Uncasville, CT -- "Fight" is the one word Connecticut Sun guard Alex Bentley said summed up the 2015 season for the Sun, as the team's 15-19 campaign came to end last September.
A very different Connecticut team has battled with some of the league's best teams this season. Despite a new coach, a roster invigorated with youth as well as a couple of trades continuing to guide the team in a new direction, one of the few constants has been the Sun's most lethal scorer.
While Bentley is not as well-known as some of the higher profile players in the league, maybe she should be: Bentley continues to electrify the loyal fan base that gathers at the Mohegan Sun Arena throughout the summer months, intently watching a team begin to turn the corner thanks to Bentley's leadership on and off the floor.
Bentley is only 25 years old, but is one of the older players on a team that has six players 24 years old or younger. She is the team's leading scorer, averaging around 14 points per game, and has started every game for the Sun so far this season.
Connecticut is a team that is trying to play more up-tempo than they did in 2015, while also building around versatile players that can guard multiple positions. Even though Bentley is only listed at 5-foot-7, she makes up for what she lacks in height with a determination and a never-die attitude that was on full display during the Sun's biggest win in 2016.
It took overtime, but one of the Sun's 11 wins this season came against the best team in the league, the Minnesota Lynx. Connecticut trailed by eight points with about a minute and a half left in regulation. After the game, Bentley said she had one thing on her mind facing that sizable deficit against an excellent team.
"Win," Bentley said. "In all of our minds, it was just fight, get stops, execute on offense and get the win."
From that point on, Bentley did what she does best: hit tough, contested shots when her team needed them most. Two 3s, including one fading away over the 6-foot tall Maya Moore, got the Sun into the extra session, where Bentley would score seven of her team-high 24 points to lift Connecticut past the Lynx.
"(Minnesota and Los Angeles) are really good teams," Bentley said after the Sun's overtime loss to the Sparks on July 15. "There are great teams throughout the entire league, and we're one of them. We can battle with anybody; we can fight with anybody, and we can compete with anybody."
This type of mindset is definitely not just talk. Every minute Bentley is on the floor, she impacts the game in ways that prove she really does believe her young, up-and-coming Sun team can, in fact, play with anyone.
First-year coach Curt Miller has tried to instill that belief in his entire team from day one, knowing at times it would be tough to preach. On June 25, Miller and the Sun made a move that would help Connecticut play a faster, more versatile style, fitting right into what Bentley does best.
The Sun traded last season's Most Improved Player Kelsey Bone, to the Phoenix Mercury for rookie guard Courtney Williams, the rights to second round pick Jillian Alleyne and San Antonio's 2017 second round draft pick. Williams, in her first home game in Connecticut, exploded on the scene, dropping in a career-high 15 points.
Williams' career outburst came in that same win over the Lynx, and Williams played important minutes down the stretch of that game alongside Bentley in the backcourt. Both players exhibit similar characteristics on the court, and both have very little fear when it comes to scoring the basketball.
"(Courtney Williams) is a great addition to our team," Bentley said. "She works hard, plays hard, gives everything she has, and she's tough. She's awesome."
"It's great (playing next to Bentley) and having someone else out there that's not going to second guess themselves at all," Williams said.
Since the trade, Bone's minutes have shifted to players like Chiney Ogwumike, who was being brought on slowly after sitting out all of last season with a knee injury, as well as rookie Jonquel Jones, who is a tall, lanky center that can step out and hit threes.
The shift in minutes has led to a change in style on both ends of the floor, and has also helped the Sun win four of their last nine games after starting the season 3-11, including wins over the Lynx and the Indiana Fever.
"I think we're playing more free (since the Bone trade), and we move the ball, and we're faster," Ogwumike said. "Kelsey was a force in the paint, but at the same time when you have that good of a player in the paint, your offense can get stagnant.
"Without that, all of our post players are very mobile now, so I think that plays to our advantage offensively, keeping defenses on their toes, but also defensively so we can move, rotate and switch."
The combination of the trade, as well as beginning to better understand Coach Miller's completely new system, has given this Connecticut team more of an identity as the league heads into the Olympic break. As the Sun continue to climb back into the playoff race, this recent stretch of games has given the players and fans hope that the rebuild is going in the right direction.
Miller said after his team's tough overtime loss to the Sparks that "positive vibes and a good swagger" are noticeably present with this team now, and he hopes the win-hungry women's basketball fan base in Connecticut continues to hang in there and support this team.
Continuing to fight and grind comes as naturally to Bentley, as one of her step-back jumpers over a taller defender, or one of her slashing attacks to the basket through four defenders, that appears to be a bad idea until she somehow flips the ball in, always looking like she knew she would score the entire time.
Bentley, to nobody's surprise, does not care about what the future holds for this team, but instead, cares about doing whatever it takes to make winning something that happens on a regular basis.