Pressure's on forwards as series shifts to West Coast
UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- It's the magic of basketball that a single shooter, the kid sending jumpers slinking through chain nets in the playground at dusk or bouncing off the dirt of a farm driveway, can transcend 40-plus minutes of sweat, strategy, and screw-ups from two championship-caliber teams. Brooke Wyckoff's 3-pointer in the closing seconds of regulation did just that on Thursday night, sparking Connecticut's overtime onslaught for a 77-70 victory to level the series.
But it's the reality of basketball that when the Sun and Monarchs renew the series in Sacramento on Sunday (ABC, 4 p.m. ET), everything that came before Wyckoff's heroics will matter far more than her shining moment. And for either team to move forward toward a title, its frontcourt must perform at a higher level than on Thursday night.
Much of the talk between now and Sunday will revolve around how much, if anything, point guard Lindsay Whalen, who missed Game 2, can contribute for Connecticut, and what Ticha Penicheiro, who totaled two assists and four turnovers in 21 ineffective minutes on Thursday, has left in her own battered body. But after two games in two days, both teams must know that neither floor general is going to be at full strength in this series.
Certainly, Whalen or Penicheiro at full steam could have changed the outcome on Thursday, but neither was responsible for what did transpire. Thanks to Wyckoff, that burden rests with Sacramento forwards Nicole Powell and Rebekkah Brunson, but it could just as easily have fallen on Connecticut's Margo Dydek and Asjha Jones.
For one brief moment in the second half, catching an entry pass before spinning to the basket and drawing a foul, Jones showed the skills that make her the Sun's only true post threat other than Taj McWilliams-Franklin. But for the remaining 22 minutes she played, Jones was a non-factor for the second game in a row.
As for Dydek, coach Mike Thibault claimed her sparse time on the court was due to matchups, saying, "Our team has learned over the course of two years, I'm going to go with the defensive matchups I like."
But it's difficult to imagine what sight, save Sacramento sending a tree to the scorer's table, would have inspired him to trust a player who has looked passive and immobile during the first two games.
Sacramento coach John Whisenant said his entire team wasn't "active, alert and intense." The starting-forward tandem of Powell and Brunson still managed to stand out for the wrong reasons.
Powell's outside shooting wasn't a problem, but her shot selection inside the arc and defensive presence both faded in and out all night. And Brunson, a whirling dervish of intensity and defense in the opener, spent most of Thursday watching from the bench in foul trouble. Question the officials all you want, but Brunson was the one putting herself in the position to get called for her fourth foul just 16 seconds into the second half.
Whalen and Penicheiro aren't going to save their respective teams. McWilliams-Franklin and Yolanda Griffith, mistakes and all, are already playing at the peak of passion and near the peak of production. They can't do much more.
Someone will step up for one of these teams and change the shape of a series that essentially came down to two 3-pointers -- one missed by Whalen in Game 1 and one made by Wyckoff on Thursday -- in the first two games. The quartet of Jones, Dydek, Powell and Brunson all possess the skill to be that spark, so who will it be?
Guarding a three-point lead in the final seconds of regulation, the Monarchs should have given up the layup when Taj McWilliams-Franklin got the ball near the foul line. There was no reason for Sacramento to double-team, no reason for the Monarchs to stick with their white-line defense. In that situation, you must guard the perimeter. That's Basketball 101, and it's unthinkable that the Monarchs' DeMya Walker and Kara Lawson both left their players on the weak side to close in on McWilliams-Franklin. Walker, who left Brooke Wyckoff -- who ended up wide open and hit the game-tying 3-pointer that forced overtime -- is no doubt kicking herself for the defensive breakdown.
To Connecticut's credit, the Sun played unbelievable basketball, and put in a performance that's the epitome of playing hard from buzzer to buzzer, for 40-plus minutes. They also "fixed" all the things that went wrong in Game 2. They got to the foul line 22 times, shot the ball well (42.4 percent from the field and 44.4, or 8-for-18, from 3-point range), had 13 turnovers (compared to 11 in the second half alone in Game 1), got 15 points from their bench and got big-time performances from Taj McWilliams-Franklin (24 points), Nykesha Sales (19) and Katie Douglas (16), who combined for 59 of their 77 points (76.6 percent).
Sacramento just didn't take care of its possessions. Shooting guard Nicole Powell, in particular, had some suspect shot selection, especially her airball from 18 feet that helped set off a 5-0 Connecticut run -- all scored in a 16-second span! -- in an overtime period the Monarchs failed to score in.
Guards Jennifer Derevjanik and Jamie Carey did just fine in Lindsay Whalen's absence. The key was that they did not hurt Connecticut. They both finished with just three points, but were solid and combined for only four turnovers in 45 minutes.
-- ESPN analyst Nancy Lieberman
Fans of the Pistons might have recognized the play that led to Brooke Wyckoff's clutch 3-pointer. According to ESPN's Nancy Lieberman, it's an old play called "fade" that Detroit used to run for Joe Dumars and Grant Hill. Off the inbounds pass, it's designed to give you three or four options, including reversing the ball to a 3-point shooter. With his team trailing by three points, Sun coach Mike Thibault called the play and "the Sun executed it perfectly," Lieberman said.
