- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- The players who comprise the Connecticut Sun hope a day is coming in the next few weeks when the sound of the final buzzer produces within them a Pavlovian response to dance, shout, cry or stumble about the court in a blissful daze. Such are the sights and sounds that accompany a championship celebration.
On this night, however, the buzzer unleashed only tired relief. Players slapped hands and trudged not toward champagne but ice wraps. They looked like old hands at the long march of the postseason. One win down, more needed.
Even though half the roster, including newly minted league MVP Tina Charles, had never before won a playoff game.
"We'll take the win; it's exciting for them," Sun coach Mike Thibault said. "But we're going to have to play a whole lot better on Saturday to win [in New York]."
In all honesty, there was nothing particularly revelatory about the Sun's 65-60 win against the New York Liberty in the opening game of a best-of-three conference semifinal. The top seed in the Eastern Conference jumped to a double-digit lead in the first quarter, gradually gave it back over the next two quarters and finally seized control with a flurry in the final period that pushed the lead back to double digits and made the final minutes a formality.
But if not revelatory in the short run, it was required in the long run. The night was a step, if even at times falteringly, a team had to take.
It was the first playoff win for the Sun since beating the Liberty at home in 2008, the first time the Sun opened a playoff series with a win since a year earlier, that a triple-overtime home thriller against the Indiana Fever. The latter result so far distant in the relative time of professional sports that Katie Douglas started for the Sun and Tan White started for the Fever on that day.
Only one player remains from those Sun teams, the last of a run that saw the franchise make the playoffs in each of its first six seasons in Connecticut and twice reach the WNBA Finals. Only Asjha Jones, who contributed 10 points, nine rebounds and four assists in 29 minutes against the Liberty, her first extended action since the Olympics because of an Achilles injury.
"We've been through a lot," Jones said. "We made a lot of changes over the last few years, but I think we have a good group who has actually had time to gel together. I think on this team everyone now understands their role. That's part of the growing process. We've got a lot of young players who have now matured. Just to watch them since I've been out for a month or so, watched them get a lot better, a lot more confident. I'm just more proud of them."
A year ago, the Sun opened the playoffs at home against the Atlanta Dream and led by five points entering the fourth quarter. They lost by five, outscored 28-18 in the final 10 minutes by a veteran playoff-proven team. Home-court advantage squandered, they then went to Atlanta and led the second game after three quarters. They lost by five again and exited the playoffs.
"I think last year we had some nerves," Kara Lawson said. "I don't know if people would admit it, but I felt like we had some nerves going into the playoffs. Any time you have a new experience, you don't know what to expect. It's hard to prepare yourself for it because you don't know what it's going to be like. Atlanta came in here and stole the first game, and all of a sudden all we had worked for all year was gone in 40 minutes."
Despite the hot start that saw the Sun open leads of 27-13 and 34-22, it seemed for a time that a similar story might unfold Thursday. Unable to limit the Liberty's offensive rebounding, unable to close out on 3-point threat Nicole Powell, they came out of halftime as flat as their opponent had at the start of the game. Less than three minutes into the second half, the Liberty had turned a seven-point halftime deficit into a 45-45 tie.
Rather than give more ground, the Sun held the Liberty scoreless for the final 3 minutes, 58 seconds of the third quarter (albeit aided by the Liberty keeping Cappie Pondexter and Powell on the bench for that stretch). Then they held them scoreless for the first 2:41 of the fourth quarter, all the while turning those stops into further misery in a 12-0 run that pushed the lead to 57-45.
The East's top seed is not without playoff experience, Jones and Lawson among those with dozens of postseason games to their credit. But as a collective group, as a team built around a franchise player like Charles, they were neophytes last season and barely more wizened this season. But barely counts for something. It's easy to let a lull spiral into calamity under postseason pressure, but the Sun didn't compound their woes in the third quarter.
"We played Atlanta two games, and we didn't win a game," White said of last season. "Knowing we had played all season to get to that point, I think being hungry to get back to the playoffs this year, that was one of the [key] things. I think this is a good group of people with three years of experience playing together, this team. Now that we're back to the playoffs, we understand what it's going to take to win.
"I think tonight in the third quarter, you could see that we were a team that was stagnant, that didn't get some points in at beginning. But we stayed poised and let the game continue to come to us. I think had that game been last year, maybe we would have rushed or did something. But that experience helped us out to stay poised."
Consider Charles. On the day she hoisted the MVP trophy she worked all season to earn, Charles was good but not as good as she has shown she can be. She finished with a game-high 17 points and four blocks but totaled just three rebounds in 33 minutes and couldn't light the team's fire in the third-quarter lull. But a year after shooting 4-of-16 from the floor in the opening game against the Dream, she hit 8 of 17 shots against the Liberty. And when the Sun needed a stop to shut the door completely as the clock crept toward a minute to play, there was Charles with the block against Plenette Pierson.
There were imperfections in the details, but the Sun waited a long time to be able to say a win is a win in the playoffs.
"It's the next step for a group," Lawson said. "You win your first playoff game, but elimination games, little bit tougher. An elimination game to close out a team on the road, that shows a sign of a great team. You want to win a championship in this league, you've got to win on the road."
They waited four years for the first playoff win. They hope to wait just 48 hours for the road win.