By Mel Greenberg
._ Billed as a WNBA basketball game between the Connecticut Sun and Phoenix Mercury, the event in the Mohegan Sun Arena Saturday afternoon could have easily been listed instead as a track meet.
With Phoenix using new coach Paul Westhead’s high octane offensive style and coming off an impressive Thursday night win at Detroit, the Mercury dashed to a 19-point lead late in the second quarter before settling for a 46-29 halftime advantage.
However, if Phoenix was a quick starter, Connecticut was an even faster finisher as the Sun slipped by the Mercury in the closing minutes for an 82-77 victory.
The win assured the Sun to go into the All-Star break in first place in the East at 14-5. Phoenix fell to 7-10.
“It’s exciting and I think we gave them a pretty good show today,” said Connecticut’s Asjha Jones, who helped fuel the Connecticut comeback with 12 of her 18 points in the second half and all 11 of her rebounds.
“In the first half game they played great and the second half we played great. And I think it was a pretty good game to watch and I think it was a pretty good game for TV,” Jones said.
A sellout crowd of 9,341 cheered the news before the game that all five Connecticut starters had made the East squad for the WNBA’s All-Star game in New York at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday.
There might be a technical quibble with that after the league announced Saturday the WNBA coaches’ picks to fill the squad. The fans’ selection of the starters was announced earlier in the week.
Connecticut point guard Lindsay Whalen, center Margo Dydek, and forward Nykesha Sales were named as starters and Saturday forward Katie Douglas was added by the coaches. However, Sales began a stint out of uniform Saturday because of nagging problems with her left Achilles and right hip. Sun forward Taj McWilliams-Franklin was named to replace her teammate.
Sun coach Mike Thibault will coach the East as a reward for Connecticut’s earning another conference crown last season. Defending WNBA champion Sacramento Monarchs coach John Whisenant will handle the West squad.
“Saying things about the All-Star game before the game kind of amps up other teams, too,” McWilliams-Franklin tried to explain the contrast in starts Saturday between the Sun and Mercury. “I don’t know teams would be happy to hear, `Oh yeah, they’ve got five starters.’ I know Diana (Taurasi) said something about it a few times in the huddle.”
The former University of Connecticut star torched the nets for 13 of her game-high 25 points in the first half for Phoenix. But rookie Cappie Pondexter, the No. 2 overall pick out of Rutgers who set a WNBA rookie record with 35 points Thursday night against Detroit, was held to just 10 points Saturday and was 0 for 7 in the second half.
“They were more aggressive,” said Pondexter, who was also named Saturday as a substitute on the West squad with Phoenix teammate Taurasi for the All-Star game. “I don’t wanna say we were not as aggressive, but shots were just not falling. I think it was a great effort on our part, we just didn’t close it at the end. We didn’t get the stops that we needed.”
Pondexter’s miss occurred when the native of Chicago came down uncontested and launched a shot that went astray with 22.9 seconds left in the game and Connecticut leading, 78-77.
McWilliams-Franklin then shot two fouls for on the ensuing possession for an 80-77 lead. Then Kristen Rassmussen and Taurasi each missed trey attempts to tie the game.
Connecticut got possession and Jones finished off the scoring to seal the game with two foul shots.
“I can’t ever remember being part of that kind of comeback,” said Whalen, who had 13 points. The comeback from a 17-point halftime deficit was the largest in franchise history dating back to when the team was the Orlando Miracle before moving to Connecticut prior to the 2003 season.
After a Taurasi shot at the start of the third quarter gave Phoenix another 19-point lead, Connecticut began to make its move and an 8-0 run near the end of the period cut the deficit to a mere three points at 59-56. It got even lower on Jones’ hook shot to make it 61-60 with 1:20 left before Phoenix extended its advantage to five at 65-60 to end the quarter.
“We were rocked, we were on our heels,” McWilliams-Franklin said of the early action in Phoenix’s favor. “Every loose ball they were after. A step faster on everything, offensive rebounds, execution.
