The Mohegan Sun Arena has been an exciting place to be this summer.
Fans have been showing up in droves to watch the young Connecticut Sun play on their home floor. There is a lot of cheering, yelling, clapping and dancing at what has been dazzling basketball over the last month, especially.
This season, the kind of rabid hoops fans that pack the house for nearby University of Connecticut match ups have been finding their way back to the 10,000-seat venue in Uncasville, after a bit of a hiatus. Now the stands are filled with the Sun’s orange and blue team colors, from the floor level to the top row of the upper deck.
Welcome to the rebirth of competitive professional basketball in one of the WNBA’s top basketball cities – and states.
Right now, despite injuries, Connecticut is fifth in league standings with an 8-7 record after dropping the first four games of the season. But fans returned long before that, because of the players that got the team to this point.
Leading the charge for the Sun is second-year forward/center Jonquel Jones, whose numbers have been eye-popping. She is averaging 16.1 points and 12.3 points per game, and is the only other player in the WNBA besides Minnesota’s Sylvia Fowles to average a double-double. Even more significantly, Jones averaged 6.8 points and 3.7 rebounds last year.
Then there is point guard Jasmine Thomas, whose 15.4 point, 5.2 assists-per-game average was punctuated by a career-high, 29-point outburst last week against the Seattle Storm. Forward Alyssa Thomas has been playing inspired basketball, averaging 13.9 points per outing. And sophomore year guard Courtney Williams stepped up her game after being inserted into the starting lineup, to raise her production to 12.2 points per game.
Second-year head coach Curt Miller is relishing the fact that his team has emerged as this season’s media darlings, but he said he is not surprised that they have begun to play their best basketball over the last month, after sputtering out of the gate.
“We felt like we played well enough in our first few games, but had a hard time getting to the finish line,” Miller said. “There was never a point where we felt like we weren’t playing well. We talked about not playing through one person, and really fought through some adversity to win six of our next seven games.”
One of those wins was a 98-93 stunner over then-unbeaten Minnesota on the road, which put the rest of the league on notice and put the confident Sun squad in the conversation for a WNBA title run.
Williams said Connecticut’s increased output was a team decision.
“Our team has just made up our minds that we would focus on each game like it’s the most important,” Williams said. “We are bringing that same mentality to the court every night.”
The team’s inspired play has been even more impressive because they have also been without the services of All-Star forward Chiney Ogwumike, out for the season with an Achilles tear; second-year forward Morgan Tuck, who has missed ten games with an injury; and Alex Bentley, who played in the Eurobasket tournament overseas for a few weeks. This forced Williams into a starting role.
Jones believes her squad had a huge chip on its shoulder entering the season because of the lack of respect that was shown to them during the preseason.
“Outside of our locker room, nobody thought would we do anything this year,” Jones said. “We knew we could play with every team in this league, but we had to find that chemistry. Jasmine (Thomas) and Alyssa had been our leaders on the court, and we have been able to break down film and get ourselves over the hump. A couple of the losses we had early on were by a few points, so we knew it was just a matter of time before good things started happening.”
Miller hopes his team can utilize the preseason slights in their quest for a playoff spot.
“It seemed like we have embraced that underdog role this season,” Miller said. “I anticipated our four rookies positioning themselves for breakout seasons. They have worked extremely hard to prepare themselves. JJ (Jones) has been a monster who can score on all levels, Alyssa was forced to move to the four and has exceeded my expectations, Jasmine has been in attack mode the whole season which gives us an extra guard on the floor, and Courtney has been phenomenal.”
Jones is a strong finisher around the rim, which is a hole Connecticut has needed filled for years. She also plays without fear, but with plenty of passion, which ignites both her teammates and the crowd.
Alyssa Thomas is having a breakout season despite having to switch positions to fill in for Ogwumike. She is averaging career highs in points, assists (4.6), minutes (30.6), field goal percentage (50) and steals (1.36), and joins Los Angeles forward Candace Parker (4.5) as the only two forwards in the top ten in those categories.
While Williams has adjusted comfortably as the primary ball handler, the biggest perk for her has been her ability to do more things without the ball. Her rebounding has improved greatly and as a result, Williams is among the leading vote-getters in early All-Star balloting returns.
“A trip to the All-Star game would be an accomplishment for any player, and it’s great to be getting that kind of recognition,” Williams said.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about the Sun’s run is that their outcomes have not hinged on one or two players. From pass-first guards to key role players, everyone has contributed to their success.
It’s the type of formula that tends to work in the playoffs – somewhere that the franchise hasn’t been in many years.
Although they have not won a championship, the Sun have made the playoffs eight of their 14 years in Connecticut after defecting from Orlando in league’s early years.
There was an attendance bump a few years ago, prior to the departures of Lindsey Whalen to Minnesota and Tina Charles to New York. But in a state where basketball is king, interest then began to wane and seats emptied.
The Sun drafted Tuck from UConn last year, which increased fan interest. So did acquiring Williams, whom Husky fans know from American Athletic Conference play. Then even when Tuck went out with injury a few games into this season, the crowds remained because of the up-tempo, hard-driving, never-say-die style of team play that Connecticut brings to the floor every night.
Last week’s 15th anniversary game, which saw the return of several former players, had the highest attendance of any game so far this season
“We appreciated the fan support that night because the atmosphere was electric,” Jones said. “It was awesome. We were grateful to be able to talk to some of the greats that played here like Nykesha (Sales) and Rebecca (Lobo). We definitely wanted to give our fans something to be excited about.”
With Bentley back and Tuck almost ready to return to the floor, more excitement for Connecticut fans seems to be on the way.
Miller has begun to embrace the fact that his team may be a year ahead of schedule in competing for a title.
“We want to set this team up for long term success and continue to build chemistry with this group,” Miller said. “So if somebody wants to write that we are ahead of schedule in doing that, then it’s gravy.”