All but one of The Sun members walked off the field as the WNBA Aces title celebration erupted around the free-throw line closest to the bench in Las Vegas. 2021 League Player of the Year Jonkel Jones remained willing to deliver a final message on the field to the player who spent four games fighting. Amid the glee, the Connecticut star walked across half the field and found Aces star A’ja Wilson to hug. “It was just a congratulation,” Wilson said. “Even before I get to meet with [ESPN’s Holly Rowe]I had to go talk to her because it occupied her heart.”
Then, when Wilson returned to join her teammates, Jones walked toward one of the tunnels leading to the bottom of the Mohegan Sun Arena and gave the crowd one last round of applause in gratitude.
Against Las Vegas, Jones tried to bring her the franchise that Wilson had brought her: her first-ever championship. She scored a team high of 20 points in Connecticut’s Game 3 blast win and picked up five out of 13 points in the crucial third-quarter stretch in Game 4, while adding two blocks—both on Wilson and both of which shook the sold-out crowd. 9,652 people. But for the 28-year-old striker, such successes, at least for the time being, are marred by the feelings of another difficult defeat.
“I’m just trying to address this now,” Jones said afterwards. “All I know is that it hurts, and that’s all I feel.”
Minus Game 3, which saw the sun break out for 105 points, Jones and her Connecticut teammates struggled to break down the Las Vegas defense. While the Sun held the Aces to a season low of 67 points in the series opening, they only scored 64 points themselves. In Game 2, their attack showed signs of improvement – they finished the loss by 71 points – but they were uncharacteristically superior in the paint, and their usually gritty defense was overwhelmed by the single-shot makers. On Sunday, they scored 71 points again, failing to score at minute 1:50 of the game.
Throughout the season, with their plush front quarterback Jonquil Jones, All-Star striker Alyssa Thomas and Year 6 player Breonna Jones, the Sun learned to find gratification in their crunchy style of play. Coach and general manager Kurt Miller often talked about wanting to make games “messy.” They’ve earned the defensive No. 2 rating, and in the era of basketball that’s all about speed and space, they’re built from the inside out. Sun made just 6.4 three-pointers per game in the regular season (the second worst in the league), and takes pride in hitting the boards with the elbows and heart. “Not everyone is built for that,” says guard Courtney Williams.
Her backcourt teammate Natisha Hedman adds: “We’ve learned how to not play perfect. The game isn’t going to be perfect, and we don’t want it to be perfect.”
In recent years, experience has been a great teacher for the Connecticut series, which had six of the same players on the 2019 team that lost to Mystics in the Finals. That’s why the double zeros on the clock on Sunday remained optimistic about their chances of winning their first franchise championship. Game 4 was their fifth knockout game of the season, and before Sunday’s loss, many players were talking not about feeling pressure but about playing with urgency.
But still, here’s the sun again, with one season’s last whistle, having to think about the next step. Major free agency decisions await them, and they are well aware that their title window will not remain open forever.
“We know your team rarely looks the same every year,” Miller said earlier in the series. “Our team is different from last year, it was different from the year before, and we know it will be different again.”
Perhaps no player on the Sun realizes the dearth of a deep playoff round as goalkeeper DeWanna Bonner. At the age of 35, she is the only member of the team to win a championship, and she did so most recently in 2014 with Mercury. The night before Game 4 of her semi-final series against Chicago, with her team facing a disqualification, she had done enough pouting. “We’re not going out like this,” she told Thomas, her partner. “We will not lie down and stop.”
The two discussed what to do to extend their season. Bonner realized that the first step was a players-only meeting, and asked Thomas when the best time to have it was.
The next morning, minutes before the team’s scheduled film session, she went to Miller and said that instead of watching the tape she wanted to get the group together. “You always listen to your players at that level,” says Miller, who acknowledged it’s “maybe less training” this year as a function of having an experienced pool.
With everyone seated in their lockers, Bonner first had an equipment manager take out Starbucks — “You have to make everyone feel good,” she says — and then proceeded to lead the 20-minute conversation. She spoke of the rarity of potential teams to win the title and that they “want this for each other, for ourselves,” in the words of reserve winger Dejonay Carrington. Bonner said the Sun was nervous so far in the playoffs and that she wanted her teammates to have fun again.
“I think it loosened everyone up,” says Jonkel Jones.
Bonner adds, “This was a time to pull us in a little bit. An opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”
In 2021, the top seed Sun entered her streak with a 14-game winning streak in the sky. But they lost the semi-finals in four matches, a defeat which Jones still says “was a very bitter moment.” She says it was disappointing to be “this team that was so good in the regular season but couldn’t get over that hump”. This year, Connecticut, which was 25-11 in the season and third heading into the playoffs, was determined to move on to the next round.
In the fourth match of the semi-finals, the Sun scored a 24-point win. Back in the road in Game 5, they were late by 10 to enter the fourth quarter and by nine with 4:46 left in the game. During a 22-second timeout, assistant coach Chris Kuklanis walked into a rally where “teamwork is crazy”.
“Their commitment to each other and only positive self-talk. They cared about him and didn’t shrink or get depressed at all,” he says. “It was unbelievable. I just sat and felt it and didn’t even need to say anything.”
