Sun finish strong despite low expectations

Updated: October 14, 2004, 4:44 PM ET
Associated Press

UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- Coach Mike Thibault's overhaul of the Connecticut Sun lifted the team to its first WNBA Finals. Not bad for a club picked by many to finish last in the league.

With six new faces on the roster, plus a trade that sent Olympic point guard Shannon Johnson to San Antonio, players spent the first month getting to know each other. By the time it all ended Tuesday night with a 74-60 loss to Seattle in the title game, the bonds were tight.

"Five rookies, six new faces all together. We didn't have a training camp, basically, because of five people not being there,'' Thibault said. "And yet to keep plugging away, I'm very proud of them. Nobody gave us much of a chance.''

It took awhile for the blend of rookies and veterans to mesh. After dropping their first two games, the team began to click, putting together a six-game winning streak midway through the season. The Sun went 5-2 after the Olympic break to finish on top of the tightly bunched Eastern Conference. They needed three games in round one of the playoffs to beat a surging Washington Mystics team, then swept the New York Liberty to win their first conference crown.

In Lindsay Whalen, the team's first-round draft pick out of Minnesota, Thibault found a point guard to drive his up-tempo squad. After averaging 8.9 points during the regular season, Whalen averaged a team-best 15.4 in the first five playoff games. In Game 1 of the finals, she set a team playoff mark with nine assists.

"When we came back from the Olympic break, we told her there's no more room for rookies on this team,'' guard Katie Douglas said. "And she's accepted the challenge and has led this team.''

Debbie Black, a pesky 38-year-old defensive specialist, helped tutor Whalen as she learned the pro game. Black also provided valuable minutes off the bench, giving Whalen a breather while running the offense.

"This is probably the funnest team I've ever been on as far as chemistry,'' Black said. "We have the right mix of veterans and youth and the perfect scenario for fun coaching and a fun team. And ultimately that's what you want in your work environment.''

Nykesha Sales and captain Taj McWilliams-Franklin provided the leadership Thibault needed. McWilliams-Franklin, who has two children, was the unofficial den mother of this young group, often cooking dinners for the team or taking the rookies bowling or to a movie.

"Being rookies you really don't know what to expect and (the veterans) brought us in very well,'' said Le'Coe Willingham, an undrafted free agent from Auburn. "They've been the leaders.''

The Sun moved to Connecticut when the WNBA changed its franchise rules allowing the Mohegan Tribe to buy the former Orlando Miracle, making it the first independently owned team without an NBA counterpart.

McWilliams-Franklin and Sales are the only original members left from the Miracle. In its six seasons in Orlando, the team made the playoffs just once and lost in the first round. The change of scenery has done wonders.

With a glitzy casino now as its home court, the Sun have made the playoffs both years since arriving in Connecticut, a state accustomed to cheering on championship women's basketball teams. In the past decade, UConn has won five NCAA championships, its first with Sales in 1995. Sun forward Asjha Jones, acquired in a trade from Washington, was a member of UConn's title teams in 2000 and 2002.

Sales nearly took over Game 2 by herself, scoring a finals-record 32 points and missing a 3-point attempt at the buzzer that would have clinched the title.

"This just wasn't our destiny this year,'' Sales said. "But I don't think we were scared at all. It happens to us as a team. We continued to play as a team.''

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press