Sun Have To Do Better

Performances Like Griffin's Sure Will Help

Kelsey Griffin

Kelsey Griffin, pictured in a game in May, put her body on the line for the Sun this season, spending a lot of postgame time with ice packs. (Stan Godlewski / Special to The Courant / May 5, 2014)

UNCASVILLE — Maybe this is what it takes. Maybe it takes Chiney Ogwumike, the team's future, to get caught in the health issues of the present and have to watch the vital minutes from the bench.

Maybe it takes Katie Douglas, the team's veteran rudder, to hobble off late with her lower back problems for a young team to have enough backbone to pull out a late-season double-overtime victory after blowing a 13-point, fourth quarter lead.

Or maybe the story of this Sunday was in the four ice packs covering Kelsey Griffin's body after the Sun had staved off elimination from the playoff race, albeit for only two hours.

"MVP of the game," Sun coach Anne Donovan said of Griffin following an 89-81 win over the Mystics.

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A put-back at the buzzer to push the game into overtime, a dagger three in double overtime, stops, deflections, charges taken, a huge steal on Bria Hartley ... yes, Griffin earned the ice pack on her elbow, one on each knee and another on her ankle. She could have been forgiven if somebody had mistaken her for Frosty The Snowman.

"Kelsey sacrifices her body every day," Renee Montgomery said.

"She deserves every bit of happiness from this game," Ogwumike said.

A personal record for most postgame bags of ice?

"Unfortunately not," Griffin said. "But I love my teammates. It's easy to put my body on the line when I got such great people to play with."

Within two hours, however, the Sun, were on ice. Indiana already had won. Chicago won. It was official. The Sun were frozen out of the playoffs. Again. And it's getting old. There is no maybe about that.

It would have been so neat and tidy if the Mystics had completed their fourth-quarter comeback and Griffin hadn't put back Kelsey Bone's miss.

The Sun would have been eliminated on the spot. Coach Mike Thibault, fired after the 2012 season in a move that could haunt Sun management for as long as slot machines whir in the casino, would have overseen the Sun demise. But, no, 7,348 fans showed, were vocal in their support, and the Sun got enough help off the bench to make sure the demise wasn't tidy.

"I guess it showed character; we blew a lead and still hung on for dear life," Montgomery said.

You know what? The tidy way would make for tidy conclusions, and rebuilding a team is never tidy. Saying last year's locker room abscess ended with a Chiney abscessed tooth this year is the snarky, simple explanation. The locker room chemistry stunk last year. Tina Charles, who eventually demanded a trade, missed Thibault so much, disliked playing for Donovan enough, that she treated Uncasville like a stink bomb.

This team did want to play. This team also isn't nearly good enough to run with the WNBA elite, not yet anyway. The good news is the WNBA elite is comprised of only two or three teams, and the rest are clearly within reach next season.

"The fans definitely have our back," Ogwumike said. "When something goes wrong, you can hear this place reverberate. They know something great is going to come. From this season, something special is going to happen in the years to come."

Maybe if the Sun keep missing the playoffs, they'll accumulate enough top draft picks and so much talent that they can't help but be good. Is that what is takes? It worked for Minnesota.

In 2015, Allison Hightower comes back healthy, Chelsea Gray comes in healthy, the terrific Alba Torrens shows up from abroad, Alyssa Thomas, Alex Bentley, Kelsey Bone and Chiney keep maturing … and who knows how the four-team draft lottery shakes out?

They could get Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis at No. 1. The Sun are dying for a shooters and she's one of the best. With the Liberty's pick from the Charles deal, they also could get another lottery choice. Duke's Elizabeth Williams is out there. Unfortunately, the 2015 draft also isn't a deep draft like 2014. A king's ransom for Breanna Stewart in 2016, right?

We all could shout, hey, this 12-20 lesson in frustration is the result of the massive overhaul after everybody but the Mohegan Sun Arena janitor quit on Donovan last year. We could say, just wait until next year.

Or we could say Donovan, 21-44 since taking over from Thibault, is overrated as a coach, failed to reach last year's team and failed to get this team to play effectively when it mattered most late in games. Last year's team imploded. This year's team was too green. Donovan figures to get one more chance next year. If the talk of growth and cohesion doesn't lead to a solid playoff team, she doesn't figure to be around the casino to see the Breanna Stewart draft.

"To be able to build a team not about huge scorers, but to have a chemistry team that goes out and plays hard, I'm really excited about the possibilities for this group." Griffin said.

Donovan was hired to win a championship in 2013, something a terrific coach named Thibault could not do over a decade — and he paid for it after a 25-9 season.

"Playing hard is not our issue [this season]," Donovan said.

Executing down the stretch was the huge issue.

"If you look at our record, the amount of games we've lost in the fourth quarter that we shouldn't lose is too many, too many than I'd like to count," Griffin said. "We know we're capable of closing games. It comes down to gritting it out."

The Sun have shot horribly this season, a huge issue, too. A .412 field goal percentage is a ticket to the basement.

"We've struggled from the three-point line, my God," Donovan said. "Down the stretch, [Montgomery] knocked them down today. And she was playing schematically what we wanted to do with that middle-ball screen, which was Bentley's demise.

"You have to get shooters, that's why we got Katie. It's something we struggled with a lot last season, too. [Thomas] has a lot of growth. In the offseason it's something she has to work on. But once you get two-three years in the league, you are who you are. There isn't enough time for women's basketball players to work on their game anymore. They go overseas. The period of time is small. That's why we're hoping we can capitalize with A.T."

After her prime rookie missed two games with the harsh fallout of an abscess tooth, Donovan said Ogwumike, who had nine points in 26 minutes Sunday, still wasn't herself. She was out of it. The rest of the kids hung in there. Maybe it's a sign of things to come. Maybe.

"Once again it was our youth going against experienced teams playing for positions in the playoffs," Donovan said. "I like the way we responded.

"Everybody talks about Indiana basketball, where our game began, but there's nothing like Connecticut in terms of fans for us. They haven't given up on us."

Not yet anyway.

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