UNCASVILLE, Conn. — Connecticut checked off the first box on its post-season to-do list: winning a playoff game for the first time since 2012.
Alyssa Thomas had 22 points and grabbed 10 rebounds to lead a balanced Connecticut offence and the Sun opened the WNBA semifinals with an 84-75 win over the Los Angeles Sparks on Tuesday night.
Jasmine Thomas scored 19 points, Jonquel Jones had 16 and Courtney Williams had 15 for the second-seeded Sun, who had a bye for the first two rounds.
"We’ve been working toward this all season," said Alyssa Thomas, who also had five assists and four of the team’s nine steals. "Our first goal was to secure at top-two seed. Single game elimination has not been good to us and we finally put ourselves in a position where we can play a series and we’re more than ready. We’re hungry."
Candace Parker had 24 points and 10 rebounds, and Nneka Ogwumike added 20 points and 10 rebounds for the Sparks, who knocked off defending champion Seattle in the second round.
But the Sun forced the Sparks into 17 turnovers and Los Angeles’ starting backcourt of Riquna Williams and Chelsea Gray were a combined 3 of 17 from the floor.
"We have a third and fourth, fifth person that’s capable of scoring points," said Sparks first-year coach Derek Fisher. "But we couldn’t sustain it, particularly from our backcourt."
Connecticut trailed by three points at halftime, but scored the first nine points of the third quarter. A layup by Courtney Williams just before that quarter’s buzzer sent the Sun into the final 10 minutes up 59-58.
Connecticut never trailed in the fourth. A key 3-pointer from Jones gave the Sun a seven-point lead with 4 minutes remaining and the home team outscored the Sparks 25-17 over the final 10 minutes.
The Sun, who lost their final two regular-season games, had not played since Sept. 8 and missed their first four shots.
But Alyssa Thomas quickly found her form, scoring the Sun’s first nine points and had 13 as Connecticut took a 21-14 lead after a quarter.
"I wouldn’t say we came out slow, we actually came out really fast, unsettled, rushing shots, being too anxious to shoot instead of just getting settled," said Jasmine Thomas. "She settled us. She took the ball, took over, got us going downhill."
Connecticut led by as many as 11 points in the second, before Nneka Ogwumike led the Sparks back. She had 13 points in the half, hitting six of her seven shots as LA took a 40-37 lead into intermission.
Connecticut has used the predictions of pundits as motivation for the post-season, making promos using the Tweets of "experts" saying they don’t have a superstar and picking against them in the series. The team sold T-shirts in the arena Tuesday that read DisrespeCT, with the CT highlighted.
"We’ve got All Stars; we’ve got the league’s best 3-point shooter," said Jasmine Thomas. "I don’t know what it’s going to take to turn us into big names. But we can’t control that. We can’t control what people think about us. We can’t control what people say. But how we believe in ourselves in this locker room is what we feed off of. It’s what makes us special."
This was Chiney Ogwumike’s first playoff game in Connecticut since the former Sun star was granted a trade to LA in the off-season. She was booed loudly when the lineups were announced and each time she touched the ball.
"It’s sort of surreal," said the younger Ogwumike, who finished with four points and four fouls in 15 minutes. "The first time I came back here they booed and I guess it hurt me a little bit, because this place meant so much to me. But I understand why. What I just learned is that for 40 minutes they are going boo, but afterward there is still a lot of love. At least, that’s what I’m leaning on."
Sun: Connecticut has won 24 games this season, the most since 2012, which also happens to be the last time the franchise was in the conference semifinals. The team lost in the conference finals that year and has had just two playoff games since, losing to Phoenix in the first round each of the last two seasons.
Sparks: Los Angeles won two out of three from the Sun in the regular season, but fall to 1-2 in Connecticut.
The teams return to the Mohegan Sun arena on Thursday for Game 2 of the best-of-five series.