2012 Connecticut Sun Preview: The Sun hope to shine longer with better finishes, strength on the road
NEW YORK -- Growing together since establishing a new core group in 2010, the Connecticut Sun approached their 10th season as the transformed former Orlando Miracle knowing that, though they tied the Indiana Fever with an Eastern Conference-best 21-13 mark prior to the playoffs a year ago, there was one area that needed improvement if they are to advance to the next level: They had to get better on the road and they had to perform better in the fourth quarter, especially in close games.
So far, so good in the wake of a season-opening 78-73 win, which came on the road Saturday afternoon against the Eastern rival New York Liberty in Madison Square Garden. Saturday's game, incidentally, featured a brief return to the Liberty's regular home court at Madison Square Garden because of the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs in which the New Jersey Devils hosted the New York Rangers at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., across the Hudson River. This is the second of three seasons in which the Liberty is calling "The Rock" home while renovations continue to Madison Square Garden.
The Sun, which was outplayed in several portions of the closely-fought contest, outscored New York 27-15 in the final stanza and won the game in the final minute as Olympian and UConn alumn Asjha Jones snapped a 71-71 tie with a 16-foot jump shot with 52.9 seconda remaining in regulation. Former Rutgers star Cappie Pondexter, now with the Liberty, then tried for another tie, driving to the basket with 19 seconds left, but missed the attempt. Connecticut's Danielle McCray then made one-of-two foul shots for a three-point lead.
New York still had a chance to determine the outcome but the Liberty's Leilani Mitchell banged into former LSU star Allison Hightower and was called for an offensive foul with 7.6 seconds left. Pondexter then fouled the Sun's Renee Montgomery, who hit both free throws, all but sealing the win with a five-point edge. Nicole Powell, the former Stanford star then hit a shot for the Liberty before Connecticut's McCray nailed two foul shots for the final score.
"We got good performance from a whole bunch of people," Connecticut coach Mike Thibault said after a game in which his team was assessed three technical fouls in the first half, including one on himself and one apiece on Tina Charles and Renee Montgomery.
"Renee [Montogmery] has to adjust to a new role but she did a great job with it," Thibault added.
Montgomery, normally a starter, came off the bench to provide a spark in the offense as did Hightower.
"Road wins in this league are gold," said Thibault of a weekend-opening start in which the two Eastern rivals are going back-to-back with each other as both squads head up to Uncasville and the Mohegan Arena for the Sun's afternoon home opener on Sunday. "Now, we'll find out how good we are if we turn around and play a great effort game tomorrow. You play a back-to-back like this and you steal the first one on the road, you need to turn around and be special the next day. But it certainly by appearance certainly looked better than last year's fourth quarter at times."
A sweep right from the jump would give Connecticut a 2-0 lead against its top rival -- though much of the East is a dogfight -- but it would be worth all the more, essentially putting a playoff tie-break into the Sun's bank account right from the start in a season broken up by the Olympics.
"We told our players every road win you get now is exactly that -- in the bank -- and it's like a mini-playoff series against your biggest rival and you try to establish how you're going to play down the stretch. We executed pretty well, too," Thibault noted.
Liberty coach John Whisenant, whose team, unlike the Sun, finally came together during this week with late arrivals from overseas competition, bemoaned a game that got away and created a pressure situation to win Sunday. The two teams won't see each other again until another relatively quick home-and-home series right after the Olympics.
"We improved," said Whisenant. "They have two Olympic players -- Tina Charles (and Jones) -- she's like a Dwight Howard in terms of rebounding. ... "We gave up critical rebounds."
"I told the team we have to get better," Whisenant added. "We have to quit making the breakdowns on defense. We have to get more movement and action on offense when it's under the gun.
"We have less than 24 hours to see if we improve more than they did," Whisenant continued. "It's tough. We needed this win. I felt we outplayed them for a good part of the game. I thought at home we could win and we didn't."
Charles, who did not play in the Sun preseason games or last weekend's Olympic exhibition and scrimmage in Seattle because of a groin injury, was back to her double-double act with 19 points and 13 rebounds as the starting center.
She led five Sun players in double-figure scoring, as Hightower added 13 points, Montgomery scored 11, Jones notched 12 and McCray scored 10.
Pondexter led New York with 19 points, Plenette Pierson scored 15 and grabbed 10 rebounds, and Kara Braxton added 13 points. The recently-arrived Kia Vaughn chipped in nine points off the bench as did former Rutgers star Essence Carson.
In a way, the season-opener reflected a reversal of fortunes. This time it was not the Sun but their opponent lamenting poor fourth-quarter performance.
"It's hard to win games when you're not scoring in the fourth quarter or getting stops," Pondexter said.
That was the situation Connecticut struggled with last season, especially on the road. At home, the Sun were solid, losing just two contests before being ousted as the No. 2 seed in the East by the Atlanta Dream in a 2-0 sweep in the opening round of the playoffs.
Young, Revamped Roster Left Little Room for 2012 Additions
After finishing as runner-up to the Seattle Storm and Sacramento Monarchs, respectively, in the WNBA Finals in 2004 and 2005, the Sun hit a low point several seasons ago. In response, Connecticut has undergone a major roster overhaul over the past few years, steadily building toward a return to the days of deep playoff runs.
The Sun held on to former UConn star Asjha Jones, whom they had picked up from the Washington Mystics in 2004, as one of the cornerstones of what would become a roster dominated by Connecticut collegians.
