With fresh start, rebuilt Sun hope to climb into contention

Connecticut's Allison Hightower drives past Phoenix's Krysal Thomas and looks to score against Phoenix Friday night.

Connecticut’s Allison Hightower was an Eastern Conference All-Star a year ago.

When the WNBA season began a year ago, the Connecticut Sun had high hopes of contending for the league championship.

In the 2012 season, the Sun had the best record in the Eastern Conference (25-9) and swept New York in the first round of the playoffs. But the season ended with a thud when eventual champion Indiana throttled the Sun by 16 points on their home court to win game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals.

A few weeks later, head coach Mike Thibault was fired after 10 years. Hall of Fame player Anne Donovan was hired to replace Thibault.

But things never quite gelled in 2013. Injuries gutted the franchise. Former WNBA All-Star Ashja Jones and Danielle McCray were hurt before the season began and never played. Guard Renee Montgomery suffered a high ankle in the second game of the year and missed three weeks. Kara Lawson missed multiple games with a sore knee and taking time to be with her ailing father.

The Sun finished with the worst record in franchise history at 10-24.

When the 2014 WNBA season begins on Friday, a revamped Sun squad will take the Mohegan Sun Arena floor against the New York Liberty at 7 p.m.

Just four players from last year’s opening night roster are back – Montgomery, WNBA All-Star Allison Hightower, forward Kelsey Griffin and second-year guard Kelly Faris. McCray is back, healthy and ready to go.

Tina Charles, the WNBA’s MVP in 2012, is in New York having demanded a trade to the Liberty after warning the Sun she would sit out the final season of her deal. Kara Lawson was traded to the Washington Mystics. French forward Sandrine Gruda, who had last played for the Sun in 2010, was traded to Los Angeles for two draft picks.

More than once, Sun management indicated they wanted people in Connecticut who wanted to be here. “At the end of the day, we want people who want to be here, want to buy into the program and who want to help us achieve our goal of bringing a WNBA championship to Connecticut,” Donovan said.

Jones will miss the season again. She sat out the 2013 campaign to tend to nagging injuries that had slowed her in previous seasons. In December, she ruptured her Achilles tendon playing in Russia.

The Sun had the No. 1 pick in the draft and selected Stanford’s All-American forward Chiney Ogwumike. They also picked up Maryland forward Alyssa Thomas and the Liberty’s second-year center Kelsey Bone in the draft day trade that sent Charles to New York. The Sun picked up guard All-Rookie guard Alex Bentley from the Atlanta Dream in the Lawson deal.

And Connecticut signed three-time All-Star Katie Douglas, the 13-year veteran, who led the Sun to a pair of appearances in the WNBA finals in 2004 and 2005 and won a WNBA championship with Indiana in 2012.

Third-year forward Kayla Pedersen from Sanford, second-year center Kelley Cain from Tennessee and second-year guard Kelly Faris from UConn round out the squad.

There is plenty of optimism around the Sun. But they are realistic.

“You’re going to see a lot of hustle,” said Montgomery, the fifth-year guard out of Connecticut. “We’ll have to do that because might not be one of the most talented teams as far as All-Stars across the board. But we’ll be a high-energy hustle team. We’re going to have to outwork everyone we play.”

Connecticut wasn’t a particularly strong rebounding team a year ago – even with Charles, who averaged 18.0 points and 10.0 rebounds. It will be a challenge this year.

“Our identity is going to be on defense,” Douglas said. “We’re going to be a defensive oriented team first and foremost. We’ll be scrappy of course and we’ll be up tempo. We’ll play with various lineups. But we’ll have to be scrappy and rebound.”

Douglas, who missed all but four games of last year’s WNBA season with Indiana, is healthy and is a scoring threat. She is  fifth all-time in league history in made threes (663), ninth all time in scoring (5,142 points) and 17th in assists (1,006).

Hightower blossomed last year as pressure mounted on her to help carry the scoring load as team’s collapsed around Charles last year. Hightower averaged a career-high 12.8 points per game and hit 24 three-point shots. The Sun signed her to a four-year deal in the off-season.

Griffin was the only Connecticut player to start all 34 games a year ago. She scored in double figures 12 times and had career high numbers in 10 different statistical categories. In March, she was the MVP of the Australian league she played in this winter, leading the Bendigo Spirit to the league championship.

Bentley gives the Sun some depth at point guard with Montgomery. A second-year pro from Penn State, she averaged 8.3 points and 2.8 assist per game for Atlanta and earned a spot on the WNBA’s All-Rookie team.

“She played some brilliant minutes for the Dream in her rookie year,” Donovan said. “I am thrilled to have her energy first and foremost. Her scoring ability and defensive toughness will be a great spark at our point position.”

2014 Connecticut Sun Roster 

No.       Player              Pos.       Ht.            School        Exp.
20         Alex Bentley      G          5-7        Penn State        1
14         Kelsey Bone      F-C      6-4        Texas A&M        1
52         Kelley Cain        C          6-6       Tennessee         1
23         Katie Douglas   G-F       6-0        Purdue             13
34         Kelly Faris         G          5-11      Connecticut       1
5          Kelsey Griffin      F          6-2        Nebraska           4
3          Allison Hightower G        5-10      Louisiana State  4
4          Danielle McCray  G-F     5-11      Kansas              2
21        Renee Montgomery  G   5-7        Connecticut       5
13        Chiney Ogwumike F        6-4        Stanford            R
7          Kayla Pedersen    F        6-4        Stanford            3
25        Alyssa Thomas     F        6-2        Maryland           R

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