THE BOTTOM LINE
By Graham Hays, ESPN.com
Even at 75 percent, an injured Lindsay Whalen was better than what the Sun had on their bench. (Terrence Vaccaro/Getty Images)
UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- It wasn't a bloody sock, but for one half of basketball, Lindsay Whalen's bulky, black knee brace appeared destined to occupy its own special nook in New England sports lore. But unlike a baseball ace, Whalen had no help waiting in the bullpen, leaving the Sun and their point guard unable to stand up to Sacramento's second-half rally.
Originally expected to miss at least the first two games of the WNBA Finals against Sacramento after breaking a bone in her leg against Indiana last weekend, Whalen was in the starting lineup for Wednesday's 69-65 loss after receiving extensive treatment and that obtrusive black brace. And while the numbers in her final line in the box score -- two assists and seven points -- won't immediately conjure up images of a performance on par with Jordan or Reed, they provide crucial information about not only Connecticut's fate in the opener, but the Sun's chances in the series.
This was not an offensive masterpiece from two teams that put together plenty of gems during the regular season and the first two rounds of the playoffs. While each team earned the top seed in its respective conference by playing often flawless, team-oriented offense, neither team has a glaring weakness on the defensive end. And so like a heavyweight fight, both sides spent much of Wednesday's game doing the equivalent of circling the ring in search of vulnerabilities.
Sacramento coach John Whisenant threw the first jab, applying constant, full-court pressure to Whalen as she brought the ball up court, most often with defensive stalwart Chelsea Newton. The former Rutgers star was so successful at the task that it seemed like a dubious choice to pull her when Connecticut coach Mike Thibault subbed Jennifer Derevjanik for Whalen. Why not go for the kill against an unproven point guard who saw little action in the Sun's playoff run last year and averaged only 6.5 minutes in their first two playoff series this summer? But Whisenant's patience paid off in the second half, when turnovers mounted and rhythm vanished for the Sun.
Whalen herself never buckled to the pressure. Thibault even said of her overall effort, "The most impressive thing is she played 25 minutes without a turnover."
But they were 25 hard minutes, constantly hounded by the Monarchs defenders. Whalen was visibly fatigued at the end of the game, when she clanked a potential game-tying 3-pointer off the rim. And by wearing her down, Whisenant exposed what so many suspected before the series: Without Whalen, no amount of heroics from Nykesha Sales (23 points, including four 3-pointers) and Katie Douglas (14 points on 6-for-10 shooting) will be enough for the Sun to beat the Monarchs.
Whalen's line might not scream out from the stat sheet, but Connecticut's play with her on the bench spoke volumes. Neither Derevjanik nor rookie Jamie Carey, who took most of the backup minutes in the second half, displayed even the slightest ability to do anything more than get the ball across half court more often than not. Without stability off the bench at the point, and with Whalen tiring, Sales, Taj McWilliams-Franklin and Margo Dydek combined for nine turnovers against Sacramento's relentless defense.
Lindsay Whalen did all she could for the Sun on Wednesday night, proving that even 75 percent of her is better than what the Sun have on the bench. Unfortunately for the Sun, who now face the prospect of playing Thursday with an even more limited Whalen, better wasn't good enough to beat the Monarchs.
Connecticut's defense was unbelievable in the first half. The Sun contested every shot and held Sacramento -- which looked impatient early on with poor shot selection -- to 37.5 percent shooting.
But Sacramento's defense was the key in the second. All season long, the Monarchs' depth has worn down opponents, and midway through the second half, when the Sun started turning the ball over -- they had three TOs in a 44-second span with about 13 minutes to play -- it was obvious that Sacramento's energy and relentless pursuit of the ball was taking a toll. When you're tired, you make mental errors, and that translated into 11 second-half turnovers for the Sun.
Although both teams grabbed 29 rebounds, the Monarchs' 10 offensive boards translated into 15 second-chance points. Yolanda Griffith (nine rebounds) had a lot to do with that, and after a six-point first half, the Sacramento center came out much more aggressive and assertive in the second to dominate the paint. Teammate Nicole Powell's two second-half 3-pointers were also extremely clutch.
Game 1 might not have been close if not for Nykesha Sales, who had a huge game. But the key stat was that Connecticut went to the line just 10 times. In their first four playoff games, the Sun averaged almost 31 free-throw attempts. And Whalen, who went to the line an average of 11 times in the Sun's first two playoff series, attempted just two foul shot Wednesday. Clearly, the Sun lost their aggression to the rim.
To win Game 2, the Sun must limit their turnovers and look to utilize the ball reversal, which is one key to beating Sacramento's defense. And down the stretch, when their legs are tired, the Sun must dig in and hit their open shots. They weren't able to do that Wednesday and it cost them.
Lastly, kudos to Whalen and Sacramento's Ticha Penicheiro. Both came back from injuries and put in strong, brave performances.
-- ESPN analyst Nancy Lieberman
Sacramento shooting guards Nicole Powell (right) and Kara Lawson combined for just four made field goals in the second half of Wednesday's win. But considering that three of them were clutch 3-pointers, we doubt coach John Whisenant is complaining.
At halftime, Powell was 1-for-3 from the field, missing one 3-pointer and scoring just two points. One had to wonder if Powell was going to repeat her regular-season performance against Sacramento -- 3-for-19 from the field, including an 0-for-10 performance in their first matchup.
And Lawson, who was highlight-reel hot in the Western Conference Finals when she had to step in at point guard for the injured Ticha Penicheiro, was 0-for-2 from downtown and 2-for-6 from the field for four points. Most importantly, the Sun led the Monarchs 31-27.
But a 21-foot 3-pointer from Powell capped a 13-6 run that gave Sacramento its first lead, 44-43, of the second half with 13:32 to play. Five minutes later, with the Sun threatening, Powell struck again, this time from 22 feet and on an assist from Lawson (right), to stretch the lead to five, 52-47.
Connecticut, of course, wouldn't go away. Nykesha Sales, who hit 4-of-7 3-pointers on the night, nailed one from downtown, and Katie Douglas, who was 2-for-4 from beyond the arc, added her own 22-footer as the teams traded baskets. The Sun pulled within two points again, 63-61 with 2:23 to play, on a layup from Lindsay Whalen, who only had three field goals in the game but was 0-for-3 from downtown.
But … enter Lawson. Taking a pass from Powell this time, Lawson drained a 3-pointer at the two-minute mark. Sales hit another 3-pointer herself to pull the Sun within three. Connecticut had a chance to tie the score on its next possession, but Whalen missed a wide-open 3 from the right wing.
In the end, Lawson and Powell combined for 19 points. Powell hit 4-for-9 from the field.
7While the Monarchs' defense harassed the Sun into 11 second-half turnovers and 15 giveaways overall, Sacramento's own ability to take care of the ball was equally impressive. The Monarchs committed just seven turnovers.