Curt Miller can’t beat former team as Sparks lose to Sun

Curt Miller almost couldn’t lose.

Coaching against his former team, the Connecticut Sun, for the first time since taking over in L.A., the Sparks head coach could see the franchise he helped revitalize carry on his legacy or he could lead his new team to its best win of his short tenure.

Miller’s previous team outshined his present as the Sun won 83-74 at Arena on Sunday, handing the Sparks (5-6) their third loss in the last four games.

Forward Nneka Ogwumike led the Sparks with 19 points and 15 rebounds, but the Sun outscored the Sparks 20-11 in the fourth quarter, led by 20 points and nine rebounds from DeWanna Bonner.

“We hate losing and not protecting our home court,” Miller said, “but I think we’re proving ourselves despite the adversity, despite numerous players that are rotational players for us that are out. We can play with these teams. We can play with the top teams in the league.”

The Sun (9-3) remain among the WNBA elite despite trading 2021 most valuable player Jonquel Jones during the offseason and changing coaches. Connecticut is second in the league standings and the only team to defeat the defending champion Las Vegas Aces.

Miller, who led the Sun to six playoff appearances in seven seasons, defined his career as a program builder, starting in college. He led Bowling Green to eight regular-season conference titles in 11 years. He tied the single-season school record for wins with 21 during his second season with Indiana. After missing the playoffs during his first year with Connecticut, the Sun emerged as one of the consistent championship contenders, making four trips to the WNBA semifinals and two Finals appearances before Miller departed for the Sparks.

Now onto a new project, Miller called Connecticut’s sustained success “the blueprint” for what he wants to accomplish with the Sparks.

“Preparation is the cornerstone of what’s important for us and putting ourselves in position to compete,” Miller said. “If you establish that kind of culture, that night in and night out, that you’re going to prepare and you’re going to grind and you’re going to put your best foot forward, that’s all you can ask.”

Entering the second quarter of the season, the Sparks have upheld the coach’s standard. Miller was “tremendously pleased” that the Sparks were competitive in nine of their first 10 games and remained in early playoff position despite injuries and illnesses that have resulted in six different starting lineups.

Without starting guard Lexie Brown (non-COVID illness) for the second consecutive game, the Sparks finished the first half on a 13-5 run to take a five-point lead into the locker room. The Sun tied the score entering the fourth with a late mid-range jumper from Bonner, who scored 15 points in the second half. Bonner hit a critical free throw that put the Sun ahead by five with 1:27 remaining in the fourth after Miller was given a technical foul. Bonner extended the lead with a layup through traffic on the ensuing possession.

“Connecticut is a really good team,” said guard Karlie Samuelson, who had 11 points off the bench. “They’ve been together for a really long time, so we feel like we can play with anybody. And we’ve had really close games, we just gotta find ways to finish those close ones.”

Many of the same players who defined Miller’s successful run in Connecticut led the Sun to the win over their former coach. Alyssa Thomas finished with 16 points, 12 assists and five steals in 40 minutes. Brionna Jones added 17 points.

Miller is still rooting for Connecticut, he said. Nevermind so-called super teams Las Vegas and New York dominating the headlines. To him, the Sun should be championship favorites.

“[I’m] proud of that core group that’s there,” Miller said. “I’m always going to be a cheerleader for them and a supporter of them.”