The excitement was palpable entering the sold-out Mohegan Sun Arena on Tuesday night. This was Maya’s homecoming, and Connecticut basketball fans came out en masse to pay homage to their queen. As the Black Eyed Peas’ I Got a Feelin’ (“Tonight’s gonna be a good, good night”) blared through the sound system in the arena, little did anyone know at the time how clairvoyant that musical selection would be.
Coming into the game, Maya’s Minnesota Lynx were the best team in the WNBA. At 18-5, the Lynx had a five game lead on their nearest competitors, Phoenix and San Antonio, in the Western Conference standings. And less we forget, just last Thursday the Silver Stars had come to town and spanked their hostesses with a 72-59 trouncing.
By all reasonable measures, this looked to be a learning curve kind of evening for the Connecticut Sun, who had dropped a 90-67 decision to the Lynx at the Target Center in Minneapolis on July 9.
But then the game started, and by the time the dust had settled, the Sun had earned a resounding 108-79 victory, exceeding their previous high for points scored by seven points and whipping the Western Conference leaders in virtually every aspect of the game.
The Lynx starting lineup is a veritable All-Star Team unto itself featuring five former All-Americans including Lindsey Whalen and Taj McWilliams-Franklin, two core players for Connecticut during the Sun’s consecutive WNBA Finals appearances in 2004 and 2005.
McWilliams-Franklin is a major story in her own right. After spending the first eight years of her WNBA career with the same franchise (beginning in Orlando, then moving to Connecticut when the Miracle relocated to the Nutmeg State), McWilliams-Franklin has become somewhat of a nomad, playing with five teams in the past six years (including two separate stints with the Detroit Shock). Nonetheless, at the advanced age of 40, the 12-year pro now finds herself not only contributing, but starting for the team with the best record in the league.
But without question, for the 9,323 fans passing through the turnstiles—the Sun’s first sellout since last June, when Diana Taurasi led her Phoenix Mercury into town—the story was Moore, who became just the second women’s player in history to be named a four-time All-American while at UConn. Entering the game, Moore was averaging 13.3 points per game—tops among WNBA rookies—and had scored in double-digits 16 times, putting 20 or more on the board five times.
After Augustus, the former All-American from LSU, banged home a trey to give the Lynx an 8-7 lead two minutes and fifty seconds into the game, the Sun went on a 21-7 run to close out the first quarter and assume a commanding 29-14 lead.
Unlike many previous games, in which the Sun would race out to a lead, then fall back before ultimately pulling out a win by the skin of their collective teeth, this time they kept everyone waiting for a Minnesota run that never came. The Sun outshot the Lynx by a significant margin, knocking down 38 of 72 shots for an excellent 52.8 percent from the field, while holding Minnesota to 42.5 percent (31-for-73, including 4-for-18 from beyond the three-point arc). In addition, the Sun outscored the Lynx by 10 points from the charity stripe, and won the battle in the paint, out-rebounding their counterparts 36-32.
After two consecutive games without registering a double-double, Tina Charles was back in form, putting up her 16th of the season (16 points, 18 rebounds). Indeed, UConn’s all-time leading rebounder had put up a Double-D by halftime, registering 13 points and 12 rebounds by intermission. By then, the Sun were 57-42, and there was no looking back.
Renee Montgomery led the Sun with 17 points and added 7 assists, while Kara Lawson contributed 16 points off the bench, thanks in large part to a 4-for-5 performance from downtown. Asjha Jones chipped in with 15, while Kelsey Griffin came off the bench to score a career-high 14 points for the Sun, who improved to 16-8 and are 1.5 games behind first-place Indiana (one game in the loss column).
Whalen, the former Sun point guard dealt to Minnesota for Renee Montgomery and a swap of draft picks that the Sun used to select Tina Charles (a deal that might one day look like Red Auerbach’s trade with Golden State that yielded Robert Parrish and Kevin McHale for the Celtics), led the Lynx with 20 points, while former Georgetown star Rebekkah Brunson and former LSU All-American Seimone Agustus added 11 apiece for Minnesota, which fell to 18-6 but still leads in the West by four games.
Most importantly, the Sun limited to Moore to what must have been the worst game of her playing career—high school, college or pro. After picking up her third foul less than two minutes into the second half, Moore spent most of the third quarter on the pines and left the game for good with 7:37 left in the game and her team down by 18 points, 82-64.
It was, to put it mildly, a disappointing evening for UConn’s all-time leading scoring leader, who was able to put just two points on the board on 1-for-10 shooting (including 0-for-3 from beyond the arc). Moore’s performance provided empirical evidence for anyone who questions the immense difference in overall talent—top-to-bottom—between the college and professional games.
“I think the loyalty of UConn fans is lifetime,” said the Jefferson City, Missouri native on her first trip back to her adopted home state. “It is always going to be a home to me, and it’s just fun to be able to come back and enjoy the energy that they bring. You wish you could play forever as a Husky.”
Moore went on to address the learning curve on becoming a pro, and having such an ugly game in front of her adoring fans.
“It doesn’t matter where it is, this is a tough game,” she continued. “Tomorrow is another day and Thursday is another game. That’s the thing about the pros. I’m not really used to it, but it’s kind of better, actually. You don’t have a week of practice [to dwell on it].”
Could this have been a preview of the WNBA Finals?
“It is way too early for that,” said Lawson, who played for the Sacramento Monarchs during the Sun’s last trip to the Finals. “One of the things that you have to remember in this league is that you have to stay grounded in who you are as a team and what makes you successful. We had a great performance tonight, no question. But we cannot go to New York and give it back. Right now our focus is trying to get a playoff berth and also be the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. We are still trying to track down Indiana. If we win this game and give that one back in New York, then this win doesn’t mean anything. We’re trying to stay grounded.”
Lawson, who won a WNBA championship ring with Sacramento and took home a gold medal from the 2008 Summer Olympics, then cautioned her young teammates to keep Tuesday’s victory in perspective.
“We feel good tonight, absolutely,” continued the eight-year pro out of Tennessee. “We feel like we are a team that is going to make the playoffs, and to have a great performance tonight in front of as many eyeballs that were here tonight can do nothing but build momentum. From the big-picture standpoint, it’s a great win for us all the way around. But it’s a long season.”
In the end, Tuesday night was just one game—nothing more, nothing less. But Connecticut Sun fans got a sense that they would be seeing a lot more of Maya Moore down the road.
“It was definitely really important, but at the same time it shows a lot of respect to Maya,” said Charles, who teamed with Moore to lead the UConn women’s basketball team to a record-breaking 90-game winning streak that included an undefeated national championship season. “She did a lot of great things for the University of Connecticut and the state of Connecticut. She made players like us, the ones that played with her at UConn—myself, Renee Montgomery, Kalana Greene and others—she definitely made us better as players and it helped us become the players we are today. The fans that came to see her brought a lot of energy to the arena and it definitely helped give us an energy boost tonight.”
There will be no time for the Sun to celebrate as they must now leave for Newark, NJ, where they will face the third-place New York Liberty on Thursday night and before immediately heading to Atlanta to take on the 12-12 Dream on Friday night. Thursday’s game is slated to tip off at 7 p.m., and Friday’s starts at 7:30. Both will be televised nationally on NBA-TV.
The team will then grab a quick breath and head back home to entertain the Dream on Sunday. Tip-off at the Mohegan Sun Arena is 5 p.m., and the game will be webcast on WNBA Live Access. By then, Connecticut, which has missed the postseason for two years running, will have a good idea where it stands this year.