Wednesday, September 21, 2005
Sun lose again, but still ahead of most teams
By Mechelle Voepel Special to ESPN.com
SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- So for the second year in a row, the Connecticut Sun players shook the offending wrong-colored confetti from their hair, talked about playing hard, gave credit to the victors and then took a cross-country flight back home with no WNBA trophy.
Nykesha Sales' last-second, desperation 3-pointer ended up an air ball as Sacramento sealed its first WNBA title.
But, they were here in the Finals. They made Sacramento sweat its way to the three victories needed for the title. And they did it despite injured point guard Lindsay Whalen's really being just a shadow of herself. With knee and ankle injuries, she somehow made it through three games of the Finals, but totaled just 12 points and nine assists.
For much of the first half Tuesday, Whalen looked a little like her usual self, with all three of her points and four of her five assists coming in the first 20 minutes. In the second half, Whalen was worn down and less effective, and point-guard duties eventually fell to rookie Jamie Carey.
How different would the Finals have been if Whalen were healthy? With something like that, it's always hard to say . Definitely, the Sun are not the same team without her. But you have to point out that several Monarchs were playing through their own injuries, as well.
To point out the impact of Whalen's diminished ability is to take nothing away from the Monarchs, who did indeed prove themselves to be the league's best team. It is only to show that the Sun's luck was not as good as it could have been.
What if Carey had snared the bad pass near game's end that instead wound up with Sacramento's Ticha Penicheiro, who was fouled by Taj McWilliams-Franklin? Carey was running toward the Sun's basket; might she have raced down in time for a breakaway layup -- or tossed to a teammate for one -- and tied the game?
The Sun players and staff are left with questions like those, just like last year's 3-pointer by Nykesha Sales at the end of Game 2 vs. Seattle that hit the backboard. Had it gone in, Connecticut would have won the championship. But it didn't, and the Storm won that contest and, ultimately, the title.
Enough things didn't go right for Connecticut in this year's Finals, too. Former UConn Huskies star Asjha Jones came up big from the Sun's bench with a game-high 21 points on 8-of-12 shooting Tuesday. But starters
Sales and Taj McWilliams-Franklin were a combined 8-for-28 from the field for 20 points.
The Sun led by as many as 11 points, 23-12, in the first half and came close to quieting the noisy crowd of 15,002 at Arco Arena. But soon after, with just more than seven minutes left in the half, came one of those "little moments" that can make a big impact. Sacramento rookie Kristin Haynie got a steal and passed to Kara Lawson, who fed Rebekkah Brunson for an adrenaline-rush transition basket that got the lulled fans really excited again.
It didn't completely turn the tide in the first half, but it was the Monarchs' first field goal in four minutes -- they had just a free throw during that stretch -- and gave them a needed boost.
Then there was another "little play," when Olympia Scott-Richardson got in for one minute and made her only shot from the field with 3:28 left in the first half. Sacramento was working so hard to score then, you could feel a collective sigh of relief from the crowd -- and the Monarchs' bench -- when Scott-Richardson's shot swished.
Connecticut is, by coach Mike Thibault's design, a team that is used to making more "little plays" than the opposition. The Sun's offense, when executed right (as is usually the case), is crisp and versatile and hard to stop. The defense typically doesn't make many mistakes. The Sun had the best record in the WNBA this season because they doesn't usually let games get away, even when leads sometimes do.
But Thibault thought the Sun let too much of an opportunity slip away in the first half Tuesday.
"We had a chance to pull away and get up 12 or 14 -- and it ends up being a six-point game at halftime," he said. "We missed too many shots. We have a very persistent, persevering team here. But we didn't make shots when we needed to tonight."
The persistent part is especially noteworthy, because that's what the Sun should take from this year's WNBA Finals loss. Even down by 10 points in the second half of Game 4, Connecticut clawed its way back and took the game down to final second.
"They were rebounding like maniacs, and Asjha Jones came out and played unbelievable," Lawson said. "That's what we expected. We knew this would be our toughest win of the season tonight if we were to win, because that's a team with great character."
No, the Sun still don't have a trophy. But Connecticut can look at Sacramento, one of the WNBA's eight original teams when the league began in 1997. It took until the franchise's ninth year for it to make the Finals. Meanwhile, Connecticut has been in two championship series in the three-year existence of the team as the Sun. Sure, you can tack on the four seasons of the Orlando franchise, which essentially transferred to Connecticut. However, the philosophy, owner commitment, coaching, media coverage and long-term fan base are so much better for the Sun vs. the Miracle.
The Sun players need to remember: By any standard, they're ahead of much of the league. That's at least something to take on that flight home.
Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.