UNCASVILLE, Conn. – The Connecticut Sun, finally, look like a team.
Through eight games, they did not look like anything closely resembling a team, making it seem like the nightmares of 2013 were far from over. Behind the scenes however, the Sun were developing. Players were learning how to play with each other, learning each others' tendencies and styles. It has resulted in a winning product.
On Sunday, that winning product was achieved without Chiney Ogwumike and Allison Hightower, two of the team's most consistent player. Despite the absence of the two key players, Connecticut managed to beat the New York Liberty for the second time in three days, extending their winning streak to four games with a 76-72 win at Mohegan Sun Arena.
The Sun have a .500 record (6-6) for the first time this season and the first time since May 31, 2013, after starting the 2013 season 1-1, and the team has won four games in a row for the first time since 2012. Connecticut's success, given the abysmal start to the season when chemistry simply did not exist, is no surprise for the Sun. While others have focused on the lack of chemistry and team play, Anne Donovan has been turning a group of inexperienced players, most of whom had never played together until this year, and building a winning formula.
"I expected us to win," Sun forward Kelsey Griffin said. "I'm not saying that I came in cocky about the game, but I'm saying that I know that I'm playing out there with a bunch of hard workers that do the right things. So, when given the opportunity, I knew that they would step up and I knew that I would step up. And that's what we did today."
Griffin has been stepping up in a big way, and she has been critical to Connecticut's winning streak, which includes wins over Indiana, Phoenix and New York times two. Performances like Sunday's – 12 points and nine rebounds – have become the norm for the undersized forward.
As Donovan said after the game, it is the little things, things that might not show up on the stat sheet, that Griffin does to make her so valuable. Two steals showed up on the stat sheet, but that does not tell the tale.
The stat sheet does not describe Griffin ferociously backpedalling after Alex Bentley's made free throw to get herself between Essence Carson and a long inbound pass. Looking more like a safety in the NFL than a forward in the WNBA, Griffin jumped up and grabbed the ball and immediately fired it to Bentley for a 3-pointer, giving Connecticut a 16-13 lead.
Griffin gave Connecticut the lead for good near the end of the third quarter, launching a 3-pointer from 24 feet away that gave the Sun a 55-53 lead.
"Kelsey doesn't fall in the big girl category," Donovan said, "but she plays so much bigger than most big girls because she is so adept and intuitive in how to help people."
Another big who stepped up in a big-time way was Alyssa Thomas. The rookie out of Maryland, who ended up in Connecticut by way of the Tina Charles trade with New York, matched her season high with 13 points and grabbed seven rebounds. Kelsey Bone continued to show inconsistency with the ball on the low post, but the other immediate-impact piece of the Charles trade finished with 10 points.
Bone is normally an impact player off the bench, but Sunday, that duty belonged to Danielle McCray. The former Kansas Jayhawk scored eight points and pulled down three rebounds in the second quarter, helping the Sun to a 38-37 halftime lead.
Connecticut needed little in the way of offensive production – only 15 points – off the bench. McCray, Renee Montgomery and Kayla Pedersen all game in and gave at least 10 minutes of necessary help, especially on the defensive end. Even Kelly Faris, who played five minutes, played her part defensively, as the Sun moved to within a game and a half of the first-place Atlanta Dream in the Eastern Conference.
"We're just a deep team," veteran forward Katie Douglas said. "We obviously miss Ali and Chiney a tremendous amount, but I feel like our practices, our camp has really prepared us to be in this position. (The bench has) been practicing and pushing and making sure we're ready, but they're also staying ready at the same time. Tonight, you can see they can play and they can be a burst of energy, and just going forward, hopefully they can take this game as a boost of confidence for themselves and others as well."