Shock reclaim first, stay undefeated at home

Home Cookin’

Perhaps the WNBA’s schedule-makers did the Shock a favor, giving Detroit two of their three regular-season meetings with the Connecticut Sun at The Palace.

But the Shock made their own home-court luck Tuesday, prevailing over the Sun 88-82 to reclaim first place in the Eastern Conference.

By winning both meetings at The Palace after losing the initial bout in Connecticut, the Shock hold the tiebreaker for home-court advantage in the playoffs should the Shock (13-6) and Sun (13-7) maintain their current seeding.

“That’s very important to have the tiebreaker,” Detroit coach Bill Laimbeer said. “We didn’t know what our record would be at this point in the season because of our injuries. That we happen to be on top right now is a good thing; we’d like to stay there. But at the end of the season, if it ends up in a tie, we’ve got it.”

The common denominator between the Shock’s June 26 home win over the Sun and Tuesday night was a steady dose of frontcourt scoring from Cheryl Ford, Plenette Pierson and Kara Braxton.

‘That’s what we do best, is bang it inside and get our guards open shots because we’re making shots on the inside,” Pierson said. “Fortunately they couldn’t stop us tonight. We were going to keep going that way until the well ran dry.”

Off the bench Pierson had a game-high 23 points and Braxton chipped in 10 points and eight rebounds. Ford scored 11 of her 16 points in the fourth quarter, when Detroit increased its two-point lead to nine with less than two minutes to play.

“Cheryl was big in the fourth quarter, just banging on in the inside, making those easy baskets and getting them in foul trouble and making free throws,” Pierson said. “She was awesome. We can’t ask for anymore from her.” Ford has scored in double figures all three games against the Sun, averaging 13.0 points.

The Sun enjoyed a 26-19 lead early in the second quarter, but Katie Smith knocked her first field goals of the game on consecutive possessions, and her 3-pointer tied the game at 26. Nolan gave Detroit its last lead of the first half at 37-36. Smith finished with 17 points and Nolan added 16 and eight assists. The Detroit duo combined to shoot 13-of-23 from the floor.

Three straight buckets by Asjha Jones put Connecticut back in front, and the Sun took a 45-42 halftime lead. Jones had 16 points on 8-of-11 shooting in the first half but scored only five after the break. Guard Lindsey Whalen scored the Sun’s first 12 points of the third quarter to cling to a 57-55 lead. When Whalen’s outburst subsided, the Shock’s bigs kept coming.

A three-point play by Braxton tied the game at 58, and then she split a pair of free throws for Detroit’s first lead of the second half, 61-60. The Shock entered the fourth quarter ahead, 63-61. A fourth-year center prone to rookie-like lapses during her career, Braxton is putting together her best campaign yet. Even her toughest critics have taken notice.

“Every game is becoming a better situation for her,” beamed Laimbeer. “And she has good focus, I mean, she had no turnovers tonight. A couple of times you thought she was going to turn it over but she didn’t. She has more patience right now than she’s ever had as a Detroit Shock.”

The Shock distanced themselves from the Sun by turning three fourth-quarter turnovers into six points. Though the Sun had only 11 turnovers, Detroit converted them into 15 points. “When we focus and we’re really into the game, our running game is spectacular,” Laimbeer said. “And I think that’s what carried us in the second half. We got stops, we got the rebounds and our athletic players really pushed it up the floor.”

With under two minutes left, Ford came away with a loose ball, which turned into a 16-footer by Nolan for a seven-point lead. Out of the ensuing timeout Nolan stole the inbounds pass and passed to Braxton, who then dished to Pierson for a layup. That delivered Detroit its largest lead at 84-75 with 1:35 left. “I think tonight we really got back to the old show, from 2003 and ’06,” said Pierson, referring to the Shock’s championship seasons. “ I think we definitely got back to that tonight with running and just getting easy baskets.”

The Shock host Washington on Friday, the second of six home games in July before the month-long Olympic break. Detroit’s next four games are also against conference foes, giving the Shock a great opportunity to solidify their leadership of the East. “Our goal is to win all our home games, which we done so far. We’ve got another one coming,” Laimbeer said. “This little stretch here, we’ll play a lot of Eastern Conference teams and that’s going to be important.”

The Sun, who jumped out to the conference lead with an 8-1 start, are now 5-6 in their last 11 games.