The good and bad of winning ugly
UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- Perseverance is the flip side of attrition.
It's an attribute of champions, the ability to withstand the moments and games when things aren't working like they have before and everything that looked so clinically precise in practice collapses into a hodgepodge of missed shots, bad turnovers and questionable calls.
Perseverance in the face of attrition is a good trait, a necessary step, for any team on the road to a title. Of course, like anything, it's best savored in moderation.
"There's two emotions for coaches in pro spots: misery and relief," Connecticut coach Mike Thibault said after the Sun's 68-65 win over the Mystics on Sunday, recounting a phrase he learned from Pat Riley during his time as a Lakers assistant. "Because you don't have time to enjoy. Today is a relief day, which I guess is better than a misery day."
Like Sacramento and Detroit on Saturday, the Connecticut Sun were simply the better team in advancing to the conference finals with a sweep of their first-round series against fourth-seeded Washington. Unlike the Monarchs and Shock, however, the Sun didn't always look the part in winning at home.
Passes bounced off teammates, layups rolled around the rim before falling harmlessly to the side, rebounds slipped off fingers and groans cascaded down from the stands quicker than the entertainment crew could fire T-shirts into the crowd.
"I've never seen us play that bad offensively and win," Thibault said after his team shot 28 percent from the floor, the second-worst playoff mark in franchise history. "I guess that's the great thing. You're going to have one bad game along the way. Our defense was good; our offense was terrible."
And yet when it was over, the Sun had completed the sweep and earned themselves an extra day of rest before the conference finals, time that became ever more important the moment Katie Douglas limped to the side of the court late in the fourth quarter, unable to continue after suffering a foot injury. Douglas said after the game it was not related to the calf injury that slowed her the final week of the regular season and said she will have an MRI on Monday.
It turns out even when it comes to playing poorly, the Sun are better at that, too. And a team that has put together plenty of sublime performances throughout the season won a game that was hit upside the head with the ugly stick from the start.
It was an afternoon best summed by Washington's Chastity Melvin throwing a pass out of the post with just more than three minutes remaining and realizing too late that her intended target was referee Denise Brooks-Clauser.
Then again, with the way all three officials filled the stat sheet, who could blame Melvin for suffering from some confusion as to whether they were actually part of play.
Where numbers like Tamika Whitmore's points in defeat or Ticha Penicheiro's assists in victory ought to jump off the stat sheet as deciding factors in playoff games, whistles took top billing on Sunday. In all, the teams combined for 49 total fouls, including 32 on Washington. In addition to four of five starters finishing with at least four fouls (Melvin fouled out late in the fourth quarter), Coco Miller and Crystal Robinson somehow managed to combine for 10 fouls in less than 27 minutes off the bench.
Even in adjusting to the officials, the Sun beat the Mystics to the punch.
Late in the third quarter, after Mystics point guard Nikki Teasley had earned a three-point play on a continuation call that would have made Allen Iverson blush, a frustrated Richie Adubato stalked down his bench, imploring his players to follow Teasley's lead in taking the ball to the basket. As raw a deal as his team might have been receiving -- and the biggest surprise of the night may have been Washington's coach avoiding an ejection as the fouls mounted -- Adubato knew that surviving the game hinged on playing to the whistles.
The Sun had long since reached the same conclusion, accepting their fate at the hands of a horrendous officiating performance and putting themselves in position to get the whistles. Had they matched their season average from the free-throw line, the game would have been effectively over far earlier. Of course, even the charity stripe failed to get the Sun out of their shooting funk, with the league's leading free-throw shooting team hitting just 25-of-38 shots.
In some respects, all the fouls may have made it more difficult for the Sun to find some semblance of rhythm on offense.
"They were talking about rhythm, I was like, 'We shot over 50 free throws,'" Lindsay Whalen said, exaggerating her team's total only slightly after the game. "That takes so long, you know, the free throws; it's like stopping and it's hard to get in rhythm. I'm just glad we played as good defense as we did and made the shots when they counted."
Next up for the Sun is a meeting with the Shock, a team which swept three games from the Sun during the regular season and looked in top form in dispatching the Fever from the playoffs. And if Sunday's win was a harbinger of things to come against a team known as much more physical and defensive-minded than Washington, the Sun are in trouble.
But for now, they're just a top seed that knows how to win even when things go wrong.
Looking relieved both at the win and at fielding the last question asking her to somehow explain what went wrong in the grand scheme of something going right, Whalen summed up things rather well.
"So second half, I just tried to run it up a little faster and get us in our offense a little quicker," Whalen said of her instructions from Thibault. "That and just trying to drive in there, find everybody open. That's what I was trying to do. I didn't do it a ton tonight, but I guess we did everything just enough to win."
And as long as the Sun can eventually look back at Sunday's game as a character-building experience -- as in something to tell war stories about but never, under any circumstances, repeat -- that was plenty.Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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