The Connecticut Sun had a lot to live up to playing at the same time that the Women’s World Cup Final was scheduled to wrap up.
Unfortunately for them the World Cup finale was the thing that legends and dreams are made of so a late afternoon game with the Eastern Conference and WNBA-leading Indiana Fever was a step child to the swelling drama that was the FIFA World Cup.
The Sun were able to make up for a disappointing Team USA loss for their fans by defeating the Indiana Fever 76 -71, in front of 7,075 at the Mohegan Sun Arena. The win allowed the Sun to pull within a game of Indiana for the conference lead, tying themselves with New York who sits 1 game back.
It was the first game at home for the Sun in 16 days as they had a 1-2 road trip, losing to Minnesota and this same Indiana team before finally beating New York in New Jersey.
Home is where the heart is and the Connecticut Sun are now 6-0 at home and Indiana falls to 3-3 on the road.
Surprise, Surprise McCray Emerges
Danielle McCray is the only rookie on the Connecticut Sun roster but today, for the first time, she didn’t play like it. While veteran guard Renee Montgomery looked out of sorts and a bit lost at times against Indiana, McCray always appeared poised and confident. Perhaps it was because of the recent confidence that her coach showed in her.
McCray was inserted into the starting lineup for Kara Lawson on Friday against the Liberty. Connecticut coach, Mike Thibault gave the impression that it was now or never time.
"When we drafted her we felt she had a chance to be a really good player but when you come in as a rookie I think it’s important to give them as much as they can take and let them find their way and then when you know matured, then you kind of let them have more," he said. "I felt number one, our team needed a different look size-wise. Starting two small guards put us at a size disadvantage. And then also Kara could help jump start us coming off the bench and be an energy person both offensively and defensively."
McCray showed exactly why the Sun picked the 5’11" guard with the 1st round, 7th overall pick, even though she had torn her ACL her senior season at Kansas. Danielle McCray hit some big shots, making 7-10 from the floor, collecting a career-high 22 points in the process.
While the points were nice and much needed, her biggest contribution was allowing Tina Charles room to operate. They were leaving McCray open to contain Charles and McCray for the first time in recent memory made them pay for it. While Charles only had 2 points in the first quarter, McCray had 8. The 2nd quarter saw the Fever play a little tighter on McCray and Charles exploded for 8 points. This inside-outside combination allowed Charles to collect 18 points and 14 rebounds in the game.
"My teammates found me on the weak side and when I had the ball, I knocked it down," McCray said. "They were cheating inside because when we have a good post player like Tina Charles, the other team is going to double-team her. So when they were doubling on Tina, Coach Thibault put me on the back side and I knocked the shots down."
Tina Charles was happy to have the help on the offensive end.
"Danielle played great - she was out of her mind," said Charles. "This is really her first great game and I’m really happy for her. She had the hot hand and we just tried to get the ball to her. She hit the first couple and she started feeling good and then she hit one that you wouldn’t think was going to go in but it went off the glass. When you have that hot hand, you just want to do everything you can to get the ball to her."
What a Difference a Week Makes
It is funny how long a week is in a WNBA season. Seattle was in 2nd place in the west a week ago and now they are hanging on to the final playoff spot in the West. A week ago both Nolan Richardson and Jennifer Gillom had jobs. Four days ago this Connecticut Sun team lost to Indiana by 12 points after allowing Katie Douglas to go off for 20 points and allowing 5 other Fever players to score in double figures. They allowed Indiana to hit 65% from 3 and 50.8% from the field overall. They were down 23 points at the half.
This week the Sun held Katie Douglas to single digits for most of the game until the games waning moments where she finished with 12. They held Indiana to 42.6 percent shooting and 31.3% from 3. Those 6 players in double figures on July 13th were limited to 3 this time around. This defensive effort was literally the difference in the game.
"Obviously Danielle McCray had a great offensive game but she and Kalana [Greene] and that others that guarded Katie (Douglas) and Catchings, Tan White, Kelsey Griffin and those guys made them work for everything they got," said Thiabault. "Katie didn’t get into double figures until her last shot in the last minute. We’re just so much better defensively than we were a week ago and hopefully it will stay."
The Sun punched first but Indiana absorbed those early blows to tie it, halfway through the 3rd quarter after being down by as many as 10. All-Star Tamika Catchings was proud of that effort.
"We came out in the third quarter and everybody was really aggressive taking it to the basket, hitting shots, playing great defense and that is what we have to do," said Catchings. "We continue to play at spurts really well and then it dwindles down and we have yet to put 40 minutes together. Tonight, just knowing what we are capable of doing - coming right back from down ten at the half - is what can build off of and do a better job [next time]."
While Catchings was proud of her teams resolve, so was Connecticut’s Thibault.
"Other than that one stretch in the third quarter, I would say overall I’m pretty happy with everything that happened," said Thibault. "The good part of that is they made their run, we stopped it, and then we got ourselves going again right away and got defensive stops down the stretch."
Road Woes Continue to Plague the WNBA
With the loss, Indiana has fallen like most WNBA teams on the road. As of 7/16/2011, road teams were 29-49 on the road. As of today they are now 31-49 on the road. The only team in the Eastern Conference with a winning road record is New York, sitting at 4-3. The West fairs much better with Phoenix (5-3), Minnesota (4-2), and San Antonio (4-1) all having winning records on the road.
According to Connecticut Sun coach Mike Thibault that is expected. His goal is to have his team protect and defend Mohegan Sun Arena. In other words, keep your head above water in the ocean that is the WNBA road.
"Part of the formula that most pro coaches preach is be exceptional at home and be at least in the .500 range on the road," said Thibault. "We still have a ways to go to get there though."
A .500 record on the road would be a rarity as only 5 teams even pass that mark. The issue with the Sun is that they are always so close to pulling out these road losses. They have lost on the road with games that they had well within reach to some mental breakdown cost them the win.
Their first 3 road losses were lost by an average of 4.6 points per game. Their last 2 have been by an average of 17.5 including a 23 point loss to Minnesota in which the Sun failed to even show up to the arena. Their other loss was a 12 point loss to this Fever squad who had them down by 23 at the half.
So when Indiana came to Connecticut, the Sun were waiting to defend their home court after losing to Indiana twice already this season.
However, this time, it was Indiana that had the mental breakdown at the end of the game. Even with the lead that Sun were able to extend to 10 the Fever still had a chance to win it after some missed free throws and bad turnovers. The Fever had the ball with 18 seconds left and down 3 but turned it over on an errant pass by Catchings.
While it didn’t have the thrill of the World Cup Final, the game did offer the roller coaster of emotions that Americans were feeling today. Leads in dwindling moments, shots hitting the rim (cross bar) but falling short and terrible shots that you wonder if these professionals have ever played before.
While we have to wait another 4 years for a chance at the World Cup, both teams get another shot at glory on Tuesday. The Connecticut Sun have the opportunity to do it again on Tuesday when they face the New York Liberty at home. The Indiana Fever will face Atlanta in a matinee game with the chance to not only to rebound from their loss but do it on the road. Then we can actually see what lessons were learned.