Out of a timeout with 8.6 seconds on the clock, Nykesha Sales inbounded the ball to Katie Douglas. Then with Taj McWilliams-Franklin setting a backscreen, Sales stepped toward Douglas as if they were going to hand off the ball. At that point, two Monarchs defenders stepped toward Sales, so Douglas dished the ball to McWilliams-Franklin, who had rolled out to the foul line.
Sacramento should have forced McWilliams-Franklin to settle for a two-point field goal attempt or put the ball down and dribble, which would have taken more time off the clock.
Instead, as Sacramento's DeMya Walker rushed McWilliams-Franklin to contest a shot, McWilliams-Franklin swung the ball to her right -- where Walker had been a second earlier on the back line of Sacramento's famed white-line defense -- and a wide-open Wyckoff (see Lieberman's ESPN Take at left for more on Sacramento's defensive breakdown). Sacramento's Kara Lawson tried to recover and get a hand in Wyckoff's face, but it wasn't enough.
"Thibault's an incredible strategic coach who has used this play before, and he does a fantastic job managing his team," Lieberman said. "I also liked that he kept it simple in overtime, didn't try to come up with a whole lot of strategy. He just let Connecticut play off its momentum."
-- Melanie Jackson,
Special to ESPN.com
Taj McWilliams-Franklin, Connecticut
Sacramento's posts dominated the paint in Game 1. McWilliams-Franklin made sure it didn't happen again Thursday. The Sun forward tallied 24 points and 16 rebounds. Both were game highs. But McWilliams-Franklin's timing was especially key. She opened the overtime period with two huge defensive rebounds, then 1 minute, 10 seconds into the extra period she nailed what ended up being the game-winner, a 17-foot jumper that gave the Sun a 72-70 lead. But her rebound a couple minutes later was monumental. After Nicole Powell forced an 18-footer -- despite plenty of time on the shot clock -- McWilliams-Franklin grabbed the airball and found Nykesha Sales on the fast break for an easy layup at the other end. The Sun led by just four points, but the play seemed to completely take the wind out of Sacramento's sails. McWilliams-Franklin was credited with four defensive rebounds in the five-minute overtime period.
“It's evenly matched teams, same type of players across the board, their focus is defense, our focus is on our offensive execution. So I think all the games in the series are going to look like this. Two points here or three points there could win or lose the game. ”
— Taj McWilliams-Franklin
|For the second straight night, the honor goes to Connecticut's Brooke Wyckoff. But unlike Wednesday when she earned the distinction for dubious reasons -- distracted by something away from the action, Wyckoff looked away just as the official released a jump ball, and instead of a chance to erase a one-point deficit, the Sun found themselves running back on defense and never regained the lead in Game 1's 69-65 loss -- Wyckoff walked away a hero Thursday. Kara Lawson nailed two foul shots with 8.6 seconds to play in regulation to give the Monarchs a three-point lead. But after a timeout, Wyckoff (a 42 percent shooter from downtown in the regular season) answered with a 3-pointer from the right baseline off a Jamie Carey pass with just 2.0 seconds left, knotting the score at 70 and forcing overtime. An airball from Sacramento's Nicole Powell with 1:59 left in the extra period (see sidebar, left) was equally detrimental to Sacramento's success, but Wyckoff's trey truly paved the way for the Sun to even the series.|
|In their regular-season series against Sacramento, the Sun were ... awful from downtown. Connecticut shot just 15.4 percent (4 of 26) from 3-point range, including a 1-for-14 performance in the first meeting. But in the WNBA Finals, the Sun are hitting 41.2 percent (14 of 34) of their treys, and were 8-of-18 Thursday. Nykesha Sales leads the way, hitting 7-of-12 from beyond the arc in the series.|
|Since the Sun arrived in Connecticut, from Orlando, fans at Mohegan Sun have earned a reputation for favoring former UConn stars, sometimes at the expense of the home team. But accusations that Sun fans only know the names of former Huskies are unfounded. They also remember former Lady Volunteers. Showing there is no statute of limitations on the biggest rivalry in women's basketball, Sun fans greeted Kara Lawson's name with a chorus of boos not once or twice, but every time the former Tennessee guard's name was announced. Geno Auriemma, on hand for ESPN's broadcast, must have been secretly smiling.|
|The hard part now for Sacramento coach John Whisenant, ESPN's Nancy Lieberman says, is to spin this loss the right way so that the Monarchs don't get down. He needs to remind them they actually got what they came for: When they left Sacramento, they talked about splitting the two games at Mohegan Sun. That's what they did.|
SUNDAY, SEPT. 18:
Game 3: Sun at Monarchs, ABC, 4 p.m. ET
TUESDAY, SEPT. 20:
THURSDAY, SEPT. 22:
* If necessary
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