WNBA Today, 08/17/2011 (extra): You can go home again, but you might not enjoy it

Told you I’d be back with the final game from Tuesday night. Hope no one was holding on with bated breath, because it really wasn’t worth it. With Minnesota heading out to Connecticut, all the talk was about just one person – Maya Moore. Returning to the area where she had so much success in college, the first appearance of the WNBA’s presumptive Rookie of the Year back in Connecticut had helped the Sun sell out the Mohegan Sun Arena for this game. Moore’s team has had a couple of tight contests recently, and even dropped a game in Phoenix, but they’d still won 11 of their last 12 games. Hilariously, they’ve already won more games this year than the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves managed in the entire 2010-11 NBA season. The T-Wolves played 82 games; the Lynx only needed 23 to surpass their win total. However, the Sun won’t have been cowering at the prospect of facing the WNBA’s hottest team. 9-3 themselves in their last 12 games, Connecticut are still chasing after Indiana for the top spot in the East and have only lost twice at home all season. They won’t have wanted to make Moore’s homecoming a pleasant one.

The usual fives took the floor to start the game, without any fresh injuries or absences to report. Moore put a three in the air on her first touch of the ball, but when it rimmed out the stage was set for how the opening minutes were going to play out for her and the Lynx. Many of the fans may have showed up to see Moore, but it was the Sun they’d end up cheering for. Everything worked smoothly for Connecticut to start the game, at both ends of the floor. Tina Charles was grabbing every rebound in sight and scoring efficiently inside, performing far better than she has in most games where she’s faced Taj McWilliams-Franklin since turning pro. The Sun were moving the ball well, Renee Montgomery was far too quick for Lindsay Whalen to handle defensively, and the role players were all doing their jobs. Moore did at least sink her first bucket on a nice little bank shot a couple of minutes into the game, but the wave was coming. A 19-3 Connecticut run, featuring points from seven different Sun players, took them into a commanding 26-10 lead. They weren’t doing anything startling or dramatic, just executing nicely, hitting their shots and working hard on defense. Minnesota were struggling.

Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve went to her bench looking for a spark, but nothing materialised. While the likes of Kara Lawson, Kelsey Griffin and Allison Hightower came in for Connecticut and kept the momentum rolling, the Minnesota reserves weren’t any more effective than the starters had been. It was only once the Lynx starting five came back in during the second quarter that Minnesota finally began to discover a little offense. Whalen was the primary catalyst. While she had trouble with Montgomery’s speed defensively, Whalen consistently went by Montgomery at the other end and battled her way to the rim in the second quarter. She was the only thing keeping Minnesota vaguely in touch. With Asjha Jones knocking down jumpers, Charles and Montgomery still scoring inside and the bench continuing to produce for Connecticut, it was all Whalen could do to keep the Lynx within about 10. By halftime, Whalen had 16, but no help. A three from Lawson and some more smart play from Griffin added late points for Connecticut, and they finished one of their best halves of the season ahead 57-42.

It was just one of those days for Minnesota. They weren’t noticeably lackadaisical or disorganised, but they’d run into a Connecticut Sun team that were performing like a finely tuned machine. Shooting 58% from the floor in the first half, with 30 points in the paint, the Sun were producing from everywhere. Charles already had her customary double-double, Jones was making the most of the space opened up by all the attention Charles draws, and the Connecticut bench was 7-10 for 19 points as a group. In a half. This was going to take a remarkable turnaround for the Lynx to pull it out of the fire.

Minnesota did at least make a little push to start the second half. They were noticeably trying to pound the ball inside, looking for higher-percentage shots and forcing Charles and Jones to work harder defensively. But it didn’t really work. Connecticut had all the momentum and heaps of confidence by this stage, and they didn’t flinch in the face of an increased Lynx effort. Meanwhile, Moore was quickly replaced by Candice Wiggins after the ball slipped out of her hands and out of bounds on a drive early in the third quarter. Nothing was working out for the former UConn starlet on her first return to the state as a pro. As the third quarter wore on, Connecticut’s lead ultimately grew, with Lawson shooting smoothly from outside and Charles still dominant in the paint. They led 80-62 at the end of the third and there were no signs of a comeback.

After a pair of Lawson threes sandwiched yet another driving layup from Montgomery with five minutes to play, Reeve finally threw in the towel completely and sat all her starters. Considering her team was down by 27 at that point, it was hardly premature. The Sun eventually finished 108-79 winners, one of the more comprehensive victories the home crowd has ever witnessed at the Mohegan Sun.

That was just about the perfect game for Connecticut. They filled the arena with an enthusiastic crowd to welcome a former college star back to town, and probably turned a few UConn diehards into Sun fans along the way. The offense ran like clockwork all night, and everyone was knocking down their shots. Charles finished at 5-11 for 16 points and 18 rebounds, Montgomery 6-14 for 17 and seven assists, Jones 7-14 for 15, and the list just goes on. Lawson had 16 off the bench, Griffin 14, and the reserves as a group were 15-23 for 46 points. The vast majority of that came before the garbage time at the end of the game, so don’t imagine that those were cheap points either. Defensively, they did a superb job on the Lynx shooters, closing down the opportunities for Seimone Augustus and Moore on the wing, and making it hard to even get them the ball in the first place. That early bank shot turned out to be Moore’s only bucket of the night, scoring two points on 1-7 shooting. Spoilsports. Coach Mike Thibault will be absolutely delighted with how his team performed in this game, and won’t have any requests of his players except “keep doing that”. If they can maintain anything like that level of performance, they might well threaten Indiana’s place at the top of the East before the regular season is over.

For Minnesota, it’s hardly the end of the world to drop a game in a tough Eastern arena to a team that had everything working. Nothing went right, and that just happens some nights. Whalen was their only successful offensive weapon, scoring 20 points on 7-11 shooting, but they’re at their best when her points come within the flow of the offense while she’s looking for other people. In this game, she was the offense.

The one worry I have for the Lynx is whether McWilliams-Franklin is wearing down a little as the season goes on. She’s in extraordinary shape for a 40-year old center, but she’s averaging over 31 minutes per game this season. That’s a lot of miles to add to that body, and it does seem to have been a little easier to score against Minnesota in the paint lately. Sylvia Fowles had a huge game against them last week, when Amber Harris seemed more effective guarding her than Taj, and Charles was dominant in this game. These are All-World players who everyone has trouble dealing with, but they’re also players that McWilliams-Franklin has defended very effectively in the past. Hopefully Reeve finds more time for Harris and Jessica Adair during the stretch run so that Taj can save herself a little for the postseason. That’s when they’re really going to need her at the top of her powers.


In other news…

Just in case you followed a link to this specific article rather than the WNBAlien home page, you can find coverage of Tuesday night’s other here and here. It’s not usually quite so spread out.


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