Eyes on the Prize
After coming so close to a championship last year, the Connecticut Sun is hungry in 2020
By John Torsiello / Photography courtesy of CT Sun
In early spring, Connecticut Sun head coach and general manager Curt Miller was still wishing he had a few minutes back from the fifth and deciding game of the 2019 WNBA Championship Series against the Washington Mystics.
With the series tied at two games all and the championship on the line in game five, the Sun was up by three points with just under seven minutes to play. Then the bubble burst; the Mystics went on a 13-2 run that powered them to an 89-78 victory and the title. What also stung the Sun’s coach and players was the fact that they had led in the game by as many as nine points in the third quarter. They were, oh, so close – they could almost feel the trophy in their hands.
“If we could have a portion of game five back, where a couple of calls went against us and changed the whole momentum,” says Miller wistfully. “But that is what makes our game so special,” adds the fifth-year coach. “It’s a chess match, and things happen and calls are made or not made that completely change the game. It’s difficult to describe the feeling of losing in game five of the championship series. But it leaves a pit in your stomach.”
It was the third time the Sun had advanced to the championship series in its 18 years of existence and the first time since 2005.
Despite the difficult-to-process loss, Miller calls last year “a great ride.”
“When I was hired four years ago, a lot of people wondered if Connecticut would ever truly compete for a title again,” he says. Indeed, the Sun had endured three straight losing seasons. Miller’s first team went 14-21. Then came back-to-back 21-13 campaigns, and then a 23-11 regular season record and a playoff sweep (3-0) of the Los Angeles Sparks last year. “In many ways, it was incredibly gratifying to watch our building process over four years and to get to the championship series.”
So, for Miller, it’s a hoop half-empty, half-full approach to 2019.
Amber Cox, vice president of the team, calls 2019 “such a special season for our entire organization and our incredible fan base. A run like that is not only memorable for our long-time fans but, with all the exposure and excitement, we welcomed many new fans into the Sun family. We’re looking forward to carrying that momentum into the 2020 season,” she says.
Cox says last year’s team had tremendous chemistry. “The core had been together for four years, so both on the court and off, the group had a special connection. They wanted to win for each other. It was always team first.”
For Connecticut native Bria Holmes, a guard who averaged 6.3 points a game in 2019, last year was definitely a fun ride.
“That experience will be unforgettable,” she says. “The key to getting to the finals was that every single person was locked in and ready to play when their number was called.” She says the team “practiced hard day in and day out” and “went to battle every game, giving it our all.”
When they hired him, Sun management allowed Miller time to build a winner “from a core group of players” and end what had been an almost-constant turnover of the roster in previous years. It was a similar approach to the ones Miller had used in building winning programs at the collegiate level (at Bowling Green University and Indiana University as a head coach).
“It all came together last year,” says Miller, “and management made the decision to go all-in on the season, push the chips in, and give us the players to make a run at a championship. We knew we would lose some of our free agents after the season and that our 2020 roster was going to look different.”
The Sun will indeed have a new look in 2020 after losing several players to free agency. But Connecticut landed probably the prize of free agency, DeWanna Bonner; added several other pieces; and will welcome back players who played roles in the drive to the championship series. Bonner is a two-time WNBA champion and three-time All-Star.
“We knew we would lose some players, especially given the new collective bargaining agreement,” says Cox. “Change can be difficult because bonds are formed. I’ll certainly miss seeing the players who moved on. But it’s a business and, ultimately, change is inevitable in sports. We’re excited about the players who are still with us – who understand our culture – and we are thrilled about the players we’ve been able to add during free agency.”
Cox believes “we absolutely can get right back to where we were a year ago and hopefully hang a championship banner for these fans.”
In addition to Bonner, Cox referred to the addition of Briann January, an 11-year WNBA Champion and All-Star who averaged close to 7 points and four assists a game in 2019; as well as a player familiar to UConn fans, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis. Mosqueda-Lewis is one of the elite three-point shooters in the WNBA and a proven winner at the collegiate and pro levels. The veteran leadership will gel nicely with a core of Jonquel Jones, Alyssa Thomas and Jasmine Thomas.
Jones is a star in her own right and averaged 14.6 points and 9.7 rebounds a game in 2019. Alyssa Thomas scored 11.6 points and hauled in 7.8 rebounds a game, while Jasmine Thomas scored 11.1 points and had 5.1 assists per game. All three figure to play prominent roles in the 2020 season.
