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Expectations are higher for Sun coming off playoff berth a year ago

All-Star Alyssa Thomas of Connecticut tries to get through two Dallas defenders in a WNBA exhibition earlier this month. The Sun open their 16th season in Connecticut Sunday against Las Vegas.

UNCASVILLE, May 19 – A year ago, the expectations were low. The Connecticut Sun had won just 14 games the previous season and lost two-time All-Star Chiney Ogwumike for the season for an Achilles injury. And Connecticut lost five of their first six games.

But a young team came together and began to succeed. They won 10 of their next 12 games. They were 20-8 at one point before finishing as the No. 2 team in the WNBA’s Eastern Conference. The Sun earned a playoff berth for the first time since 2012 losing to Phoenix in the second round.

The expectations are much higher this season. The Sun return nine of the 12 players from last year’s squad including 6-foot-3 Jonquel Jones, the third-year player out of Maryland, who played in her first All-Star Game and was named the WNBA’s Most Improved Player, dynamic guards Jasmine Thomas and Courtney Williams and forward Alyssa Thomas. Both Thomas’ earned their first-ever All-Star berths.

Connecticut (21-13) will add Ogwumike, who was the WNBA’s No. 1 draft pick and rookie of the year in 2014, and rookie guard Lexie Brown from Duke, a first round selection (ninth overall).

“We must embrace that there will be higher expectations,” Connecticut general manager and coach Curt Miller said. “We need to stay focused on our preparation, attitude and effort.”

The Sun open their 16th WNBA season in Connecticut on Sunday when they host the Las Vegas Aces, formerly the San Antonio Silver Stars, at 1 p.m. at the Mohegan Sun Arena.

“It’s challenge we’re willing to accept,” Jasmine Thomas said. “We’ve set our expectations. We’re ready for people to have scouted us better, know our personnel better and not take us lightly. But we know what we’re good at doing. We want to get better as a team. Once we get to the playoffs, we’ll start talking about bigger things.”

Connecticut’s Jonquel Jones was the WNBA’s Most Improved Player in 2017.

Jones was a wonderful surprise a year ago. She led the team in scoring (15.4) and rebounding (11.9) and was a threat from behind the three-point line, sinking 25 of 56 shots.  She broke the WNBA’s single-season record for rebounds (403).

Ogwumike averaged 15.5 points and 7.5 rebounds in her rookie season in 2014 earning All-Star honors before sitting out the 2015 campaign with a knee injury. In 2016, she averaged 12.6 points and 6.7 rebounds, closing out the season with 17 consecutive double-digit scoring games.

“She has great energy,” point guard and captain Jasmine Thomas said. “She runs the court well and despite her being undersized (to play forward at 6-4) she plays so long. She tips a lot of balls, gets a lot of rebounds offensively and defensively.”

Ogwumike is coming off an Achilles injury and hasn’t played competitive basketball in nearly 17 months.

Forward Alyssa Thomas had career-highs in points (14.8), rebounds (6.8) and assists (4.5) last year. She led the team in assists (157), field goals (188) and steals (52). Jasmine Thomas also had career-highs in points (14.2), assists (4.3) and steals (1.6).

“The good thing is that we know our roles,” Jasmine Thomas said. “We know what is expected of us. We’re allowed to play our game and be ourselves.”

Connecticut’s Morgan Tuck (33) pulls down a rebound in front of Dallas’ Azura Stevens (30) in an exhibition game earlier this month.

Williams, a second-year guard from South Florida, averaged 12.3 points and 4.2 rebounds a game a year ago. She was MVP of the Perth Lynx in the WNBL in Australia in the off-season, averaging 21.7 points to help her team reach the finals.

Guard Shekinna Stricklen (8.6 ppg) and Alex Bentley, a former All-Star, provide solid play off the bench. Miller praised Bentley’s defensive efforts after Connecticut’s exhibition win over Los Angeles earlier this month. “She is as good a backup point guard as anyone in the league,” Miller said. “She gives us a presence. And she can defend. She is so smooth out there, it looks cool. But I tell you, she can defend.”

Guards Rachel Banham, forward Brioanna Jones, guard/forward Betnijah Lancy and former UConn star and forward Morgan Tuck round out the roster.

“Defensively, they are very solid,” Los Angeles coach Brian Agler said. “They have guards who can break you down, people who can play one-on-one and they can stretch your defense with your post players. They’re difficult to defend.”

Staying healthy will be a key. The 2018 WNBA season is 34 games in just 13 weeks. The regular season ends August 19.

“Overall, we are playing 34 regular season games in nearly 25 less calendar days than 2017, so it makes for extremely tough stretches of games and travel,” Miller said.

Winning on the road will be crucial for the Sun, especially since they have a 37-day stretch of 16 games, with 13 on the road. Connecticut won nine games on the road a year ago, including wins at defending champion Minnesota and playoff participants New York, Washington and Dallas. Connecticut does finish with 11 of their last 15 games at home.

The Sun will be tested by lengthy stretches away from home in June and July.

The first trip includes visits to Chicago (June 1), Washington (June 3), Atlanta (June 5) and New York (June 7). There is also a span of five straight road games starting with a back-to-back at Seattle (June 15) and Phoenix (June 16) and closing with a game at Washington on June 26 followed by a home game at Indiana on June 27. The last long road trip takes the Sun to Seattle, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Las Vegas from July 1-7.

That closing homestand includes Chicago (August 12), Dallas (August 14) and 2017 WNBA finalists Minnesota (August 17) and Los Angeles (August 19).

MAY
20: LAS VEGAS, 1 p.m.; 24, LOS ANGELES, 7 p.m.; 26: INDIANA, 7 p.m.
JUNE
1: at Chicago, 9 p.m.; 3, at Washington, 3 p.m.; 5, at Atlanta, 8 p.m., 7, at New York, 7 p.m., 9, MINNESOTA, 2 p.m.; 13, WASHINGTON, 7 p.m.; 15, at Seattle, 10 p.m.; 16, at Phoenix, 10 p.m.; 22, at Atlanta, 7 p.m., 24, at Indiana, 5 p.m.; 26, at Washington, 7 p.m.; 27, INDIANA, 7 p.m.
JULY
1: at Seattle, 7 p.m.; 3, at Los Angeles, 10:30 p.m.; 5, at Phoenix, 10:30 p.m.; 11, NEW YORK, 11:30 a.m.; 13, PHOENIX, 7 p.m.; 15, at Minnesota, 7 p.m.; 17, ATLANTA, 7 p.m.; 20, SEATTLE, 7 p.m.; 22, at Dallas, 4 p.m.; 24, WASHINGTON, 7 p.m.
AUGUST
1, NEW YORK, 7 p.m., 5, LAS VEGAS, 3 p.m.; 8, a Dallas, 8 p.m.; 10, at Chicago, 9 p.m.; 12, CHICAGO, 3 p.m.; 14, DALLAS, 7 p.m.; 17, MINNESOTA, 7 p.m.; 19, LOS ANGELES, 3 p.m.

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. He was inducted into the New England High School Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2018.

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