The league-leading Connecticut Sun’s playoff run started with a bang on Tuesday night, but not the kind they were hoping for as they fell to the Chicago Sky in a double overtime thriller.
Led by a historic performance from Courtney Vandersloot, who flipped the script against the first seed with a playoff record 18 assists, Chicago battled to a shock 101-95 victory away from home in Uncasville, Connecticut.
Former two-time MVP Candace Parker put up 22 points on the night but it was Vandersloot who stole the headlines, becoming only the second player to notch a triple-double in the WNBA postseason after Hall of Famer Sheryl Swoopes.
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Courtney Vandersloot took over with an WNBA playoff record 18 assists.
Ruthie Bolton, a two-time Olympic gold medallist with Team USA and double WNBA All-Star with the Sacramento Monarchs, believes that complacency may have been a factor for the Sun, who were dominant throughout the regular season (26-6) and had won a franchise record 14 consecutive games before the playoffs began.
“I’m surprised because Connecticut have been so strong, but that’s the one thing about this game that’s so awesome. When you’re in the pros, you can’t take anybody for granted. I think sometimes if you get caught being complacent, that’s when those teams can sneak up on you,” Bolton explained.
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Courtney Vandersloot becomes only the second player in WNBA playoff history to record a triple-double as the Sky stun the top-seeded Sun in double-overtime.
The double-bye that Connecticut earned through finishing top of the league standings may have also come back to bite them. Whereas this was their first playoff game of the bracket following nine days of rest, Chicago had already knocked out the Dallas Wings and Minnesota Lynx in back-to-back do-or-die encounters.
Bolton believes that, psychologically, it had a detrimental effect on a team that had cruised through the back end of the season.
“When I played, a bye never really enticed me. Because it sets you up to really think you’re better than you are.
“Psychologically, you’re sort of patting yourself on the back and if you’re not honed in or focused then the team that’s already been playing will feel they’re in a rhythm and get their confidence.
“They haven’t got anything to lose. They expect you to be better and so the pressure is on the team that got a bye. The pressure increases because the expectation is higher. They might have taken Chicago for granted.
“And for Chicago, they went in thinking ‘we’re here to play our game but actually, we can win this thing.'”
In fact, the Sky went into the playoffs at the opposite end of the form table to the Sun, suffering four defeats in their final six games. Even so, they have now reeled off three straight wins and confidence is high.
Despite the performance and Vandersloot’s heroics, Bolton doesn’t see anything other than a Connecticut victory in Game 2 of their semi-final series.
“I can’t fathom seeing Chicago win the next game,” she told Sky Sports.
“The way Connecticut have played all season, they cannot watch this go down the drain. They’re thinking, ‘we’ve got home court advantage, we’ve got to come out and play like we’ve been playing the whole season.'”
“That’s the thing as a player. It’s not a single game, it’s a series. For Connecticut, losing this game was a wake-up call because they had won 14 in a row.
“They have to be like, ‘you know what, if this had been one-and-done we’d be going home.’ And that doesn’t feel good, when you’ve got expectations and you fall way below them. Connecticut now should be hungry enough to get back to where they were before the defeat.”
There are two major reasons for Bolton’s ironclad confidence in the league’s leading team. They go by the names of DeWanna Bonner and Jonquel Jones, who was deservingly crowned MVP before Connecticut’s loss on Tuesday night.
Jones led all scorers with 26 points and hauled down 11 boards against Chicago, while Bonner had 13 and 10. Bolton sees them as the key figures in any potential title charge, and not just because she went to the same college as Bonner.
“She’s Auburn, I went to Auburn. But if you went to Auburn and you’re lazy and you don’t play with heart then I’m not going to advocate for you. But if you bring it and you play with heart and you’re a great teammate too then I’ll go for you every day of the week.
“I’m a fan of Bonner. That girl… I’d love to play in a 3×3 with her. I’d come out of retirement to get in a 3×3 with her. I’m serious, man. She’s got heart, she’s got drive. I just love watching her play.”
As for Jones, Bolton believes she’s a worthy MVP with almost limitless potential, but doesn’t want to see the 27-year-old forced to become a different kind of player due to outside pressure.
“When I saw her play in the WNBA All-Star, I was like ‘who is this kid!? Where did she come from? She plays like a dude!’ She’s what I still consider young. She’s got a good body. She’s got ball-handling skills.
“I just hope they don’t put too much pressure on her, don’t let her be a Michael Jordan.
“Don’t let her try and carry the team every game. Let her fill in. Tell her ‘it’s ok if you don’t score 30 every game. It’s ok, we’ve got other great teammates.’ Don’t put so much pressure on her like she’s the one that’s got to shoot all the shots.
2016: Number 6 draft pick
2017: Most Improved Player of the Year
2018: Sixth Woman of the Year
2019: 2nd Career All-Star Selection
Remember her name. Jonquel Jones.
— Connecticut Sun (@ConnecticutSun) September 28, 2021
“She’s a great MVP. I like her game, I like her competitiveness and to me, she’s only got room to get better. So I’ve got a feeling they’re going to come back tonight and say, ‘do you know what? We’re not going down 2-0.’ I anticipate Connecticut winning the next game, the series and then moving on to the Finals.”
And on whether Bonner, Jones and company can power the Connecticut Sun to the franchise’s first ever title?
“If they show up and do work then I think they can be WNBA champions.”