October 09, 2004

Connecticut 68, Seattle 64

UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- Lindsay Whalen made the most of the biggest game of her professional career.

The rookie guard led the Connecticut Sun to a 68-64 victory over the Seattle Storm on Friday night in the opening game of the WNBA Finals.

She set a team playoff mark with nine assists and had 11 points, two steals and two blocked shots. Whalen also helped shut down Storm star Sue Bird, who finished with six turnovers and had 12 points on 4-for-11 shooting.

``We know we're a good team and as long as we play the right way and share the ball we should be in position,'' Whalen said.

Bird and the Storm were stymied all night by Whalen and the Sun defense.

Much of the 9,341 fans in the sellout crowd had watched Bird star at UConn, where she won two NCAA titles. She drew a deafening roar during introductions, but after the opening tip, the Sun took her out of her comfort zone.

``They forced us to do things that we were not necessarily wanting to do or used to doing,'' Bird said. ``More than anything I thought their transition killed us.''

Whalen, who led Minnesota to its first Final Four appearance last season, kept the Sun's transition game in high gear. She also set the tone for the solid defense which kept Lauren Jackson, the league's leading scorer, in check for most of the night.

``They really dictated the tempo tonight,'' Storm coach Anne Donovan said.

The Sun had finals-record 15 steals, blocked six shots and had just enough of a cushion to hold off Seattle's late rally from a 16-point deficit.

The Sun took advantage of their only home game in the best-of-three series, drawing a raucous sellout crowd that included Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell.

``It was live today. It made it easier to play,'' Sun forward Nykesha Sales said. ``There was a lot of energy, a lot of excitement.''

Game 2 is at Seattle on Sunday and Game 3, if necessary, will be Tuesday.

Katie Douglas led Connecticut with 18 points on 6-of-11 shooting and made two free throws with 16 seconds left.

Betty Lennox had 17 points for Seattle and Jackson finished with 16, six in the closing minutes.

The Sun harassed Jackson throughout the first half, bumping her off her cuts and doubling up when she got the ball. But Jackson made the most of her few free looks, draining both of her 3-point attempts and finished with eight points at the half.

''(Jackson) got really involved in the latter part of the game. She got past our guards a little bit,'' Sun coach Mike Thibault said. ``We're going to have to do a better job of that.''

Jackson said she's used to being roughed up by defenses but was unable to counter the Sun defenders.

``It was pretty frustrating. It didn't feel like I got involved at all. But it doesn't matter,'' Jackson said, ``because the next game I'm going off.''

She has dedicated the finals to the memory of her grandmother Irene, who died last month.

``I just have to focus on getting in there and being tough inside,'' Jackson said.

Connecticut dominated inside early, working the ball down low to Taj McWilliams-Franklin and Wendy Palmer-Daniel who combined for 14 points in the half. The Sun led by as many as six but Lennox hit four straight jumpers midway in the period to give Seattle its first lead, 18-17 with 10:44 remaining.

Connecticut used a 10-2 run in the closing minutes to go back up 31-25, but Bird and Jackson hit consecutive baskets to get within two. And the Sun got a scare when Douglas rolled her right ankle and, in obvious pain, had to be helped off the floor. But she wasn't about to sit this one out.

Douglas returned in the final minute of the half and hit a jumper from the wing to give the Sun a 33-29 halftime lead.

``I just tried to put it in the back of my mind because this is such a huge game for our franchise and our team,'' Douglas said. ``We're on a journey to do something special.''

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