A year ago at this time, the Connecticut Sun were 8-8 and looking promising. Then age and inexperience caught up with them.
Despite the sometimes-heroics of #1 draft pick Chiney Ogwumike, the Sun would go on to win only five more games on the year – many of them close losses that slipped through their fingers. They finished last in the Eastern Conference, and only slightly ahead of the league-last Tulsa Shock in the West.
This year is a completely different story.
Heading into tomorrow night’s game against the Indiana Fever, Connecticut aims to make it eight straight wins, as they sit on top in the East. Many of their victories have been routs. In the games that have been close, the young Sun have shown their mental toughness in gutting it out.
The transformation has been nothing short of astonishing, especially considering that this Connecticut roster features seven new players and four new starters. Only one member of the team has more than four years of professional playing experience.
Team members attribute their turnaround to great chemistry, unselfishness and a hearty dose of Ogwumike. And they may be the only ones who are not surprised at their success.
The offseason started with a bang, as the Sun traded veteran Renee Montgomery to Seattle in exchange for Camille Little and Shekinna Stricklen. Then things looked grim when Katie Douglas’ back troubles forced her to retire, and injuries to Ogwumike and Allison Hightower rendered them out for the season. Kelsey Griffin’s injury during training camp was also season-ending, and she was waived.
Unsurprisingly, Connecticut was picked to finish last again in the Eastern Conference. But after dropping their first regular-season game, the Sun have never looked back. Stricklen said team members clicked immediately.
“During training camp we were pushing each other and competing,” she said. “We were going hard in every drill, and you can see how it’s carried over to the season. We’ve surprised a lot of people, and we just want to keep going.”
Coach Anne Donovan said trades helped to form the perfect mix.
“It’s just chemistry,” she said. “We added the right pieces, and the personality of the team is really good.”
Some of Connecticut’s wins this year have been come-from-behind efforts. Donovan said it shows how much the team has improved.
“It’s a really good thing because in the past we didn’t come back, and when we did, we couldn’t finish,” Donovan said. “It’s just a different team – a different locker room. There’s a maturity about this group, and they know they can defend.”
Forward Kelsey Bone noticed it too.
“That’s the biggest change from last year,” Bone said. “We were very tentative, always looking over our shoulder and trying to figure things out. Now we just go out and play.”
The change this season has been spearheaded by Bone and guard Alex Bentley, who are both in the third years of their professional careers. Bentley leads the Sun in scoring at 16 points per game, which is up four points from last year. Bone is averaging 14, up five points from 2014. Both players say Connecticut has a true group mentality.
“We just work hard – we’re an unselfish team,” Bentley said. “That’s what getting our wins right now is us playing defense, playing hard and together and competing in practice, which we take into games.”
“Every night my teammates are all aggressive and they can score. While the defense is worried about them, my teammates are getting me open looks.”
The load is shared, with the three other starters – Alyssa Thomas, Jasmine Thomas and Little – along with rookie Chelsea Gray, averaging nine points or more per game. Bone said team members aren’t worried about who gets the spotlight.
“From game to game it’s going to vary in who has the hot hand,” Bone said. “We have so many weapons. Sometimes it varies by quarter, and we just don’t care. We want to win, and whoever’s getting it done, that’s who we’re going with.”
“We’re just playing together. We’re not worried about who’s injured and who’s here. Wejust take it one game at a time. We take the 11 people who can play that day, and we get it done.”
The result is that team members have become interchangeable.
“They trust each other,” Donovan said. “When one can’t step up, the other will.”
The Sun’s success can also be attributed to their decision to have the dynamic Ogwumike not only participate in practices, but accompany them on all road trips. Last year’s leading scorer and rookie of the year, Ogwumike this season does everything her teammates do except play, including shooting and some team warm ups. She sits on the bench and talks to players when they come out of games, functioning as somewhat of an auxiliary coach.
Her teammates appreciate her presence.
“Believe it or not, Chiney is one of our most experienced players,” Bone said. “So for us, being able to have her on the bench and have her voice, seeing different things going on in the game, is a great benefit.”
“Chiney is great; I wish she was on the court,” Bentley said. “But it’s awesome to have her travel with us. She’s always in my ear. She’s huge for us.”
Donovan said the decision to include Ogwumike was a no-brainer.
“For our team, her energy and complete positivity is a great thing to have around,” Donovan said.
Ogwumike is grateful for the opportunity.
“It’s great to be a part of the team,” she said. “If I wasn’t here, it would be strange coming back next year and being rookie, part two.”
Ogwumike said her new perspective from the sidelines is teaching her a lot.
“I’m learning how to play by watching. I feel like I’m growing as a player by watching the game,” she said. “Now I understand why coach says certain things. Last year I struggled on defense and now I’m seeing more like, ‘this is how you do it.'”
Donovan agreed that the circumstances are mutually beneficial.
“It’s helping our community, because Chiney has been the base of our team,” Donovan said. “And it helps Chiney understand better. She gets to see the game from a different perspective. If you talk to any player that has to sit out, they get to see the game from a different perspective and finds out what it takes.”
Ogwumike said the difference between last year’s team mentality and this year’s is significant.
“I think everyone here is really open to learning, and everyone is just hungry,” she said. “We have a high sense of urgency when we play. We want to win so badly, and now we know what it takes, focus-wise.”
Ogwumike pointed to the addition of Thomas, acquired in a trade with Atlanta, and eight-year veteran Little, as helping to fill leadership roles. Rookie Gray has been an extra spark in many crunch times.
“We’re all absolutely on the same page,” Ogwumike said. “We hold each other accountable; we know each other’s strengths. We don’t have a really really big name, so we know we all have to do it together.”
Connecticut’s success so far this season has been no shock to Ogwumike.
“I’m not surprised: I’m proud. And I’m really glad everyone’s enjoying their roles,” she said. “I think it starts with our locker room. We have a really good culture where everyone respects each other, and everyone listens to each other.”
“When push comes to shove, we talk about things. So let’s say something doesn’t work on court, we’ll share what we all saw. So we’re really working together. We don’t want to lose like we lost last year.”
The Sun host the Fever at 7 p.m. Eastern tomorrow night.