It was a four-game feature on Friday night for the WNBA this week, but you’re going to have to wait until tomorrow for detailed coverage of three of them. Just for tonight, we’re going to focus on the matchup between the current top two in the East. Indiana started the night at 19-10, 1.5 games clear of tonight’s hosts Connecticut. Having just lost both parts of a home-and-home with Atlanta, the Fever were looking to break their mini losing-streak against another Eastern Conference playoff rival. The Sun had also lost their last two, each by more than 10 points in Tulsa and San Antonio, so they had every reason to respond as well. Indiana have already sealed the tie-breaker between these two teams by virtue of a 3-1 record in previous encounters this season, so Connecticut essentially had to win this game if they wanted to sneak into first place by the end of the regular season. A loss, and the resultant 2.5 game gap, would’ve left Indiana as near-certainties to take home court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs.
The game got off to a pretty even start. Connecticut were using their 2-3 zone quite a bit, mixing it in with their standard man-to-man, and they were tipping balls away to create turnovers. But with Katie Douglas knocking down jumpers from outside, the Fever counterbalanced the possessions they were giving away. It was a high-paced game, with Connecticut looking far more comfortable back on their own floor – as is always the case. Home court advantage means so much to the Sun because they’re a vastly better team in the Mohegan Sun Arena, 13-2 this season for the best home record in the WNBA. They like to run whenever it’s available, but especially in front of their own fans. It seems to make a huge difference to their composure and confidence.
The high pace of the game contributed to a high number of turnovers, as both teams gave the ball up a little too cheaply in their efforts to make something happen quickly. Backup center Jessica Davenport came into the game for Indiana and was more effective offensively than she’d been in any recent game, but Connecticut responded with deadly accuracy from three-point range, keeping the score close. In fact, Connecticut led 22-19 at the end of the first quarter, with the scoring closed out by a Kalana Greene triple – the Sun’s fourth in five tries in the period.
As Indiana coach Lin Dunn tried to buy some rest for her starters in the early minutes of the second quarter, the Fever began to fall behind. Douglas was still out there, but with Shannon Bobbitt, Jeanette Pohlen, Shyra Ely and Davenport alongside her, Connecticut smelled blood. A Renee Montgomery three, and easy layups for Asjha Jones and Greene created a very quick 7-0 run for the Sun, while all Indiana offered were wild layup attempts from Pohlen and Ely. Connecticut led 29-21, and Dunn quickly reinserted her starters, but by now the Sun had all the momentum.
With Indiana still turning the ball over too much, often on high-low passes that they try to make over the top to their post players even when they’re near-impossible, Connecticut kept the tempo high and built on their lead. The gap grew as high as 17 at 46-29, and Indiana looked shellshocked. Connecticut were up 48-33 at halftime and looking thoroughly confident of victory.
The standout statistics at halftime were all next to the name Tina Charles. While she’d only shot 2-6 from the floor for six points, she also officially had 11 rebounds and eight assists. Indiana like to trap a lot, and whenever they’re facing Charles they double-team aggressively against her nearly every time she touches the ball. Charles has obviously learned from previous encounters with the Fever, and was moving the ball well out of the traps, finding her teammates for open shots outside. Not quite as well as the statistics would suggest, but more on that later.
Very early in the third quarter, it looked like Indiana might still make the game interesting. A Tamika Catchings three, followed by a Catchings drive and dish to Tammy Sutton-Brown for a layup cut the gap to 12 points at 50-38. But that was literally the last time it felt like a contest for the rest of the night. Danielle McCray drove the baseline for a strong layup; Fever point guard Erin Phillips drove into the lane but missed a spinning effort; then Connecticut pushed quickly the other way, Greene missed a jumper, but Charles was right there for the offensive board and the putback. The gap was back up to 16, and from that point on the Fever couldn’t make enough shots to ever make the Sun remotely nervous about a comeback. Indiana missed several layups, couldn’t knock anything down from outside, and the frustration grew as they saw their chance of a revival slipping away. Connecticut held a dominant 68-44 lead at the end of the third quarter.
The only excitement in the fourth surrounded Charles, who began the period on the bench with a line of 10 points, 16 rebounds and nine assists. She came back in with nine minutes left in the game – and a 27-point lead, so coach Mike Thibault was obviously just giving his star the chance to complete the triple-double – and it took her barely 30 seconds to add another assist. Indiana double-teamed her again, and this time she passed out of it to a wide open Jessica Moore under the basket. Moore completed the play, and Charles ran back down court with a giant grin across her face. Clearly she’d known what she needed for the statistical achievement, and she’d managed it – the fifth triple-double in WNBA history. It’s also the first since 2005, when Deanna Nolan completed the same feat against the Sun for the then-Detroit Shock.
