The Sun Get Physical to Stay Alive Against Las Vegas

UNCASVILLE, Conn. — The Las Vegas Aces were leading the W.N.B.A. finals heading into Thursday largely because of explosive first quarters. They had outscored the Connecticut Sun, 58-32, in the opening period of the first two games, a number that Sun Coach Curt Miller was well aware of. Before Thursday’s Game 3, Miller said he would “love” for the Sun to have an explosive start and force the Aces to take a timeout.

It went the other way. An animated and furious Miller sprinted onto the court just over two minutes into the game as the Aces took a quick 9-2 lead.

“I was frustrated, but not discouraged,” Miller said. “We’ve been in that situation before. We are in our home building. We just needed to not lose contact with them before the game settled in.”

He added: “It’s scary to take a timeout quickly knowing that you have an eight-minute quarter — the rest of the quarter — without a timeout. But it was needed, and we gathered ourselves, and again, the veterans led through that huddle.”

The Sun responded to the quick timeout with a 32-10 run, closing the first quarter with 34 points — a W.N.B.A. finals record — and a 19-point lead as their raucous fans were on their feet, swinging white towels.

The Sun went on to defeat the Aces, 105-76, and now trail the Aces, two games to one, in the best-of-five series.

Jonquel Jones led the way for the Sun with 20 points and 5 rebounds, and Alyssa Thomas added the first triple-double in finals history with 16 points, 15 rebounds, and 11 assists.

Miller said the win showed “toughness,” adding: “You know, a grit, a fight, that we’re not going to go away; that we are going to force Vegas to beat us.”

Courtney Williams and the Sun were physical all night, limiting Kelsey Plum and the Aces to 76 points.Credit…Joe Buglewicz for The New York Times

The Sun improved to 4-0 when facing postseason elimination this year. On Thursday, they relied on their height and physicality to dominate the Aces on both sides of the ball. The Sun outscored the Aces, 64-26, in the paint thanks largely to Jones, who won the league’s Most Valuable Player Award in 2021. Jones used her 6-foot-6, 190-pound frame to outmuscle this year’s M.V.P. and Defensive Player of the Year, A’ja Wilson, scoring layup after layup, finishing through contact and drawing fouls.

“Jonquel played like Jonquel,” Wilson said. “She’s an M.V.P. She played exactly how she’s supposed to play. I’m not going to take anything away from her. She dominated the game the way that she should.”

Jones was dominating with 11 points in the third quarter, but with two minutes left, and the Aces comfortably ahead by 11, Miller removed Jones who had reached four fouls. The Aces quickly went on a 5-0 run, cutting the lead to six. A Brionna Jones layup just before the end of the quarter put the lead back at 8, but Jones stayed on the bench as the fourth quarter began.

The absence made an Aces comeback seem inevitable, but the Sun were able to hold thanks to strong play from guard DeWanna Bonner and Thomas. When Jones returned with 7 minutes 35 seconds left in the game, the Sun were up 10. The Aces made a free throw, but Natisha Hiedeman knocked down a 3-pointer that put the Sun up by 12, igniting the crowd.

Odyssey Sims, a guard for the Sun, mimicked the “night, night” celebration made famous by Golden State’s Stephen Curry as a way to signal to the crowd that the game was over. Minutes later, the Sun extended the lead to 14, and Aces Coach Becky Hammon began pulling her starters.

“This game was about physicality and mental toughness, and they smoked us, period,” Hammon said.

Part of the turnaround came from the Sun finally finding an answer for Chelsea Gray, the Aces guard who had stepped up during this postseason. Gray has had numerous crucial moments throughout the Aces’ run, but on Thursday she looked decidedly uncomfortable.

The Sun matched the 6-foot-4 Bonner on Gray and aggressively double-teamed her on screens to force someone else to beat them. The strategy resulted in four turnovers from Gray and her struggling to get anything going offensively. In the second quarter, Gray tried to assert herself by pulling up for a few deep 3-pointers, at one point scoring 9 straight points. But that was it for Gray. Her last 3-pointer in the first half was her 11th and final point of the game.

“I’m just trying to stay locked in and limit her touches as much as I can, not give her too much room,” Bonner said. “Try to use my length more than anything. I’m a 6-foot-4 guard for a reason, so I just try to use my length, use my speed.”

The Aces got 22 points from guard Jackie Young — her highest scoring game of the postseason — and Wilson added 19 points, but just four rebounds. It was the worst defensive game of the postseason for Wilson and, by extension, the rest of the Aces.

“We just were not locked in on the defensive end,” Wilson said, adding: “For us to come out and lack that, it was going to be a long game regardless of who we played.”

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