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Insider Preview: Storm vs. Connecticut

HEAD-TO-HEAD
13-17 RECORD 22-9
L-3 STREAK L-1
2-3 LAST 5 3-2
71.1 PF 82.2
96.3 Off. Eff. 104.4
72.8 PA 78.5
98.7 Def. Eff. 99.7
31.1 RPG 34.6
.461 Reb % .499
73.5 Pace 77.5
13.4 Exp. Wins 19.3

Storm vs. Connecticut
Sunday, Sept. 16, 6:00 p.m.
KeyArena
TV: KONG 6/16
Radio: 1090 AM
LiveAccess: Available with subscription
Buy Tickets:
Promotion: Hero Appreciation Night

Kevin Pelton, StormBasketball.com


As we head into the final eight days of the 2012 WNBA regular season, the Connecticut Sun is engaged in a battle with the Indiana Fever for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. The outcome hinges in large part on the meeting between the two teams on Wednesday at the Mohegan Sun Arena. A Connecticut win would clinch the conference by securing the head-to-head tie-breaker.

Should the Fever pull off the road victory, the rest of the schedule becomes crucial. The Sun could still earn the tie-breaker over Indiana by winning the season finale against Atlanta and thus ensuring a better record against conference foes. However, Connecticut would also need either another win or a Fever loss to make sure that Indiana did not finish with the superior record. That's where Sunday's game in Seattle comes in. A win keeps the Sun in position to control its own destiny, even with a loss to Indiana.

Should Connecticut hold off the Fever, the Sun would claim the East's No. 1 seed for the second consecutive season and the fifth time in the franchise's decade in the Nutmeg State. Over that period, Connecticut has won 203 games, the league's highest total. (The Storm is second at 197, just ahead of Indiana at 195.) The Sun posted the conference's best regular-season record every year from 2004 through 2006 and reached the WNBA Finals twice in that period, losing to the Storm in 2004 and Sacramento in 2005.

Connecticut then hit a rough patch, with much of the team's veteran core either asking for the opportunity to play at home via trade (Katie Douglas, Lindsay Whalen) or retiring from the league (Nykesha Sales). Asjha Jones is the lone remaining link to those Sun teams, and one of the league's longest-tenured players, having spent all 10 seasons in Connecticut. Jones was an obvious choice for the Sun's All-Decade Team, which will be revealed at Wednesday's game.

More recently, Connecticut has rebuilt around a lineup featuring plenty of players from nearby Storrs. Jones is one of five UConn products on the roster. Three of the five start, and a fourth (Renee Montgomery) plays heavy minutes as the Sun's sixth woman. The star of the group is 2010 No. 1 overall pick Tina Charles, who has developed into an MVP candidate - and possibly the favorite - during her third season. Charles leads the WNBA in rebounding (10.7 per game), ranks second in blocks (1.4 per game) and fifth in scoring average (18.3 points per game), which in combination with Connecticut's perch atop the Eastern Conference makes her an obvious contender for the league's most prestigious individual award.

The Sun complements Charles' powerful post play with dangerous scorers on the perimeter. On a team of UConn alumnae, Tennessee product Kara Lawson stands out. Moved into the starting lineup at point guard this season, Lawson has responded with the best effort of her 10-year career. Lawson is averaging 14.7 points and 4.1 assists per game, both career highs, and ranks third in the league in threes, which she hits at a 43.1 percent clip.

Frequently, Lawson and Montgomery finish games together. Coming off the bench, Montgomery remains a potent scorer, averaging better than 20 points per 40 minutes. Her 12.1 points per game are tops among regular reserves, making her a contender for the Sixth Woman Award. Montgomery is dangerous both from beyond the arc (she's a 38.1 percent three-point shooter) and off the dribble, having made 111 free throws, which ranks her for eighth in the league.

Lately, the formula has not been quite as successful. 15-4 at the Olympic Break, Connecticut has lost more games than that already in August in September, going 7-5. A key reason for that has been the absence of Jones, who returned from London with both a gold medal and a strained left Achilles that has kept her out of the lineup for all 12 games since then. (Jones actually missed the last game before the break with the injury, but was able to play for the USA.) Fortunately, Jones is getting healthy as the playoffs approach. She was able to dress for Friday's loss at Los Angeles, though she did not see any action. Sunday's game in Seattle could mark her return. Charles is also dealing with a minor groin strain. She rested on Wednesday in Phoenix before starting and playing her usual minutes against the Sparks.

On July 1, the Storm got arguably its best win of the season at Connecticut. A home win over Minnesota in June was more impressive in terms of opponent, but the other factors give the game against the Sun the edge. The Storm was playing on the road - in an arena where the team had lost its last eight games - and the conclusion of a back-to-back set without center Ann Wauters.

After Friday's loss at San Antonio, the Storm is locked into the fourth seed in the Western Conference. Expect the team to continue to be conservative with the health of its stars, ensuring they are ready to go for the start of the playoffs. Sue Bird has missed the last two games after her strained right hip flexor flared up in Atlanta, and Lauren Jackson sat out Friday's game due to a strained hamstring. Starting guard Tanisha Wright played after missing Wednesday's game with a strained groin.

KEY MATCHUP
With Jackson on the sidelines, Wauters made her first start since injuring her Achilles on June 30, the day before the Storm's win at Connecticut. The heavy playing time was useful for Wauters, who has been out of rhythm since getting back on the court. She finished with 12 points and a season-high-tying nine rebounds. Wauters will face Charles for the first time in a WNBA game, though the two centers have matched up overseas. Without Wauters, the Storm was undersized in the post against July 1, yet still managed to put together a terrific defensive effort against Charles by using quickness and double-teams to harass her in the post. Charles finished with 13 points on 4-of-20 shooting.
LAST MEETING

Bouncing back from a loss Saturday at New York, the Storm defeated the Sun 89-83 July 1 in overtime. The odds were stacked against the Storm entering the game. Not only had Seattle lost eight consecutive games at Mohegan Sun Arena, not only was it the second game of a back-to-back, but the Storm was also short-handed without starting center Wauters due to a calf injury. Yet the Storm rallied from an early deficit to take the lead in the fourth quarter. With 13 seconds remaining and the game tied, Bird went to the free throw line with a chance to give the Storm the lead. Remarkably, she missed both attempts, but misses by Jones and Charles meant the Storm's first overtime period since 2010. There, Bird and Katie Smith came up with key three-pointers and Camille Little scored five points to help the Storm seal the victory.

Little finished with a career-high 27 points on 10-of-13 shooting and grabbed nine rebounds. Tina Thompson, who stepped into the lineup for Wauters, added 20 points and seven boards, making three three-pointers. Bird had 11 points and eight assists and Ewelina Kobryn came off the bench to score a career-high 13 points on 5-of-8 shooting. Lawson led Connecticut with 22 points. Jones (15 points, 11 rebounds) and Charles (13 points, 14 rebounds) had double doubles but tough Storm defense held them to combined 10-of-38 shooting.

INJURIES

Storm - Guard Sue Bird (strained right hip flexor) and center Lauren Jackson (strained hamstring) are day-to-day.

Connecticut - Forward Asjha Jones (strained left Achilles) is day-to-day.

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