Connecticut Sun avoid elimination, defeat Las Vegas Aces in Game 3 of WNBA Finals

Photo of Maggie Vanoni

UNCASVILLE — Natisha Hiedeman caught the pass from Alyssa Thomas atop the arc. She paused and did a slight fake pump before launching the ball.

It swished through the net, giving the Connecticut Sun a double-digit lead over the top-ranked Las Vegas Aces.

Hiedeman turned around to face the 8,700-person crowd at Mohegan Sun Arena. She clasped her hands in prayer and brought them to her cheek before nodding 'goodnight' to Las Vegas. Sun fans roared back in support, waving their white rally flags in the air.

Third-seeded Connecticut avoided elimination Thursday night, defeating top-seed Las Vegas 105-76 to extend the WNBA Finals to a Game 4. 

The teams will meet Sunday back at Mohegan at 4 p.m. (ESPN) with elimination still on the line for the Sun, who are now down 2-1 to the Aces in the best-of-five series. If a Game 5 is needed, the two will travel back to Vegas to play Tuesday night at 9 p.m.

Playing under pressure isn’t new to the Sun. Connecticut thrives with its back against the wall and has gone 4-0 in elimination games so far this postseason, including beating Dallas 2-1 in the first round and Chicago 3-2 in the semifinals.

The Sun not only know how to keep itself composed but do so in historic fashion.

Thomas recorded the first triple-double in WNBA Finals history finishing with 16 points, 15 rebounds, and 11 assists. It's her third triple-double of the year — also a WNBA record. The Sun's 29-point victory is the largest win margin in a WNBA Finals elimination game while its 105-point total sets the franchise record for most points in a playoff game.

"That's a gritty team, and when you tell them they can't do something, it's going to make them try even harder and compete like crazy," Sun coach and general manager Curt Miller said. "There's just so much pride in that locker room that we are who we are. They thrive when their backs are against the wall and they thrive when someone tells them they can't do something."

Jonquel Jones led in points (20) followed by DeWanna Bonner with 18 and Hiedeman with 14. Bonner also finished with six rebounds, five assists and two steals on 53.3 percent shooting after only contributing two points (on 1 of 9 shooting) in both Games 1 and 2 against the Aces. The veteran said it was being in front of a home crowd for the first time in nine days that motivated her Thursday night. When she checked out of the game with four minutes remaining, the Sun crowd gave her a standing ovation.

"Man, I got to sleep in my own bed," Bonner said. "Being at home just feels so much better because we were on the road for like seven or eight days. With the playoffs, I feel like we've been on the road a lot and it was just so good to be home in front of these fans. I can't shoot like that in front of them again."

Vegas started Game 3 Thursday the way it ended Game 2 in Nevada: with A’ja Wilson dominating. The 2022 WNBA MVP and Defensive Player of the Year, scored off the tip and then again less than 20 seconds later with a steal-and-score off Connecticut’s first offensive possession. 

Miller called timeout after Vegas led 9-2 in the opening two minutes. Miller said his veterans led the huddle and told each other to remain calm and confident.

"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. Just taking a deep breath. It's scary to take a time-out that quickly knowing that you have an eight-minute quarter the rest of the quarter without a time-out. But it was needed and we gathered ourselves, and again, the veterans led through that huddle."

The quick breather was all the Sun needed to reset and gain control.

A jumper Thomas at 3:47 sparked a 6-0 run for the Sun. By the end of the quarter, that run increased to 19-2 to give the Sun a 34-19 lead — an edge that it kept for the remainder of the game. Connecticut’s 34 points set a WNBA record for most points in an opening quarter of a Finals game.

Connecticut kept Vegas scoreless for eight minutes and 45 seconds – a span that started in the final minutes of the first quarter and ended in the opening minutes of the second. The Sun’s offense was in full force shooting 82.4 percent from the floor and 60 percent from the 3-point line after the opening 10 minutes. Connecticut’s 19 assists in the first half were the most in any half of a WNBA Finals game.

"They just kicked our ass in every way possible," Vegas coach Becky Hammon said. "There's no two ways about it. If there was a stat on mental toughness and physicality, they would have kicked our ass there, too."

With Jones leading the frontcourt, the Sun outscored the Aces 64-26 in the paint. Connecticut outrebounded Las Vegas 38-24, including 10-3 on offensive boards and led 18-4 in second-chance points.

"They came in, Connecticut came in, with a better mental approach than we did," Hammon said. "I don't know if we thought we were just going to show up and they were going to lay down and hand us the trophy, but we should know better by now. That's a team that is very resilient. If there's one thing that this team, if you could encapsulate Connecticut, it's physical and very resilient."

The Sun's defense was just as forceful. Connecticut forced 26 points off of the Aces' 16 turnovers and had 10 steals to Vegas' 3.

After recording double-doubles in her last five straight games, Vegas star A'ja Wilson, the 2022 MVP and Defensive Player of the Year, was held to 19 points and four rebounds.

Vegas got as close as six within Connecticut at 1:08 in the third but a 6-0 run from the Sun to start the fourth quarter expanded its lead back to double digits. Connecticut held the Aces scoreless for the last 6:49 of the game as the Aces finished 2 of 13 in the final quarter. Meanwhile, the Sun finished the game with a 58.3 field goal percentage and a 53.3-percent clip from the 3-point line.

All-WNBA First and Second Team honors

Former UConn women’s basketball star Breanna Stewart was named to the 2022 All-WNBA First Team ahead of Thursday's game. It's her fourth-straight season earning first-team honors. Stewart led the league in scoring during the regular season averaging 21.8 points per game. The Sun’s Jonquel Jones and Alyssa Thomas were named to the Second Team.

maggie.vanoni@hearstmediact.com   @maggie_vanoni