“We all looked at each other at that moment and went back to what we talked about,” Heidemann says before game four. They closed the series in the 18-0 round to claim victory in the winner-takes-all issue. It will prove to be the highest point of the year.
With this season approaching, Sun knew they had to figure out how their roster could fit together. While their core has been in place for years, in recent seasons they have rarely been in full force. “Our team is full of stories of unintended consequences,” Miller says.
They are used to reinventing themselves. Thomas missed nearly the entirety of 2021 due to a ruptured Achilles tendon, sending Briona Jones into the starting line-up and making Jonquil Jones a pivot at both ends (and ultimately the best player in the league). Jonquel hadn’t played in the WNBA bubble the year prior to that, allowing Thomas and Jones to get a cast together.
When starting point protector Jasmine Thomas tore down just five AFC Champions League games this season, the rotation on the team’s backcourt changed and Hedman moved to the first five games. The rupture of the ACL by reserve guard Brea Hartley at the end of July was another bump. “It’s been a lot of experience,” says Alyssa Thomas. “Lots of ups and downs, trying to figure out what could make us successful.”
No example of the team’s trial and error has been more evident than how Miller treats its big stars. Before the All-Star break, Jonquil Jones, Briona Jones and Alyssa Thomas played together in 20 games, averaging 10.6 minutes per appearance. After the break, they played together in just three regular season games, for a full six minutes. Talks took place between the coaches and the aforementioned players. “We thought we needed to play everyone in their natural position,” Miller says.
Doing so, though, took sacrifices. Jonquil Jones averaged the fewest minutes since 2018, playing just 26.4 on average. She did, saying that the team’s success was more important than individual awards: “I will give up the best player of the tournament to win the tournament.” Brionna Jones completely changed roles, going from starting and averaging over 30 minutes per game last season to coming off the bench and playing under 30 minutes in all but six competitions in the ’22 campaign.
“Sometimes you may not feel perfect,” says Cochlans. “It wasn’t easy, but our players were receptive and buying because in the end they want to succeed, and they want to win.”
Despite staying away from the group for much of the year, in the fourth quarter of Game 4 as they tried to extend their season, Miller relied on the trio. “Some of them were definitely planned, and then some are definitely our core group,” he said. “These are the ones you run with. These are the ones who put us in their positions year after year after year.”
The three helped erase four deficit points in the fourth quarter and ultimately gave the Sun a 2:22 lead to play in the match. But Las Vegas, fueled by a volatile and undersized squad, went 8-0 to close the streak and claim the title.
“We were kind of pulling the straw in there,” aces coach Becky Hammon said afterwards. “I just felt like, I don’t know if we’re going to stop them but I don’t think they can stop us either.”
Miller is the longest-serving member of the Sun organization, having been appointed after the 2015 season. But 15 years before he took over as Connecticut, he was an assistant coach at Colorado State, when the team’s star was Hammon.
The morning before Game 4, Miller was fumbling in his bag and watching a coin challenge commemorating the 1998-99 CSU team, who went 33-3 and ultimately lost at Sweet 16. He laughed to himself. “It was a great reminder to be in the moment, be present and not take it for granted, Wow, this is such a great opportunity,” He says.
Miller has always sought to get the most out of situations, whether in play or training. At the time, with the team needing practice players, Tom Cullen, the Rams’ coach from 1997 to 2002, often recruited Miller to wear sessions. On one occasion during the 1998-1999 campaign, Hamon Miller crossed that he injured his ankle “so badly that I was outside for the next four to six weeks,” he recalls.
“Becky probably damaged her ankles a lot, because her ability to maneuver the ball was uncanny and her ability to change directions at any moment was also,” Colin says.
Today, though, Hammon looks on from the sidelines, while star goalkeeper Chelsea Gray – the finals’ best player – and Kelsey Bloom set the ball-handling clinics. Guard Jackie Young has also evolved into an elite slasher thanks to Hammon’s tutelage and was the start of an All-Star. And by the way, there’s the 2022 League MVP Aja Wilson, who seemed unstoppable at times too. The aces were rich in talent. The sun was rich in energy. “When you tell them they can’t do something, it makes them try harder and compete like crazy,” Miller said after match three.
But pride doesn’t necessarily translate to baskets made, and Sun only dropped 44.6% in the series, a number inflated by Game 3’s 105-point presentation.
With Offseason now here, how to move forward will once again be a central question. Brianna Jones is a free agent and is preparing to draw attention from other teams in need at the center around the world, W. “I haven’t thought about it yet,” she said of her future after losing at the end of the series. “Because I have a lot of other things to do and think about before this point.” Hedman and Williams could also sign elsewhere.
Miller then said he hadn’t thought about possible changes. Instead, think about the journey his privilege has been on in recent years.
“We’ve been tasked with trying to rebuild something and we’ve had remarkably sustainable success,” he said. “We have equaled the most wins in the playoff since 2016 than any player in the league. We are behind the most wins of the regular season in a single game. So the continued success is really special.”
But he added, “In professional sports, you want banners, and we’ll keep grinding and grinding until we can try to hang a banner.”
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