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Defense is helping surprising Sun (6-1), who host Los Angeles on Friday night

Alex Bentley and the surprising Connecticut Sun (6-1) return home to open a three-game home stand Friday against Los Angeles. (Photo courtesy Connecticut Sun)

Alex Bentley and the surprising Connecticut Sun (6-1) return home to open a three-game home stand Friday against Los Angeles. (Photo courtesy Connecticut Sun)

Opening Day is supposed to be the dawn of a new season, a time for hope and optimism. For many fans of the Connecticut Sun, it was a time of challenges.

A year ago, the Sun went 13-21 – its second-worst season since moving to Connecticut from Orlando nearly a decade ago. In 2013, the Sun were worse – 10-24.

When the Sun took the floor for the season opening game earlier this month against the Washington Mystics at the Mohegan Sun Arena, they were without four key players from last year’s squad.

Gone from the team was former All-Star Katie Douglas, who retired with a bad back; last year’s Rookie of the Year Chiney Ogwumike, who is out for the season after undergoing knee surgery in January, veteran guard Allison Hightower, who was selected to the WNBA All-Star Game last summer but injured her knee in the offseason, and veteran forward Kelsey Griffin, who hurt her hip in training camp and was waived.

Yet, Sun head coach Anne Donovan and her team remained positive. They’ve played hard and enter Friday night’s game at the Mohegan Sun Arena with a surprising 6-1 record, good enough for first place in the WNBA’s Eastern Conference. After losing to Washington on opening night, 73-68, the Sun have won six straight games. Tonight, they’ll face the winless Los Angeles Sparks (0-5) beginning at 7 p.m.

Defense is fueling this strong start. Connecticut leads the league in fewest points allowed per game (68), most steals per game (11.2) and turnovers per game (19.3). In its last four wins over Atlanta, Seattle, Phoenix and Los Angeles, the Sun have converted 88 turnovers into 108 points.

Third-year guard Alex Bentley, who led the Sun in scoring in the first three games of the season, leads the team with 23 steals. She is also the leading scorer on the team, averaging 15.7 points a game and she has drained 11 three-point shots.

In the last two games, Bentley has set new single-game career highs. She had 19 points in a 90-78 double OT win over Phoenix on June 19. She had 14 points in the second half and the two overtime periods.

Two days later in Los Angeles, Bentley had a game-high 21 points.

In the fourth quarter, she was 3-of-3 from the field with a team-leading eight points. She gave the Sun the lead for good, 58-57, on a layup with 7:02 left. Then she stole the ball and scored again to make it 60-57. That sparked a 12-5 Sun run that helped put the game away in a 76-68 victory.

Third-year center Kelsey Bone had the best night of her WNBA career in Phoenix, setting a new career high with 27 points while tying her career-best with 14 rebounds. She also tied the franchise record with 13 made field goals. Bone is averaging 14.9 points and leads the Sun in rebounding, pulling down 6.7 rebounds a game.

Bone had 10 of her points in the two overtimes, on 5-of-7 shooting, and also pulled down four rebounds. Bone ranks second in the league in field goal shooting percentage (.610).

Alyssa Thomas, the rookie forward from Maryland, is averaging 10.1 points and 6.1 rebounds a game.

The Sun are also showing plenty of poise. They haven’t let deficits deter them. On June 7, Connecticut railed defending Eastern Conference champion Atlanta by 12, 30-18 but rallied for a 75-70 victory. In a rematch with the Dream a week later, Atlanta raced out to a 20-5 first quarter lead. But the Sun didn’t wilt in a 72-64 victory.

In Seattle, Connecticut outscored the Storm, 34-17 over the final 15 minutes of the first half to pull away for a victory. On Sunday against Los Angeles on the road, the Sun trailed by 10 at halftime but rallied in the second half for the win thanks to second half adjustments and 12 steals. Camille Little chipped in with 13 for the Sun.

Los Angeles was led by Jantel Lavender with 15 points and 10 rebounds, her second consecutive double-double this season, third overall. Temeka Johnson finished with 15 points and 10 assists. Johnson’s double-double was the first of the season and first double-double in points and assists for a Sparks this season.