They then nabbed fellow-Husky Charles as the overall No. 1 pick in 2010 via a megadeal in which All-Star Lindsay Whelan went home to Minnesota to play for the Lynx and Montgomery came back East to play in the state where she excelled in college with the powerful Huskies. Mainstay Katie Douglas had left Connecticut two years earlier to play for the Indiana Fever in her home state, in a trade that brought the Sun fewer rewards (a short-lived stint by Tamika Whitmore and the rights to Australian shooting guard Jessica Foley who never came to the WNBA).
But the Sun signed former Tennessee star, U.S. Olympic gold medalist and WNBA All-Star Kara Lawson of the former Sacramento Monarchs in 2010 as a free-agent and since then have added Hightower and McCray. Former Mississippi State star Tan White, who entered the league with the Indiana Fever as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2005 WNBA Draft, is not playing this weekend because of a concussion suffered a week ago in an exhibition home loss to Minnesota. But White has also been part of the Sun core group since being picked up in 2009 several weeks into the season after being waived by the Fever.
These one-time newcomers have now had time to play together and develop chemistry, while at the same time providing leadership to several even more youthful additions. Another former UConn star, Kalana Greene, was picked up in a deal with New York. Kelsey Griffin, a former Nebraska sensation, arrived via the 2010 draft to team up with the veteran Jones in the paint.
Thus, going into 2012 with what has been for the last several seasons one of the youngest rosters in the league, Connecticut needed few additions. They made only two personnel changes from last year's lineup.
One new face: Former Duke star Mistie (nee Bass) Mims, who had played -- mainly off the bench -- first with the now-defunct Houston Comets and then with the Chicago Sky since 2006 but sat out the 2011 WNBA season entirely, was signed in the offseason to help shore up the frontcourt. Mims, who averaged a league-high 19.7 points per game playing for Challes-Les-Eaux in the French league last year, will replace Jessica Moore, who underwent arthroscopic knee surgery this winter, as an experienced frontcourt reliever.
"We were in the free agent market because we’re not sure Jessica Moore is going to be able to play at the beginning of the season,” Thibault said of signing Mims. “Mistie is somebody we have been looking at for a couple of years. She can play both post positions. She fits into our style. She’s a post player who can run the floor. She’s a good offensive rebounder and a good defender in our defensive scheme, particularly against the posts we have to face in our conference. She will be able to play with either Tina (Charles) or Asjha (Jones) and complement them.”
Filling out the frontcourt, second-round and overall No. 21 pick Chay Shegog, a 6-5 center out of the University of North Carolina, beat out five-year veteran and former Tennessee player Sydney Spencer, a 6-3 wing picked up in the offseason, for a roster spot. Spencer was let go at the finish when rosters had to be completed because Thibault was searching more for a backup to Charles in the post than for help in his already robust backcourt. With Mims, a 6-3 forward, Shegog is expected to provide an overall fortification to the battle on the boards.
Role Changes in the Backcourt
Meanwhile, in the backcourt, Lawson appears to have regained her starting position as the Sun's floor general, and for now, 5-11 guard-forward Danielle McCray and 5-10 guard Kalana Greene seem to have earned the two remaining starting roles as Thibault continues to experiment with various combinations on the wing.
That leaves Montgomery, who started every game for the Sun last season, to adjust to a new role coming off the bench Whether Thibault continues to use Montgomery-Hightower combination off the bench will be determined by the opposition, but he noted its necessity in terms of playing teams like the Liberty.
"They're really a big team on the wings with Essence [Carson] and Nicole [Powell]," the Sun coach said. "It's hard to play them with two little guards for long periods. Renee and Allison give us great energy. We get scoring off the bench, which has been a problem in the past sometimes. It allows us to stay in big matchups."
Both Montgomery and Hightower are still seeing significant playing time -- upwards of 24 minutes per game -- and at least in the early returns, the new arrangement appears to be working well. For example, the extended backcourt rotation gave Connecticut energy and resilience when New York, which will host Minnesota Tuesday back in the Prudential Center, built a nine-point lead near the end of the first half and seemed ready to break open the contest with a five-point lead midway through the fourth quarter before the Sun rallied.
"I loved the way we kept playing," Montgomery said of Connecticut's perseverance late in the game.
As for her role off the bench, a move that her college coach Geno Auriemma often used with teammates to add some heft to the offense, Montgomery said, "It's different. At UConn, we usually had an abundance of players so if you have a sixth man off the bench it's going to be a spark. But like I said, at this point, I'm just going with the flow.
"If it helps us, it helps it but I'm just going to go with the flow here."
"It's a good road win for us," summed up Lawson, one of the team's most senior veterans. "We're a team that struggled the last few years on the road so to open the season with a road win. It's good.
"We made enough plays and got enough defensive stops down the stretch and we made free throws to stretch it out," Lawson added. "It's hard to get a feel (on the outlook) because we haven't had everybody had practice. Tina's only been with us a couple days. Obviously we don't have Tan who is a big part of what we do. 'Ally's' missed a bunch of practices.
"It's more of a kind of wait and see with us -- how we're going to jell, how we're going to play with each other. In this league it's close every night."
Jones, who has been on the team the longest, added, "The young guys have done a good job extending on the wings in the offseason and their poise -- not being rattled by bad possessions. It's rare for us to have everything going and also stay healthy."
With a bunch of home games early, it will be the arena floor and not the nearby slot machines where the Sun will look to cash in opportunity in hopes of a deep playoff run in September. To get there, they'll be relying on the following roster (new additions highlighted in boldface):