Sun honor UConn women’s basketball star Asjha Jones following defeat of Sparks in home opener

Photo of Maggie Vanoni

UNCASVILLE — The Connecticut Sun brought the heat from the very beginning — literally right before tipoff.

To begin its 20th season anniversary celebration, the Sun debuted flame throwers and sparks for its starting lineup introductions Saturday night. The heat from the flames at center court could be felt along the baseline as the sound of the sparks exploding above reverberated through Mohegan Sun Arena.

In front of 5,624 fans — including UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma and his wife, Kathy — the franchise used the anniversary to honor former Huskies and Sun star Asjha Jones following its 77-60 defeat of Los Angeles for its first win of the season.

“Big win for us tonight to protect home court against one of the most talented defensive teams in the league,” Sun coach and general manager Curt Miller said. “Really, really happy with how we competed, the tempo that we played at and the way we thrived off our defense in that first half to really get out in transition and find ways to score against this talented defense. ... We pride ourselves on making this as difficult a place to play for opponents and it’s a great start to the year for us.”

Jonquel Jones, the 2021 MVP, and Alyssa Thomas carried Connecticut (1-1) through Saturday’s game, combining for 39 of Connecticut’s total points and 24 of its 45 rebounds. Thirty-two-year-old WNBA rookie Yvonne Anderson made her league debut against the Sparks, finishing with two points, one steal and one rebound in 11 minutes.

Saturday was the Sun’s final game with only nine available players. Courtney Williams will make her season debut Tuesday after sitting out the first two games of the regular season due a league suspension she received in the fall. Longtime Sun veteran DeWanna Bonner returned to Connecticut this weekend after her overseas season ended. While she was with the team on the bench Saturday, she has yet to practice since returning.

The Sparks (2-2) were led by Jordin Canada and Nneka Ogwumike with 12 points each. Former Huskies Katie Lou Samuelson and Olivia Nelson-Ododa were not with the team Saturday. Samuelson remains unavailable due to her overseas competition, while Nelson-Ododa has yet to make her professional regular-season debut because of an ongoing hip injury. The recent UConn graduate remains listed week-to-week.

After falling to New York in its season opener this past Saturday, Connecticut started its matchup against Los Angeles in full control with a 12-0 run. The Sparks didn’t score their first field goal until almost five minutes into the first quarter.

Despite boasting 6-foot-8 Liz Cambage on its roster, LA struggled against Connecticut’s bigs. By halftime, the Sun had 27 rebounds to LA’s nine and had outscored the Sparks 20-8 in the paint. Jonquel Jones and Thomas led the charge as the game’s only two players in double-figure scoring and with more than three boards each at the intermission.

“Terrific in the first half, both of them and there was an intent to play through them,” Miller said about Jonquel Jones and Thomas. “They set the tone. Alyssa is just that engine, right, that plays so hard. Didn’t matter if it was the 3 or the 4 tonight, she was a real real factor.”

The Sun honored Asjha Jones following the victory with a celebration to introduce her into the franchise’s Ring of Honor.

After helping lead UConn to two national championships during her time in Storrs (1998-2002), Asjha Jones went on to play 13 years in the WNBA. She was traded to Connecticut after first two years season in Washington. Before retiring in 2015, she became a two-time All-Star and helped lead Minnesota to the 2015 WNBA Championship. Asjha Jones played nine seasons with the Sun, as Connecticut retired her No. 15 onto its Ring of Honor banner Saturday night.

“Some players take getting traded different ways but for me it was like coming back home,” said Asjha Jones, who is the Portland Blazers’ Director of Basketball Strategy & Planning. “When I was traded I didn’t know what kind of player I was gonna be. I wasn’t being used in DC. I got traded here and coach (Mike) Thibault, he gave me my confidence. He showed me what kind of player I could be.”

Auriemma, Jennifer Rizzotti, Marissa Mosley and two members of the Mohegan tribal council spoke about Asjha Jones’ impact on both UConn and the Sun.

“It was like a breath of fresh air to get Asjha to come to UConn with that particular class and she happened to be part of probably the greatest starting five in the history of Connecticut basketball,” Auriemma said.

He later added: “There’s been a lot of great players at UConn, at the Connecticut Sun, in the WNBA and on the Olympic team, but there’s only been one Asjha Jones.”

Asjha Jones is the fifth former Sun player — including fellow former Husky Nykesha Sales — to have their number retired.

Connecticut’s next game is scheduled for Tuesday at New York (7 p.m.) before hosting Indiana on Friday at 7 p.m.