Bonner, who plays both the forward and guard positions, averaged 17.2 points and 7.6 rebounds last season and is “beyond excited” about joining the Sun.
“It’s a great organization with amazing staff and players,” she says. “My number one reason to sign with the Sun was to try and help the organization get its first championship. Secondly, Amber, Curt, and I really had the same goals and expectations when we met. We talked and they made me feel extremely comfortable with things, both on and off the court. I think my babies and I will have a great time in Connecticut.”
She called the fan support for the Sun “amazing,” adding, “Connecticut fans always come out, support and show love, so I’m looking forward to connecting with all of them.”
As for the team’s prospects for 2020, Bonner opines, “Of course the cliché answer is to say we have a group of players that can win a championship, which we do. However, it won’t be easy, and we know that, so we are all just super-motivated to put in the work to bring one to Connecticut.”
Mosqueda-Lewis, who played for Seattle and averaged 5.3 points a game in 2019, is excited about re-connecting with fans from her UConn days. “Those were some of my best memories and I am looking forward to making more,” she says. “Hopefully, with me and the other new additions, we can bring something else to the table to make us even better. I think this could be an amazing season.”
Holmes, who played at New Haven’s James Hillhouse High School, comes right to the point when asked her goals for the new season: “My expectations are to win a championship for Connecticut and for me to be a better player and teammate than I was last year. It’s always been a dream of mine to play in the WNBA, but to play for my home state is indescribable. It’s so much fun playing in front of my daughter, family and friends. I enjoy the support from my home state’s fans. I have so many family, friends, and supporters that come to every home game to support me and my teammates. The love I get is unreal.”
Holmes is involved heavily in the team’s community outreach efforts, something she takes seriously: “It’s enjoyable knowing we can give back to others and put a smile on others’ faces. It’s more than just basketball. Being in the community and supporting others goes a long way when you’re a professional athlete.”
On his 2020 expectations Miller says, “Obviously, landing Bonner, one of the premier players in the league, was key. We were able to bring back Jonquel Jones as well as Bria Holmes, two other important moves. We were going to lose pieces, but we brought in some great pieces and fan favorites.”
Miller believes his team will “obviously” be one of the championship favorites in 2020. “I feel real good about our starting five and how we look on paper. When we get to training camp, we will see how things work out. We have competition for spots on the roster.”
It will take time for the 2020 Sun to gel and collectively figure out the team’s chemistry, he says. “There will be speed bumps along the way. Our system has worked well for four years but you can’t just snap your fingers and make it happen. We ask that the fans stay patient as we go through trial and error at the start.”
And for those loyal Sun fans who have faithfully followed their team for 18 years and showed up in droves last season at Mohegan Sun Arena, Cox has nothing but praise.
“It’s really special. Most of our fans have been with us since the team arrived in 2003,” she says. “There have been highs and lows, but they have never wavered in their support. And again, it’s been great to continue adding new fans, especially young girls and boys who can look up to these WNBA players as role models. Beyond basketball, this team and this league mean so much more. We are a symbol of diversity and equal opportunity.”
The Sun’s regular season was to begin May 16 against the New York Liberty and conclude Sept. 20 against the Mystics. But the season’s start and conclusion will depend on the way the WNBA will handle the Covid-19 crisis. With only a 34-game regular season, the league could well push the start of its season back and not lose any regular season or playoff games.
A number of WNBA players depart for foreign countries to play off-season basketball, which is a factor in any decision. But the league’s new collective bargaining agreement, which increased player salaries, has made it easier for players to stay at home, attend to other careers or family, and not feel the financial pressure to go overseas to play for additional money to supplement what many considered inadequate WNBA salaries and other compensation.
“It wasn’t just the salaries that were improved,” says Miller, “but taking care of the women in our league with everything from childcare to assisting them with careers outside of basketball. It put our league in a great place, considering we have a high percentage of players who have had to play overseas once our season ends. Now, some players will be happy with the money they make from playing in the WNBA, and may take the six months off to rest their bodies, raise and enjoy their families, and pursue other interests they can get into once the ball stops bouncing.”
Sun fans are hoping the ball indeed keeps bouncing at the Mohegan Sun Arena this summer and into the fall.