Lineups: Chiney Ogwumike was back for the Sun, after missing one game to attend her graduation ceremony at Stanford. Allison Hightower was still out due to her knee problem, so Alyssa Thomas continued to start. Tamika Catchings is still out with her sore back, so it was the same group we’ve seen virtually all season for Indiana.
Story of the Game: It was a stuttering, messy first half, punctuated by endless whistles from the officials. I try to avoid discussing the referees here, because they have a tough job that they do to the best of their ability, and most complaints about them come from fans with an obvious bias. But sometimes it’s an unavoidable aspect of discussing the game. Besides some strong moves from Sun center Kelsey Bone late in the half, there wasn’t much worth talking about from the opening 20 minutes. Even those were aided by Natasha Howard being on the bench in foul trouble, and Erlana Larkins desperately trying to avoid picking up any more than she already had. The Sun held a four-point lead at the break, due largely to that late Bone burst and the number of free throws they’d shot already.
Then everything completely fell apart for Indiana in the third quarter. Credit Connecticut for pressing their advantage, running the floor hard, and attacking the Fever defense at every opportunity. Ogwumike in particular, after a completely anonymous first half, picked up nine points in the first five minutes of the third quarter, largely by running the floor as hard as possible to finish in transition and pick up scraps around the rim.
But after already being upset by the 15-8 personal foul discrepancy from the first half, Indiana lost their composure entirely in the third quarter when the whistles continued to go against them. Amongst the whining, Lin Dunn picked up a technical, probably to try to protect her players from getting them. But moments later Connecticut broke down the floor, and Ogwumike drove straight into Karima Christmas’s chest and knocked her over. Christmas had been stood there a long time, and it looked like a clear charge, but it was called as a block on Christmas. Shavonte Zellous showed her displeasure by leaping up and down, then probably added something with her mouth, and was tossed for two consecutive technicals.
The resulting free throws made the Connecticut lead 18 points, and the game was essentially over.
Key Players: I’ll resist just naming the three referees. Bone and Ogwumike combined to give Connecticut the focus and presence they needed in the paint, while Katie Douglas once again earned a load of free throws in a game against her former team. The one negative for the Sun was that point guard Alex Bentley hobbled off late in the third quarter, after her left leg slipped out from under her while trying to play defense. She never returned, but that may just have been due to the game being over as a contest. It didn’t look too serious.
Backup post Lynetta Kizer got a lot of minutes for Indiana due to the starters picking up so many fouls, and once again showed that she’s more than happy to shoot virtually every time she touches the ball. She can sometimes be pretty effective as an offensive player, but it’s the defensive end where she needs to improve and earn Dunn’s trust. It’s actually a similar story for Bone in Connecticut, where developing defensively is the clear requirement. Both can be too easy to escape from or back down in the low post.
Notes of Interest: Dunn was given a rocking chair and a Sun blanket by the Connecticut franchise, which was a sweet gesture to a coach who’s in her final season in charge and has done an enormous amount for the game of women’s basketball. She was probably happier when receiving the gifts before the game than she was for much of the rest of the evening.
Lineups: Same starters as expected for both sides. Rebekkah Brunson (knee), Kristi Toliver (overseas playing for Slovakia) and Candice Wiggins (knee) were still out for their respective teams. Los Angeles had made one change to their bench earlier in the day, releasing Samantha Prahalis and signing Darxia Morris instead, swapping one backup guard for another.
Story of the Game: When you’ve lost five of your last six, barely showed up for your last game, and are struggling badly on the defensive end, the last team you want to see is the reigning champs. The Lynx may have had their own problems of late, but they happily took LA apart from the very start of this game. Minnesota were pushing the ball for quick offense, driving into contact to earn free throws, and otherwise moving the ball with pace to find the open spaces in LA’s defense. As Carol Ross has admitted, the defensive communication is poor for the Sparks, so Minnesota were moving around the floor, forcing LA to either chase or actually talk to each other on switches. LA weren’t successful at either, so the points piled up for Minnesota. The Lynx shot 71% in the first quarter.
On offense, LA had Alana Beard hitting everything she threw at the rim, and no one else doing anything at all in the opening stages of the game. Candace Parker was most remarkable for her complete anonymity in the opening period, while the Lynx were disappearing off into the distance. Parker found something to shout about when she was subbed, but hadn’t shown much of that energy while on the floor. They also continued to miss a host of efforts right at the rim, which has been a recent theme in their games. Obviously it becomes more difficult to convert at the basket if you don’t have much floor spacing and the defense can drop more traffic into the lane to challenge. But it’s also just been a matter of missing an awful lot of layups.
LA woke up a little in the second quarter, and briefly looked like making a game of it. The big lineup with Parker at small forward while Nneka Ogwumike and Jantel Lavender played in the post gave Minnesota problems, especially because both Damiris Dantas and Janel McCarville had already picked up three fouls and were on the bench. Parker got involved, posted up either Maya Moore or Seimone Augustus, and Minnesota’s offense cooled off briefly with several reserves on the floor against LA’s length. The Sparks’ deficit came down as low as six points. But before the interval arrived, Minnesota took the air back out of the building by slicing in for a couple of layups, then Moore nailed a three with a second left in the half. The lead was back in double-digits, and the gap felt like a chasm again.
The Lynx killed the game off entirely in the third quarter, with Moore back to her ridiculous best from early in the season, hitting every shot in sight. It was halfway through the period, with the gap back up at 17 points, before Ross tried the big lineup again by inserting Lavender. By then it was way too late, and the Lynx were flying. Many are starting to wonder if it may be too late for Ross herself at this point.
Key Players: This was the Maya Moore that had people virtually handing her the MVP trophy after the opening weeks of the season. Hitting shots from all over the floor, regardless of the defense, and ripping the heart out of opponents. She finished the game 12-16 from the field for 31 points. The rest of the production was fairly balanced around the squad as Minnesota’s typical unselfishness took whatever was given to them. They shot 64% as a team and left Los Angeles in their dust.
The Sparks don’t look like they’ve got much life left in them at the moment. They didn’t even come out with their regular energy to open the game, which led to the miserable start. Beard shot the lights out in the first half, and Parker was relatively efficient when she decided to join in, but LA were barely involved as a competitor. Ross came with a reputation as a defensive coach when she arrived from Atlanta, and right now they’re a disaster on that end of the floor. They’re hardly the first team to be mauled by the Lynx, but this isn’t the first game where teams have exploited them. Toliver and/or Wiggins returning isn’t going to fix what ails this team, because the major problems are when the other team has the ball. The offense isn’t great, but it’s good enough if the defense was serviceable. Right now, it’s not even close.
Notes of Interest: Cheryl Reeve left her starters in the game until pretty late in the fourth quarter, despite the game long having been decided. None of them played that many minutes, with rest having been easy to find earlier in the game, but it showed that she’s still hoping to develop more rhythm and confidence amongst a group that’s been struggling a little in recent games. They’ve got the second half of a back-to-back tonight in Phoenix, looking for revenge for Sunday’s loss on national TV. Energy shouldn’t be too hard to find for that one.
Washington @ Atlanta, 12pm ET
New York @ Chicago, 12.30pm ET
Minnesota @ Phoenix, 10pm ET