Los Angeles is off to the worst start in franchise history at 0-5. The Sparks, who have been without Candace Parker and Kristi Toliver all season and Nneka Ogwumike and Alana Beard for a number of games, lost their fifth game of the season at Washington on Tuesday evening. This is the fourth time in franchise history that the Sparks have lost five consecutive games throughout a season.

The Sparks are the lowest scoring team in the league, averaging 63 points a game. Lavender leads the team scoring 13.8 points and pulling down 10.6 rebounds a game. Nneka Ogwumike made her season debut in the 84-80 loss to Washington on Tuesday night after missing four games with an ankle sprain. She scored 11 points and pulled down six rebounds.

NOTES — Former Sun guard Erin Phillips is playing with Los Angeles. …This is Connecticut’s best start since going 8-1 in 2005 and 2008. The Sun were also 7-1 in 2006. They made the playoffs each of those years, going to the WNBA Finals in 2005. … Connecticut hosts Indiana on Tuesday at 7 p.m. and Chicago on Thursday, July 2, at 7 p.m. … Friday night’s game against Los Angeles can be seen on WNBA Live Access at … The first 4,000 fans in the building Friday night a special Connecticut Sun beach ball. Steve Max, the Simon Sez Master, will be performing at halftime. 

A quick look at Connecticut’s 6-1 start in the 2015 campaign.

June 5: Washington 73, Connecticut 68
The Sun erased a 12-point deficit in the second half when Alyssa Thomas hit a pair of free throws with 3:26 remaining but Washington held on for the victory. Alex Bentley had 17 points for Connecticut while Kelsey Bone added 14. Former UConn star Stefanie Dolson had a career-high 18 points and 12 rebounds.

June 7: Connecticut 75, @Atlanta 70
Connecticut trailed by 12 points, 30-18, but rallied for the victory. The Sun outscored Atlanta, 17-11 in the third quarter to take the lead. The Dream committed 25 turnovers, which led to 31 points for Connecticut. Alex Bentley scored 17 points while Chelsea Gray added 14 and Jasmine Thomas chipped in with 13.

June 11: Connecticut 67, Chicago 65
In a tightly-contested contest, Connecticut’s Alyssa Thomas scored eight of the Sun’s final 11 points including a pair of free throws with 1.9 seconds left to lift the win to the win. Thomas and Kelsey Bone each had 14 points for the Sun. Bone had 12 rebounds while Alex Bentley led Connecticut with 16 points.

June 14: Connecticut 82, Atlanta 64
Atlanta raced out to a 20-5 first quarter lead. But the Sun didn’t wilt in a 82-64 victory. Kelsey Bone and Shekinna Stricklen both scored 18 points to lead Sun. Stricklen came off the bench to hit 4 of 6 three-point attempts. Jasmine Thomas had 17 points and Alyssa Thomas added 10. The Sun took command in the fourth quarter, using a 9-2 run to go up eight, then scored 13 straight — including consecutive 3-pointers by Stricklen — to build a 20-point lead.

June 16: Connecticut 79, @Seattle 58
Camille Little and Shekinna Stricklen played well in their first trip back to Seattle since being traded to Connecticut. Little had 12 points in the win while Chelsea Gray had 16 points (four 3-pointers), Alex Bentley added 12 points. The Sun sank seven 3-point shots. The Sun limited Seattle to just 39.6 shooting from the floor. Little and Stricklen were traded to Connecticut for Renee Montgomery and two 2015 draft picks.

June 19: Connecticut 90, @Phoenix 78, 2 OT
Kelsey Bone scored a career-high 27 points and matched a personal best with 14 rebounds to lead Connecticut. Bone hit a jumper and Chelsea Gray followed with a 3-pointer to spark a 12-0 run in the 2nd OT. Alex Bentley scored 19 points, Alyssa Thomas 15 and Gray chipped in 10 for the Sun.

June 21: Connecticut 76, @Los Angeles 68
Alex Bentley had a season-high 21 points and Chelsea Gray scored all 11 of her points in the final 14:24 for the Sun. Kelsey Bone scored 14 points and Camille Little added 13.

Gerry deSimas, Jr., is the editor and founder of The Collinsville Press. He is an award-winning writer and has been covering sports in Connecticut and New England for more than 30 years.

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