October 6, 2023
Alyssa Thomas and Connecticut Sun defy season expectations, again
The Sun fell short of returning to the WNBA Finals, but still proved many wrong
UNCASVILLE, Conn. — After being outnumbered in the Connecticut Sun’s Game 3 loss against the New York Liberty in the WNBA semifinals, the Sun knew they were going to need every player to keep their season alive. That never felt more real than when the Sun’s most valuable player Alyssa Thomas went down about 22 seconds into the fourth quarter of last Sunday’s Game 4, as the Sun trailed 66-58 to New York on their home court.
Thomas went up for a defensive rebound and collided with former Sun teammate, Liberty center Jonquel Jones. They both landed awkwardly after trying to grab the ball, and Jones got her left arm tangled into Thomas while falling on her right shoulder. Thomas tried to push Jones off her while sitting upright and then rolled over before pounding the ground with her fists.
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She laid there and the play continued while everyone ran to the other side of the floor. Once the play eventually ended, Thomas needed assistance from Sun athletic trainer Nicole Alexander and general manager Darius Thomas to walk back to the locker room.
Mohegan Sun Arena held its breath as Sun fans watched the toughest and most valuable player on their team agonize in pain. “If AT walked off the court, you know something really happened,” Sun guard DiJonai Carrington told reporters after the game.
The Sun fought on without their fearless leader — forcing two steals and answering with a 6-0 run that cut the Liberty’s lead to just two points.
“All season she’s put us on her back and it was a moment that we had to step up for her…,” Carrington said. “So that was a moment that we all came together and said ‘We got to step up. We got to do it for our teammate who’s been doing it for us all year.’”
After less than two minutes of gameplay — about five minutes in real time — Thomas walked back out of the tunnel and returned to the bench. She watched three plays from the bench and then got up to check into the game as waves of Sun fans gave her a standing ovation and greeted her return with MVP chants.
Thomas wasted no time getting back to work, dishing out her ninth assist to Carrington that tied the game, and later found her fiancé DeWanna Bonner for a three to take the lead for the first time in the second half — securing her third playoff triple-double with 17 points, 15 rebounds and 11 assists.
The Sun fought until the end, just like they did all season, coming just short on the last play of the game, ending their season and chance to return to the WNBA Finals.
The Sun missed out on another chance at the finals, but all agreed that they have a lot to be proud of this season.
As a group of players who have been overlooked and underrated throughout their professional careers, the Sun maximized their potential and fought through adversity and change to return to the semifinals for a fifth season in a row.
“I think preseason we were picked seven or eight — and to finish third, lose a huge piece in [forward Brionna Jones, and to fight like we did in the semis, we have a ton to be proud of,” Thomas said on Sunday. “We could have easily given up this season. Everyone counts us out as usual, but we fought hard today despite everything that happened and I’m super proud of my team.”
Thomas ended the playoffs averaging 18.1 points, 8 rebounds and a playoff-leading 10.2 assists throughout the postseason, somehow turning up another level from her historic regular season that put her in contention for MVP and Defensive Player of the Year — finishing second in both votes.
She took over the Sun record books, and cemented her place in WNBA history by filling the stat sheet with unprecedented triple-doubles and double-doubles, leading the league in rebounds and assists, doing everything on the court to bring a new team with a new coaching staff, and without their All-Star center, within seconds of forcing a Game 5 against the New York superteam.
“I had a season you’ve never seen in this league, and probably won’t see again unless I do it,” Thomas said after the game. “So let’s be reasonable. I mean, triple-doubles, most double-doubles in league history. We’re talking about league records. So for me, I have a lot to be proud of that no one can take away the fact that I will always be in the record books.”
Other stars get more respect — favorable calls, media attention, awards — but Carrington said Thomas’ passion and intensity on the defensive end especially is what drove the rest of the team to follow her lead.
“That doesn’t change the way that she comes out every single night and continues to fight regardless of the outside noise or the lack thereof,” Carrington said.
Head coach Stephanie White calls Thomas the league’s most underrated superstar, but the team is filled with players who have been overlooked and underestimated. Disrespect has defined the Connecticut Sun during their five straight semifinal appearances — the common denominator in all of them being Thomas.
While Connecticut has retired the hashtag and the t-shirts, the Sun have built an identity around players with a chip on their shoulder.
They feel they’ve been underrated for their accomplishments, or had their accomplishments overlooked, and yes, felt disrespected — in a lack of media attention, award votes and calls from referees.
Throughout the series, White always said that it was going to come down to all of them in order to reach the Finals.
Carrington, who has gone from a second-round pick to a Most Improved Player candidate, returned from being benched in Game 3 to score a career playoff high 14 points.
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Allen, one of the more underrated 3-and-D players in the league, returned to the starting lineup after missing Game 3 because of illness, and got the Sun off to a hot start with two threes in the first quarter.
Backup point guard Ty Harris — who was buried on the Dallas Wings roster for the first three years of her career — scored back-to-back threes in the fourth quarter, almost bringing the Sun to an improbable last-second comeback to send the game to overtime.
Then there’s DeWanna Bonner, a two-time champion who is within reach of being the second most prolific scorer in league history, who just had one of the best seasons of her career at 36, but is still overlooked as one of the all-time greats.
Tiffany Hayes — another second round pick who seems to go under the radar despite being one of the most explosive slashers in the game — was huge for the team all series, including a 30-point explosion in Game 2.
She was efficient and aggressive, averaging 14.3 points per game during the playoffs. And she played her best against the Liberty, averaging 18.3 points, and a scorching 47.6 percent from deep. She said the feeling of being counted out is part of what drove the Sun as far as they went.
“Our team is built with players like that because a lot of us are deserving of a lot of things that we haven’t gotten — past, present and probably future. That’s just the truth,” Hayes told reporters during her exit interview on Tuesday. “ I think we kind of formed a great group, specifically off of that alone and our will to win also adds to that. It takes us very far. As far as we got, even without pieces we were missing like Bri [Jones].”
Allen, who enters the offseason as an unrestricted free agent, said this year’s team was the one of the best locker rooms she has ever been in, which translated to their success on the court.
“Everyone had a voice. Everyone was able to speak and you felt comfortable in there and that’s something you don’t always get,” Allen told reporters after Game 4. “When everyone’s pointing at you as being the underdogs that’s a huge factor in you being better than the team that you’re playing against, is that sense of unity.”
And at the center of everything is Thomas, who after years of taking a smaller role for the good of a frontcourt-loaded team, showed what she is really capable of. White said from the beginning of this season through the very end, the most impressive part of Thomas’ development has been as a leader.
“Trusting her teammates, understanding sort of when to challenge them and when to encourage them. You know, she’s a player that leads by example, typically, and I feel like she became much more vocal as the season went on. She truly is one of one.”
Allen said she thanked Thomas in the locker room for making her season with a new team such a good experience. While Thomas is fiery on the court, Allen said she’s level-headed and that’s what helps her get everyone to rally around her.
Carrington, who showed up big when it mattered most after a difficult end to the season dealing with an injury, said that Thomas told her after the game that she sees herself in Carrington. That was special to hear from a “one-of-one” player like Thomas, she said.
Thomas told reporters after the semifinals loss that she wants to go to war every night with the group of women who everyone counts out, like she’s been counted out.
“They give everything, their energy, they play super hard,” Thomas said. “It’s easy to have five stars and go out there and do whatever but, you know, I know that each and every night that my sisters got my back no matter what. That’s the fun in it.”