CHICAGO -- No WNBA team has repeated as champion since the Los Angeles Sparks did it in 2001-02, and the No. 3 seed Connecticut Sun ensured that cold streak would be extended Thursday night in historic fashion, using a 22-2 fourth-quarter run to knock off the No. 2 seed and defending champion Chicago Sky with a 72-63 victory in a winner-take-all Game 5 at Wintrust Arena.
Connecticut will take on the No. 1 seed Las Vegas Aces in the best-of-five WNBA Finals, with Game 1 Sunday at 3 p.m. ET on ABC. Both teams are seeking their first WNBA title, ensuring there will be a new champion for the third time in four seasons. The Aces have opened as -250 favorites in the Finals, according to Caesars Sportsbook.
The Sky controlled much of Thursday night's game, outscoring the Sun by 18 points across the second and third quarters, holding Connecticut to just eight points in the third and leading by as many as 11 with 7:20 left in the game.
But the Sun roared back and asserted their will on both ends, closing the game on an 18-0 run to shock the Sky and the Wintrust crowd. Chicago, typically known for its offensive flow and balanced scoring capabilities, went scoreless for the final 4:46 of the game.
"Maybe we stopped attacking and we were scared to lose rather than trying to win," Chicago's Courtney Vandersloot said of the dramatic swing from the third quarter to the fourth.
Shifting the momentum in the Sun's favor for good was a DeWanna Bonner and-1 with 3:46 left that cut the Sky's lead to seven and resulted in a heated exchange with Chicago's Kahleah Copper -- who had already been called for a technical foul earlier in the first quarter but avoided earning a second this time.
Bonner converted the ensuing free throw, and the Sun kept rolling from there. Jonquel Jones' and-1 at the 2:00 mark allowed them to take the lead for the first time since the second quarter.
"I think that was our moment to settle down a little bit," Bonner said. "We got fired up. ... We looked up when that happened, and it was like, 'There is a lot of time left.' That's all the fire we needed."
The Sun's 18-0 run is the longest to close out a WNBA playoff game in league history, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. The Sky were held to five points in the final frame, the fewest in the fourth quarter of a winner-take-all game in WNBA history and the second fewest in any playoff game.
"I think that this is a learning experience," two-time league MVP and WNBA champion Candace Parker said. "We can't let our foot off the gas, and I think we did a little bit."
Sky coach James Wade added: "It's probably one of the biggest disappointments that I've had professionally. The players, they gave everything this year and they did everything. I thought they deserved a little bit more. ... I felt like I could have done a better job of getting them a bucket, and I just couldn't get them one."
Connecticut won despite committing 23 turnovers, the most by a team in a WNBA playoff win. Eight of them came in the third quarter, matching the number of points the Sun scored that frame.
"I know people want to try to tag this group: 'When it comes easy, Connecticut's really special. It's when it's hard -- can Connecticut win the hard?' and tonight we won the hard," Sun coach Curt Miller said. "We were backs against the wall. There were a few plays, probably, for the game to break open, and they just refused to give in. They had that grit and determination, which is what we're built on."
Bonner and Jones led the Sun with 15 points apiece, though each Connecticut starter hit double figures. Copper's 22 led the Sky.
The Sun, who competed in the semifinals for the fourth consecutive season and lead the WNBA with the most playoff victories without a title (36), advance to their first WNBA Finals since 2019, when they lost to the Washington Mystics in five games. They became the third WNBA team ever to oust a team from the playoffs that swept them in the regular season (4-0), and they did so by enacting revenge over the same squad that eliminated them from the playoffs in the semifinals last year.
Connecticut's resurgence the past four years has not come without hardship. Jones, the 2021 league MVP, opted out of the 2020 bubble season due to COVID-19 concerns, and franchise stalwart Alyssa Thomas missed the majority of the 2021 regular season with an Achilles tear, returning for the playoffs but without enough time for the team to fully find its identity with her back in the fold. Then longtime point guard Jasmine Thomas tore her ACL in late May, and late-season addition Bria Hartley suffered the same injury in July, just three games into her short-lived career in Connecticut.
The Sun faced more adversity in the postseason, needing to get through a first-round elimination game in Dallas and then two more against Chicago after a tough four-point Game 3 defeat on their home court in which the team shot less than 40% in the paint. There were signs of life, though, after an emphatic 104-80 Game 4 win in which their offense looked the best it had all postseason.
"We wanted this one bad. We come up here every year, and Chicago kicks our ass," Bonner said. "We lost to them, like, seven times in a row, like we couldn't figure it out. And I think that Game 4, we figured it out and we came in with a little bit more confidence."
Even after a disastrous third quarter Thursday in which they seemingly relinquished control to the hometown Sky, the Sun weren't ready to let their season end yet.
"We're not folding no more," the Sun's Natisha Hiedeman said. "As y'all saw [after] the third quarter, we picked it right back up and won the game, and now we're going to the championship. Job not done yet."
Chicago, meanwhile, faces an uncertain feature. Parker and sharpshooter Allie Quigley (both 36 and upcoming free agents) could decide to retire, and the contracts of three other major contributors -- Vandersloot, Emma Meesseman and Azurá Stevens -- are also up after this season.
"Just like I do every season, I'm going to go back and reevaluate whether I'm able to continue to play at the level that I hold myself to," Parker said. "And I think that's the biggest thing is I don't ever want to cheat the game. I won't cheat the game. So when I'm not able to go out and play and be the Candace that I want to be, I won't play."
Added Wade: "I was proud of how we were able to defend the title. I thought we defended the title with grace and poise and I thought we were a team that represented the WNBA well. It's a tough pill to swallow, but this is one of the funnest seasons that I've had because of the players in that locker room."