“Maybe it just took those 15 minutes for us to settle down instead of what a timeout allotted. Some teams you can run sets against. Some teams you just have to play,” McWilliams-Franklin said. “And I think when we came out in the third quarter, coach was like `Oh just play. Don’t draw up nothing unless it’s needed. Just play ball.’ And when we did that, I think we got back in the flow.”
McWilliams-Franklin fnished with 21 points and 12 rebounds and Douglas had a team-high 22 points to go with Whalen’s 13 points.
Kelly Miller scored 11 points and had 10 rebounds, and Penny Taylor also scored in double figures for Phoenix with 10 points.
In the fourth quarter, Connecticut finally got the lead at 67-65 on Douglas’ trey with 7 minutes, 39 seconds left in the game.
Although missing shots most of the period, Phoenix hung tough and went ahead again at 70-73 on successive layups by Miller and Taurasi.
Douglas than cut it to 73-72 on a layup under the three-minute mark and McWilliams-Franklin returned the lead to the Sun at 74-73 on a 14-foot jumper with 2:17 left.
Although Connecticut had been in a similar down-to-the-wire game against Charlotte here Thursday, this one carried much more energy in the arena.
Kamila Vodichkova scored inside to put Phoenix ahead at 75-74 but Douglas hit two foul shots to put the Sun ahead for good at 76-75 with 1:37 left.
Jamie Carey, an unsung hero in the second half off the bench for the Sun, grabbed a rebound off a Miller miss and then Whalen beat the shot clock inside to give Connecticut some slight breathing room at 78-75 with 53.8 seconds left.
Taurasi made it closer with a lay-up at 78-77 with 43.8 seconds left but that became the last that Phoenix could score.
“We played overall a very good basketball,” Westhead said. “It kind of broke down giving up second shots in the third quarter. They started making shots in the fourth quarter, we couldn’t make shots.
“It was like role reversals. What happened to Connecticut in the first half, happened to us in the second half,” Westhead added.
Phoenix will finish the road trip Sunday in New York against the Liberty.
Westhead had no problem with Pondexter’s shot attempt in the closing seconds.
“When you have a very good player like Cappie, she’s instructed and she’s good at `do what advantage you can garnish.’ So if she’s coming down and she can split the defense and force a foul or get an open shot, she’s been told to do that.
“She thought she had an opening, her feet went under her and she didn’t get through.’”
Taurasi contrasted the two halves. “Everytime the shot went up in the first half, we had five people in the lane rebounding and in the second half it was a complete opposite, that’s just on us.” All-Stars Set
The coaches’ picks were announced Saturday to fill the East and West rosters.
The East substitutes will be Washington Mystics’ guard-forward Alana Beard, Connecticut’s Douglas, Detroit Shock center Cheryl Ford and Shock teammates Katie Smith, a guard; and guard-forward Deanna Nolan, and Indiana Fever forward Tamika Whitmore, a former New York and Los Angeles Sparks player.
The West subs include Phoenix’s Pondexter and Taurasi, Minnesota Lynx forward Seimone Augustus, Los Angeles Sparks center Lisa Leslie, Houston Comets forward Tina Thompson, and San Antonio Silver Stars forward Sophia Young.
Previously announced as starters on the East are Indiana forward Tamika Catchings, the three Connecticut players, and New York guard Becky Hammon.
The West starters are Sacramento Monarchs center Yolanda Griffith, Houston Comets forward Sheryl Swoopes and guard Dawn Staley; and Seattle Storm center Lauren Jackson and guard Sue Bird.
Augustus was the first overall pick in the WNBA draft in April, Pondexter was second, and Young was fourth. It’s the first time three true rookies right out of college have made the list.
Not every team was required to have a representative, leaving the expansion Chicago Sky with rookie Candice Dupree from Temple, and the Charlotte Sting unrepresented in the East. Every team in the West had at least one player on that squad. - Mel