The newly named MVP didn't score until the 27-minute mark, yet the No. 1 Connecticut Sun still evened the WNBA semifinal series at 1-1 on Thursday night.
It was Alyssa Thomas, playing in only her fifth game of the season after an Achilles injury, who took over for the Sun in the fourth quarter to create separation and down the No. 6 Chicago Sky, 79-68. The series moves to Wintrust Arena in Chicago for Game 3 on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET on ESPN.
Thomas scored six consecutive points in the middle of the frame for a seven-point lead that continued to grow. She finished with 15 points, 10 of which came in the fourth quarter that the Sun controlled, 21-9. She added 11 rebounds, six assists and two steals off the bench.
Her +30 is tied for the third-highest +/- in playoff history for a player coming off the bench. Thomas was not expected to play this season after injuring her Achilles in January. The team saved a roster spot for her and played with a short bench.
Sun even series despite 4 points from MVP Jones
Connecticut evened the series despite almost nothing from Jonquel Jones, who was named the league's MVP ahead of Game 1 on Tuesday. She was 0-for-3 in the first half and missed both free throw attempts in 10 minutes on the floor. She sat for most of the fourth and cheered the team on from the sideline.
In 24 minutes she had four points on 2-for-9 shooting with seven rebounds, two steals and one block. Her frustration at missed shots could be audibly heard on the broadcast.
"I think the physicality [impacted her]," Sun head coach Miller told reporters. "If you see her, she's got a goose egg, like a golf ball, on her head. It happened immediately in the first quarter. She was affected by the physicality early."
Also concerning for the Sun is a continued struggles from the free-throw line. The Sun shot 71% (22-for-31) from the stripe in Game 1 and could have taken the win in regulation if they had closed that margin. It was worse in Game 2 as they shot 61.1% (11-for-18).
But there were good notes for the Sun beyond the final score. The bench, led by Thomas, put in big minutes and the guards had good nights. Natisha Hiedeman had five assists and six points off the bench while Jasmine Thomas scored 12, most of which came in the first after the Sun fell into a double-digit hole.
DeWanna Bonner has largely struggled in the series, but came alive enough in the second half. She was 6-for-13 for 15 points with eight rebounds and a block.
Game 2 turning point came with Sun defense
The Sun defense locked in to start the fourth quarter of a one-point 59-58 Sky lead, forcing Chicago into shot clock violations and bad looks. It fulfilled the two keys Miller wanted to see in the bounce-back win.
Miller told reporters on a video call ahead of the contest that the Sun wanted to keep the Sky below 80 points and 45% shooting. The Sky had 68, in line with the 69.9 ppg allowed by the Sun on average and 39.7% from the floor.
Yet it didn't look that way early. Chicago jumped out to an 11-0 lead keyed by five points by Candace Parker and four from Azura Stevens with three assists by Kahleah Copper. The Sun answered with an 8-0 run of their own to tie it at 21 just ahead of the second quarter.
The Sky's Stefanie Dolson and Stevens reached three fouls in the second quarter while the Sun took a six-point lead, their largest of the series to that point. It was a 45-39 Sun lead at the half.
Chicago had less ball movement than in Game 1, when Courtney Vandersloot put up a triple-double. She scored 10 points with six assists in Game 2 and didn't have the opportunity to complete as many "oh my gosh" passes she's known to do.
Copper led the scoring efforts with 13 points on 4-for-11 shooting. She had five rebounds, four assists and three steals. Parker scored 12 points on 5-for-8 shooting with seven rebounds, four assists, two steals and three blocks. The team was 7-for-26 from 3-point range.