By DOUG FEINBERG
UNCASVILLE, Conn. — Anne Donovan acknowledged being a little nervous before Connecticut’s season opener.
The veteran coach, who took over the Sun this season after spending the past three years coaching at Seton Hall, didn’t have much to worry about after her team put on a defensive clinic in the second half to beat the Liberty 81-69 on Saturday night.
The win spoiled the debut of Bill Laimbeer as New York’s coach.
After allowing 42 points in the first half, the Sun gave up just 27 in the final 20 minutes.
“It feels great to get the first one. I was really pleased with our effort in the second half defensively,” said Donovan, who last coached in the league in 2010 when she was in charge of the Liberty. “The ball didn’t drop that much in the first half.”
With the game tied at 50 midway through the third quarter, the Sun took over, scoring the next nine points. Kalana Greene and Lawson hit back-to-back 3-pointers, then Kelsey Griffin had a putback that made it 58-50.
The Sun led 65-56 after three quarters. The Liberty got within 67-63, but consecutive 3-pointers by Allison Hightower and Renee Montgomery made it a 10-point game with 4 minutes left. New York could only get within six the rest of the way.
“Those were big shots,” said Kara Lawson, who led Connecticut with 23 points. “Renee made big plays during that stretch setting up Allison’s 3 and then hitting her own.”
Donovan took over a talented Sun squad that made it to the Eastern Conference finals last season before losing to eventual champion Indiana. The Sun let longtime coach Mike Thibault go after the season.
Tina Charles had 19 points and 13 rebounds for the Sun, but struggled from the field. The reigning MVP missed 10 of her 12 shots in the first half. She finished the game just 7 for 21 from the field. After one miss that touched just about every part of the rim before falling off, Charles just shook her head in disbelief running down the court.
“She’s a veteran,” Lawson said. “They were good shots and we’re going to keep running stuff through her.”
Even with Charles struggling, the Sun were able to stay in the game behind the strong play of Lawson and hot 3-point shooting. Connecticut made 10 3s in the game.
Lawson had 11 straight points during one stretch in the second quarter, including hitting three consecutive 3-pointers. The last one gave Connecticut a 33-30 advantage and got Laimbeer to call timeout.
“She was a spark,” Donovan said. “She hit big shots, a great energy player.”
Laimbeer wasn’t too concerned after the loss. He was coaching his first game since 2009, when he left the Detroit Shock four games into the season to pursue opportunities in the NBA.
“It’s just basketball,” Laimbeer said. “I’ve been a part of thousands of games. It’s just another one. Our brain wasn’t there for the whole game. The effort was there but we just let the game get away in the second half.”
The Liberty don’t play again until next Friday, when they host the Tulsa Shock.
“We have a week to get more in sync,” said Liberty guard Katie Smith. “We had too many turnovers tonight. It will come.”
Cappie Pondexter was a bright spot for New York, scoring 23 points. She kept the Liberty in the game for the first 20 minutes, scoring 16 of her points. The All-Star scored the final five points of the first half for the Liberty, who went into the break up 42-40.
Rookie Kelsey Bone, who was the fifth pick in the WNBA draft this past April, had 10 points and eight rebounds in her debut.
The Sun announced that some of the proceeds from ticket sales from Saturday’s game will be donated to victims of the recent tornadoes in Oklahoma.
“We are all saddened by the loss of life and destruction in Oklahoma,” Sun vice president and general manager Chris Sienko said in a statement. “Through our small efforts we can hopefully bring some relief to those in desperate need of assistance.”
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