This one had the feeling it was going down to the wire from the very beginning. And it did. Unfortunately for the Connecticut Sun, it didn't go their way. And as a result, the postseason is very much in jeopardy.
Sun rookie sensation Chiney Ogwumike led all scorers with 23 points, and all rebounders with 13, but it wasn't quite enough to put the Sun over the top. Kristi Toliver hit the game-winning shot from beyond the arc—her only points of the game—with 9.6 seconds remaining in regulation, to give the Los Angeles Sparks an improbable 70-69 win before a jubilant Sunday matinee crowd of 8,110 at the Staples Center in downtown L.A. on Sunday afternoon. The game was televised nationally on NBA-TV.
Jantel Lavender added 19 points for the Sparks, while former Sun prospect Sandrine Gruda poured in 12, including eight straight key points in the third quarter.
Alyssa Thomas and Alex Bentley each scored 10 points for the Sun.
Improbable, you say? Wasn't this the same Sparks team that came into the Mohegan Sun Arena last month and completely embarrassed the home team by the tune of 90-64? Well, yes it is. But this is hardly the same Sun. With two rookies starting (former All-Americans Ogwumike and Thomas), two second-year pros (center Kelsey Bone, acquired from New York on draft day in the Tina Charles deal, and Bentley) and one seasoned veteran (Katie Douglas), this young, young team won seven of its first eight games in June, then fell off the cliff, losing nine of their next 11 before righting the sinking ship on Friday with an 89-79 win in San Antonio. Still, even with the disastrous stretch in July, the Sun went into Sunday's game just a game out of the fourth and final playoff spot held by the New York Liberty. And after Douglas, who finished with 15 points, banged home two from the charity stripe giving Connecticut a six-point lead with 29.8 ticks left on the clock, the Sun seemed to hold all the cards.
And that's precisely when their youth showed up.
The Sparks scored eight points in the next 20 seconds, driven by treys from Alana Beard and Toliver, to go along with a turnaround by Candace Parker (15 points), and the Sun were down quicker than they knew what hit them. Renee Montgomery did manage a free throw during this crucial spurt, but after Thomas inbounded the ball to the wrong Ogwumike (Chiney's big sister Nneke—17 points, 10 boards), who quickly got the ball to Toliver just past the three-point line and bang-bang-bang. That was the spike that went through the Sun's hearts.
Still, there were nine seconds on the clock. Plenty of time, right?
Well, not exactly.
Instead of finding Chiney—Douglas may have been an option, but she had cooled off quite a bit in the fourth quarter—Renee Montgomery held onto the ball and threw up a lame 20-footer herself that clanked off the rim with 2.3 seconds left. Nneke grabbed the rebound, and that, folks, was all she wrote.
A look at the stat sheet shows that the Sparks really had no place winning this game. The Sun were positively dominant in the paint. Although the final rebound tally only favored Connecticut by eight boards, 40-32, The Sun scored 16 second-chance points to the Sparks' two, and the Sun pounded in 44 points in the paint to the Sparks' 26.
But, in the end, it was the little things that beat the Sun, as is often the case with a team this young, regardless of its ultimate potential.
''Man, this sucks,'' said a dejected Chiney Ogwumike after the game. ''It's really painful, but at the same time, we play a lot of young players and I guess in order to win as a team and to deserve the wins, you have to go through these pains. It really hurts now. But you move on to the next. We have another game in 48 hours. I don't know how to fathom that right now.''
Indeed, the Sun hopped a plane at LAX and were on their way back to Connecticut where they will meet the fifth-place Chicago Sky on Tuesday night. Indeed, while their playoff hopes have dimmed substantially, there remains a glimmer of hope in that the Sun's next two games are against the two teams immediately ahead of them in the standings—Chicago and the New York Liberty, whom Connecticut plays Friday night at Madison Square Garden.
Lose one, it's over.
Win both...who knows?
Don't forget, this is a young team, and strange things happen with young teams.
Tuesday night's tip-off is at 7 p.m. There will be no live television, but the game will be streamed live on WNBA LiveAccess. Friday night's tip is at 7:30 p.m., and the game will be televised on My9 WCXT and streamed on WNBA LiveAccess.
Should the Sun somehow manage wins in the next two games, things get no easier. They concluded the season with two games in succession—both at home—against Mike Thibault and the third-place Washington Mystics before wrapping up the season against the first-place and defending East Division champion Atlanta Dream.