By any measure, Thursday was an excellent day for Connecticut Sun center Tina Charles. First, the third-year pro was named the WNBA’s 2012 Most Valuable Player—the first MVP award for the all-time leading rebounder in UConn history, 2010 WNBA Rookie of the Year and three-time WNBA All-Star. Then, led by a 17-point effort by Charles, who also blocked four shots, the Sun defeated the New York Liberty, 65-60, before a disappointing ground of 5,520 at the Mohegan Sun Arena. It was the playoff opener for both teams, and the first-ever playoff victory for the Sun in the “Charles era.”
“The day is going great,” said Charles, who led the WNBA in rebounding for the third time in her career (10.5 rebounds per game) and finished fifth in scoring (18 ppg). “I got a (personal) achievement, and we got the first playoff win. Now we have to build on that.”
Asjha Jones returned to the starting lineup, and put up 10 points, hauled down nine boards and picked up four assists for Connecticut, the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Kara Lawson turned in her signature all-around solid performance with eight points, six boards and five assists.
Former Rutgers star Cappie Pondexter Led the Liberty with 14 points, six assists and four steals, while Plenette Pierson chipped in with 13 points and nine rebounds.
The raced out to a 10-point lead at the first turn but the Liberty did not back down, cutting into the Connecticut advantage as the two teams headed into the locker room at halftime with the Sun up by seven, 41-34.
Things got very interesting in the third stanza when New York drew even, 45-45, with a little over a minute left in the period. But the Sun ended the suspense at that point by applying their signature hard-nose defense, holding the Liberty scoreless for the next six and a-half minutes, taking a 57-45 lead with 7:57 remaining in regulation… and never looked back.
“We were terrible in the third quarter,” said Sun head coach Mike Thibault referring to his team’s eight-point third-period performance. “We couldn’t make a layup, missed wide open jump shots and we gave them second shots. We got three or four stops to start the fourth quarter and got a run out to 12 points. Hopefully the first game jitters are over. I’m happy for the win and effort, but we need to play a lot better and get to the free throw line.”
It was the first playoff with for the Sun since 2008. Since then, the team has gone through a radical facelift, picking up Kara Lawson in the WNBA dispersal draft after the Sacramento Monarchs were disbanded and trading Lindsay Whalen to Minnesota for Renee Montgomery and swapping first-round draft picks with Lynx—and parlaying the first pick in the 2009 draft into Tina Charles. (The Lynx, meanwhile, selected UConn legend Maya Moore No. 1 the following year, setting up what should be a long-term rivalry between the teams that should last a decade.
The series now moves down I-95 to Newark, NJ, where Game Two of the best-of-three Eastern Conference semifinal series is slated to be played at the Prudential Center on Saturday night. Tip-off is slated for 7 p.m., and the game will be televised live on NBA-TV. Game Three, if necessary, will be at the Mohegan Sun Arena on Monday at 7 p.m.