersloot answered with a layup. Thomas scored on a layup. Laney hit a three-pointer. When time expired, the Liberty still maintained an 11 point edge. New York won 92-81 to take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five series.

New York shot 38-for-76 from the field (50 percent); 9-for-26 from three-point range (34.6 percent) and was a perfect 7-for-7 from the free throw line. They turned the ball over 13 times for 17 Connecticut points.

“We missed a lot of threes,” said Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello. “This game wouldn’t have been close if we made some of the missed layups and the open threes. I’m just proud about how we shared [the ball] and got ready to play. It really is about mindset and that’s what it’s going to be in the next game as well.”

The Sun went 33-for-70 from the field (47.1 percent); 5-for-16 from beyond the arc (31.2 percent) and 10-for-11 from the charity stripe (90.9 percent). They turned the ball over 12 times which led to 12 Liberty points.

“Disappointed in the way we started the game. I feel like our energy level from the beginning was really poor for whatever reason,” said Sun head coach Stephanie White. “I’m proud of our group from the 2nd through 4th quarters but that’s not good enough when you are playing for an opportunity to go to the Finals. It’s unacceptable in the way that we started the game. There’s no doubt about it. That’s on all of us.”

New York held a 50-48 edge in points-in-the-paint; 15-13 in second chance points; and 15-8 in fast break points.

Connecticut Sun forward Alyssa Thomas attempts a jump shot as New York Liberty forward Breanna Stewart tries to defend during Friday night’s WNBA Semifinals game at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn. Thomas led the Sun in scoring, rebounding and assists, but fell one rebound short of a triple double. Photo by James C. Garman/Sportspage Magazine

“Teams are going to make runs when you’re up so much in the first quarter. You know they’re going to make a run,” said Brondello. “[Our players] were locked in. You could hear them talking on the bench to each other and making sure that the focus was where it needed to be. Even when they made runs, we didn’t get too high or too low. We knew what we needed to do. We needed to buckle down and make sure we had better execution.”

Breanna Stewart led the Liberty with 25 points and Betnijah Laney added 20. Jonquel Jones led all rebounders with 12, and Courtney Vandersloot led in the assists category with seven.

“We wanted to run in transition whenever we could and we were mixing up a few different defenses to make it tough on them,” said Stewart. “Whenever we got the ball we just pushed it.”

Connecticut was led by 23 points from Alyssa Thomas, while Tiffany Hayes chipped in 16. Thomas led the Sun with nine rebounds, and also had a game-high 14 assists. She fell one rebound shy of a triple double.

“Going into a deficit like that in the first half, we had to expend a lot of energy to fight and claw our way back. I think it definitely does affect us in that way, having to try to claw our way back in,” said Sun center Olivia Nelson-Ododa. “I’m proud of our whole team in continuing to fight and not give up and having that aggressive mentality.”

The winner of this series will go on to face the Las Vegas Aces in the WNBA Finals. Game 4 between the Liberty and Sun will be held on Sunday at 3 p.m. ET/2 p.m. CT from Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn.

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