Now for the picky bit. The people who keep the running statistics in basketball games aren’t always 100% reliable, and these days we have video that you can go back and check. So here’s a run-down of Charles’s 10 assists for the evening:
1. Hand off to Danielle McCray for a jumper. Tick.
2. Long pass the length of the court for an Asjha Jones turnaround. Tick.
3. Kick-out from a double-team to a wide open Kara Lawson for a three from the weak side. Tick.
4. Kick-out from a double-team to an open Kalana Greene out top for three. Tick.
5. Charles grabs a defensive rebound, outlets to Renee Montgomery, whose pass is picked up by Greene for a driving layup. Oops.
6. Charles snares a loose ball, hands the ball off to Montgomery, who feeds McCray for a layup. Double oops.
7. Charles grabs another defensive rebound, outlets to Kara Lawson, who takes seven dribbles while going the length of the court for a driving layup. Triple oops, because calling that an assist is insane even for a home town scorer.
8. Nice drop off feed out of a double-team to a cutting Kelsey Griffin for a layup. Tick.
9. Kick-out from a half-hearted near-double-team to Jones for a long two. Tick.
10. Aforementioned pass out of a double-team to an open Jessica Moore underneath the hoop.
So a very impressive performance, but not actually a triple-double if the league wants to review it and be 100% accurate. I won’t hold my breath (and the legend’s usually more fun than the truth, anyway).
As for the game, which finished 83-55 Connecticut, the Sun will be absolutely delighted. Despite the sort-of-triple-double, Charles didn’t actually have that great a night offensively. She shot just 4-11 for 10 points, although she did hoover up every rebound in sight against the poor-rebounding front-line of the Fever. Her 10 (or seven) assists were reflective of how the team played, though. They moved the ball well, had 26 assists on 31 baskets (officially), and shot 48% as a result. All the trapping and double-teaming that Indiana do, especially against Charles, has caused the Sun problems in some of the matchups between the teams this season. In this game they exploited it as a weakness, moving the ball away from the traps, finding the open player, and knocking down the shots that were left available. Jones, McCray and Lawson all finished in double-digits as well, but every player who took part scored and this was a true team performance. The Sun are now just half a game behind the Fever for top spot in the East, and the home court advantage that they covet.
After the disappointing losses to Atlanta, this game was another step in the wrong direction for Indiana. They couldn’t convert any opportunities to score, lost heart once they fell behind, and Connecticut provided a blueprint for how to attack the Fire & Ice Defense. Of course, it won’t always be that easy. The Sun did a good job of making Indiana’s scoring attempts tricky, but mostly they just couldn’t hit anything either at the rim or from outside. That happens sometimes. On another night, Catchings would’ve shot better than 4-14, Douglas would’ve been more involved than her 5-9, and someone else would’ve stepped up in support. The worry for Indiana is where their bench has gone. Sometimes she’s an injection of energy, but often Bobbitt just looks like a train wreck backing up Phillips. Jessica Davenport’s offensive production has dropped through the floor in the second half of the season, and her eventual 3-11 performance in this game was another illustration. Shyra Ely and rookie Jeanette Pohlen have both been invisible in recent weeks (although Ely wasn’t doing much before then, either), and Shavonte Zellous is hit-or-miss depending on the night (and Dunn sometimes seems to forget she exists). The starting five needs help, and they’ve not been receiving it with much consistency lately. With four games left, and the standings increasingly tightening up, Indiana need to break this three-game losing streak quickly or their long hold on the top spot in the East won’t count for anything. Anywhere from first to fourth is still a possibility.
In other news…
Tonight’s other three games will all be covered in tomorrow’s column.
Beyond the overwhelming victory tonight, there was more good news for Sun fans. Power forward Asjha Jones signed a three-year contract extension with Connecticut that will keep her signed through 2014. Jones has had a bounce-back year this season after struggling to recover from injury in 2010, and has been with the franchise since 2004. They’ll be happy to have her tied up. Of course, you could argue that giving a three-year, likely max-value, guaranteed contract to a 31-year old jump shooting power forward who’s had injury problems is a bit of a risk. It might not look the best deal in the world by the time that extension is coming to an end. But if they hadn’t given her the deal, someone else certainly would have, and overpaying her a little is unlikely to cause them much damage in the future. It’s still a smart move.
According to a tweet from her agents today, San Antonio’s Sophia Young just gained American citizenship. Which raises the possibility that you might see her in a Team USA jersey sometime in the future. Because another All-Star forward is just what Team USA needed. You sure you wouldn’t rather be British, Sophia?
Today’s Games (already completed):
Indiana @ Connecticut, 7.30pm ET
Washington @ Atlanta, 7.30pm ET
Seattle @ Tulsa, 8pm ET
New York @ Minnesota, 8pm ET
Seattle @ San Antonio, 8pm ET
Los Angeles @ Phoenix, 10pm ET