The pain of defeat, of a season’s abrupt end, was still raw when Curt Miller emerged from the Connecticut Sun locker room late Tuesday.
The seventh-seeded Sun were the lowest seed to advance to the W.N.B.A. semifinals since 2016, a pro version of a Cinderella team. There, they pushed the top-seeded Las Vegas Aces to the brink of elimination before dropping two consecutive closeout games. The last turned into a struggle between two of the league’s best defenses. It all came down to a few seconds, to 3 points.
“Honestly, that locker room thinks we could have won the championship,” Miller said. “We believe that much in our defense, so it’s heartbreaking for them. But so proud of how far they’ve come.”
The 66-63 loss in Game 5 capped a Connecticut season defined by challenging limits. It was a season about how deep a hole a team can dig, and still claw out. About learning to thrive in new surroundings. About playing through injury despite the pain.
The Sun hit their ceiling against the Aces. Still, Connecticut was the last team to be eliminated in the bubble before a W.N.B.A. champion is decided.
Compare that with the beginning of the season, when Connecticut was almost the last team to get its first win at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.
When the Sun started the regular season 0-5, Miller said, “we were a little bit in disarray for a variety of reasons.”
After reaching the finals last year, the Sun tinkered with their roster to build around the All-Stars Alyssa Thomas and Jonquel Jones. They acquired DeWanna Bonner and Briann January, two veterans with championship experience.
But when Jones opted out of the season because of concerns about the coronavirus pandemic, the Sun were left with a roster in which nine players had spent less than two full seasons in Connecticut. The Sun faced a packed schedule, with 22 regular-season games played roughly every other day. They made the playoffs with a 10-12 record.
“Change is rough sometimes,” guard Jasmine Thomas said. “I feel like, for us, it was a matter of just playing it out.”
Bonner, a three-time All-Star who spent the first 10 years of her career with Phoenix, said her debut season with Connecticut “was probably the happiest I’ve been on the court with a group of girls.” She led the Sun in scoring during the regular season with 19.7 points per game, while averaging 7.8 rebounds, 3 assists and 1.7 steals per game.
Brionna Jones, who, according to Miller, had a “secret” Achilles’ tendon injury for about a month, became a steady force in the paint during her first season with significant playing time. Jasmine Thomas remained reliable in the backcourt. Young players like Natisha Hiedeman, Kaila Charles and Beatrice Mompremier got key minutes during the postseason.
Yet Alyssa Thomas remained the team’s engine.
She averaged 15.5 points, 9 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game during the regular season, igniting the break and facilitating for teammates while also finding her own shot. She led the league in steals with two per game as a multipositional defender who Miller says is “the best in the world.”
Teammates fed off her competitiveness in the semifinal series with Las Vegas.
Alyssa Thomas, who was playing with partially torn labrums in both shoulders, dislocated her right shoulder early in Game 2. But she returned the next game and played the rest of the series, finishing with 22 points, 10 rebounds and 3 assists in Game 5. Before that game, she brushed off inquiries about her health, saying, “I’m done with shoulder questions.”
Bonner said: “She’s the leader of this team. She’s the leader of this organization. She is Connecticut Sun basketball.”
January said early in the semifinals that this Connecticut team reminded her of the 2012 Indiana Fever team she won a title with. That team won four elimination games and overcame the loss of the star Katie Douglas to an ankle injury.
“It’s all about heart and discipline, putting yourselves in positions to win games,” January said. “It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s not luck. It’s focus. It’s intensity. It’s togetherness. It’s having each other’s backs. It’s being ready when your name’s called.”
Miller felt a similar cohesion, reiterating Tuesday that he wished those not inside the bubble could have seen how close the players became.
Chemistry cannot be measured by box scores or analytics. But it has been the common theme of Miller’s winning teams. With this group, the coach often pointed to an off-day family dinner, at which players and staff sat in a circle and talked about basketball and life, as a turning point.
“Especially in a season like now, where you’re playing every other day, those conversations, they don’t happen as often,” Jasmine Thomas said. “You don’t have that time to really have days in between games to clean up stuff off the court, just in a chemistry, getting-to-know-your-teammate kind of way. I feel like that was a good dinner for us in that sense. I feel like I felt that momentum after it.”
Though Miller and his players said they were fueled by feeling disrespected, this playoff run further illustrated what Connecticut showed by making it to the finals last season: The Sun have reached the upper tier of sustained success.
The next step: Win a championship.
Alyssa Thomas and Jasmine Thomas will be free agents in the off-season, but both spoke Tuesday night as if they planned to return. After navigating a season with so many new faces, Jasmine Thomas said the Sun would not need to spend much time next season smoothing out kinks. And Jonquel Jones is expected back, giving Connecticut an athletic post player who can rebound and block shots at an elite level while stretching the floor on offense.
“We are right there,” Jasmine Thomas said.
Connecticut’s Game 5 effort was the latest example.
The Sun started fast, building a 16-point first-half lead. That devolved into a clunky offensive second half, allowing the Aces to rally and take the lead. Both teams tightened up defensively in the fourth quarter, keeping it a single-possession game until the buzzer. Bonner, though, could not get a clean look at a potential game-tying 3-pointer in the final seconds.
Bonner said tears were shed inside the locker room. The initial shock and hurt then morphed into pride.
The Sun got to spend 18 additional days inside the bubble competing in the playoffs, thanks to the way they challenged limits throughout the season.
“Everybody walked out with their head pretty high,” Bonner said, “because nobody expected us to be here.”