September 21, 2022
How Connecticut Sun pivoted through a season of adversity
'Nobody expected us to be here'
UNCASVILLE, Conn. — The Connecticut Sun fell short of their ultimate goal of bringing back the franchise’s first WNBA championship, with shaky shooting and a seemingly unstoppable Chelsea Gray proving to be their downfall in their 3-1 series loss to the Las Vegas Aces.
But the Sun have to be proud about how they got to the Finals in the first place, overcoming all odds and expectations. They spent seemingly the entire playoffs on the verge of elimination, facing an elimination game against Dallas, and two against Chicago after falling behind 2-1 in the semifinals series.
They went into the fourth quarter of Game 5 of the semifinals down by 11 points, before going on an incredible 18-0 run to top the Chicago Sky and make it to the Finals in the first place. Then, after falling to 0-2 to the Aces, the Sun forced a Game 4 with a dominating Game 3 victory.
“This group thrives when people tell them they can’t do something, and they left it all out there. We missed some shots. We missed some reads,” Sun head coach Curt Miller said. “They made some great shots, but their mental toughness, they never wavered that they couldn’t do this. And they never listened to all the people that said they couldn’t.”
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This Sun season was marked by adversity, but even more by how the team overcame it. They stuck together after losing their leader and point guard Jasmine Thomas less than a month into the season, and then after her replacement Bria Hartley went down with the same injury. And even through a gauntlet of a postseason, they went 4-1 in elimination games, reversing a frustrating trend from throughout the franchise’s history.
“Nobody expected us to be here, first and foremost,” Alyssa Thomas said after the game on Sunday. “They thought we would lose to Chicago and Dallas, and despite all that we made it to the Finals. Unfortunately it didn’t go the way we wanted to. We had fun .. .It just didn’t go the way we wanted to.”
Sun accomplish plenty in 2022
Short of a banner, there was still plenty that the Sun did accomplish. Alyssa Thomas, whose contributions never went overlooked in Connecticut, forced her way into the league MVP conversation in her return from an achilles injury that kept her out of almost the entire 2021 season. Perennially on the cusp of a triple-double throughout her career, Thomas finished the season with four, including back-to-back triple doubles in the last two games of the Finals.
Her limitations as a shooter are obvious, but Thomas showed in how many other ways she can succeed — especially as she took on a lot of the primary playmaking duties from Jasmine Thomas, becoming more of a point forward than she ever had been.
She averaged 13.4 points, 8.2 rebounds, and a career high 6.1 assists, which was top five in the league. Thomas earned All WNBA Second Team – her first All WNBA team appearance, and a member of the Defensive Second Team.
Despite the Game 4 loss, Thomas quietly recorded her fourth triple double this season. She’s now the league’s all time triple double leader and the first player to record back to back triple doubles.
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Hiedeman vital for Sun
Fourth-year guard Natisha Hiedeman was inserted into the starting lineup after Thomas’ injury in May, and ended up averaging career highs in nearly every category — posting 9.1 points, 3.3 assists, and 1.2 steals per game this season.
Most impressive for Hiedeman was her leap on the defensive end. Hiedeman went from a rotational shooter to a starting guard on a team that emphasizes defense above all else, and Hiedeman stepped up to the challenge, especially in the playoffs, where she played a major role in limiting the Chicago Sky’s Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley.
“She really handled it. Not an easy situation to pivot with your leader on and off the floor now out for the year,” Miller said. “She had a remarkable year. She proved that she can be a starting point guard in this league twofold. Her future is only going to be brighter.”
Jonquel Jones said the loss was difficult to process shortly after the game ended, and it was hard to think about anything else in that moment, but the pride and the heart the team has shown throughout the season was apparent, as well as the sacrifices everyone made to get to the Finals in the first place.
Jones and Williams, who both returned to the team in free agency during the offseason, took less money than their market value to return to Connecticut because they both felt the team could have a shot at winning it all.
With Alyssa Thomas back in the starting lineup, Jones, Brionna Jones, and Thomas had to work through constant adjustments to the rotation as Miller experimented with what worked best and how to get his best players on the court at the same time. Bri Jones came off the bench for her second All-Star season, and Jonquel went from averaging 32 minutes a game in 2021 to 26 minutes a game in 2022.
“There’s a lot of selflessness and a lot of sacrifices to be able to have this team back together and make this run,” 2021 MVP Jones said following Sunday’s loss. “While it’s tough and it’s disappointing, we get to say that we were one of the last two teams standing and playing for a championship. So I’ve got a lot of pride and a lot of joy with the moments that I’ve had with this team and how the ladies have been ready to play every night.”
Sun revitalize Courtney Williams
Courtney Williams stepped up in her return to the Finals after an offensive slump to start the playoffs. Williams scored 17 points in Game 4 and came up big at the end of the game to tie and then give the Sun the lead late in the game, as the only guard on the floor for the Sun.
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Miller said the team needed an offensive spark in the guard spot, and Williams is a “big-time player in big moments.” But Miller was most complimentary of Williams’ influence in the locker room and her contagious positive energy.
“She’s one of the most positive, best teammates I’ve coached at this level,” Miller said. “Every day, she comes with a joy and brings a spirit of enjoying the game of basketball. It’s not a job to her. She just has fun playing and it’s contagious to be around. You can’t help but laugh and smile when Courtney walks into practice every single day. You wish as a coach that you could coach ten Courtney Williams because she brings so much fun to the day-to-day grind that this season can be.”
Williams said she told her teammates in the locker room after the game that she would have never been in that position to begin with if it weren’t for them.
“I went through a lot this offseason, and a lot of people threw in the towel on me,” Williams said. “These girls right here were my first phone call telling me to come here. Even though we wish that the cards would have been dealt differently for us, I’m grateful because nobody had me being here. A lot of people had me out of the league. To go through what I went through and make it to the Finals, and be able to play beside my sisters again, I can’t even be upset. I’m just happy to be here.”