How the Connecticut Sun can even the WNBA Finals

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CloseMechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.

WASHINGTON — Connecticut Sun coach Curt Miller has the perfect word for facing the Washington Mystics’ WNBA-best offense: maddening.

“One, they space you as well as any team ever has, and two, they’re so damn smart,” Miller said Monday, one day after his Sun lost 95-86 to the Mystics in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals here at the Entertainment and Sports Arena.

“They just make you panic on how to guard, and you all of a sudden see players bickering on the court. You watch people changing all the time and trying different things. There is a point where you have to stay strong in what you believe in and not panic.”

That’s exactly what the Sun did to turn Sunday’s game into a battle down the stretch instead of a blowout after trailing by as much as 17 points. And it’s what Connecticut will have to do more of Tuesday in Game 2 (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET) to even the best-of-five series.

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“We hadn’t played them at full roster all season,” the Sun’s Alyssa Thomas said, referring to the Mystics’ Elena Delle Donne missing the first regular-season meeting between the teams, and Emma Meesseman being out the other two matchups. “Just watching them play, you see how they tear defenses apart. They’re able to space you out, shoot the 3 so well.

“We have to be better one-on-one. You take away one action, but they move so much it opens up something else. We have to take it upon ourselves to guard our matchups better.”

The Sun can look to the stretch of Sunday’s game during the last two quarters where they went on a 17-5 run and cut the Mystics’ lead to just four points. The rally started at the 3:11 mark of the third quarter and continued through 6:37 of the fourth. In a span of just over 7 minutes, Connecticut changed the entire feel of the game. What happened?

A huge key was Delle Donne — who finished with a team-high 22 points — didn’t take a shot during that stretch. For part of it, she was on the bench resting to start the fourth quarter. But even when she was on the floor, the Sun successfully kept the ball away from the league MVP.

The mini-drought started when LaToya Sanders missed two jump shots that were on the outer edge of her comfort range. Meesseman, Kristi Toliver and Natasha Cloud each missed two shots, Aerial Powers missed one and had another blocked, and the Mystics had two turnovers.

But then Delle Donne made her first shot of the fourth quarter at the 6:17 mark, and made another at 4:56. Then came what Miller called the back-breaker: a 3-pointer by Ariel Atkins with 4:09 left that gave the Mystics a nine-point lead.

This is why Washington is the No. 1 seed and has been so hard to beat. Delle Donne is a super-elite scorer, but she’s surrounded by players who also can make defenses pay. In that way, the Mystics resemble last season’s Seattle Storm and their WNBA championship run behind MVP Breanna Stewart.

“We’re a tough team to guard,” Delle Donne said. “I remember last year playing Seattle, it felt that way. It’s just like, ‘What do you do?’ It’s disheartening as a defense. So I’m excited that we’ve got this many scorers and attackers.”

Still, the Sun at least know they are capable of throwing a wrench into the Mystics’ mighty offensive machine, which is the way to beat them. It’s a different task than what the Sun faced in the semifinals against the Los Angeles Sparks. Miller said that Shekinna Stricklen was a rover on defense against the Sparks, but that doesn’t work well against the Mystics because of how much they spread the floor on offense.

“You’ve got to be more physical, deny them more, beat them to the spots,” Stricklen said of the Mystics. “Against L.A., you know exactly who you can help off of, and you know who you want to shoot the ball. With Washington, everyone can shoot it.

“They play so well off each other. They do simple basketball: Space everybody out and post up. They know what works, and they keep going at it.”

But that stretch in which the Sun came back gives them confidence for Game 2.

“We clearly made a run, and cut it down to four in the fourth quarter,” Stricklen said. “When we get them to miss shots, we get into our game, and that’s running. We have to do that, and we have to rebound. Next game, I think we’re going to have more energy and be more aggressive for sure.”

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