How CT Sun will continue to build new identity in second half of WNBA season: ‘No magical formula’

UNCASVILLE — Natasha Cloud drove to the basket for what could have been the game-winning layup. Cloud and her Washington Mystics teammates had led for the majority of Sunday’s matinee meeting with the Connecticut Sun.

Yet her shot didn’t go in.

The ball bounced off the rim and the Sun’s Courtney Williams ran under the basket to grab it. She held onto it tight and immediately called timeout before turning to face the crowd at Mohegan Sun Arena and screamed in excitement.

After being down by 17, the Sun had fought their way back and were tied with the Mystics at 66 with 5.9 seconds left in regulation. Connecticut found its groove with its back against the wall, afraid of what could have been its fourth loss in the last five games.

It’s what Sun coach and general manager Curt Miller calls “pivoting”: learning when to turn a bad situation into something positive and productive. It’s been the theme for Connecticut this season which, in the preseason, had all the right pieces for another return to the WNBA playoffs, yet after losing its starting point guard less than a month into the season remains stuck in trying to figure out its new identity.

Now a week after the halfway point of the WNBA regular season and just a few days until its All-Star break, Connecticut is looking to remain consistent in the growth it has shown off the court as it continues to pivot on the hardwood.

The Sun forced Sunday’s game into overtime. Jonquel Jones, last year’s WNBA MVP, spent most of the game on the bench in foul trouble, giving Brionna Jones the opportunity to come in and put up a major block in the game’s final seconds to clinch the 74-72 win. The 17-point comeback win is the second-largest comeback so far this season.

“We’ve been down this road so many times,” Miller said before Sunday’s game. “It’s unfortunate but it has all the unintended consequences of good things happening out of something negative: We really tried to find that. I felt that in the same pivot and collective fight was, ‘Here we go again. We can’t feel sorry for ourselves. No one is gonna feel sorry for us.’ …

“We’ve gotta find our way out of it. There’s no magical formula. There’s no savior coming through that door. It’s our locker room, just gotta find ways to get back in the win column.”

The Sun entered Sunday’s contest having lost three of its past four games.

When Jasmine Thomas went down with a knee injury on May 24, it took a day before test results came back informing Miller that she’d be out the rest of the season with an ACL injury.

Thomas, now sidelined on the bench, has become an extra coach for the Sun, helping players during games to correct mistakes and encouraging them to step up.

“She’s an invaluable leader to our young point guards,” Miller said. “It’s really tough in this league this year with rookies, you don’t get any practice time, so Jas’ communication to a young point guard, it goes such a long way.”

One of the players Thomas has poured herself into helping is her fiancee, Natisha Hiedeman, who replaced Thomas in the starting lineup.

While Hiedeman lacks Thomas’ experience (she is seven years younger), she’s made up for it in pushing herself on defense. She’s learned to create her own defensive stops by becoming patient and waiting for the right time to make moves.

On Sunday, Hiedeman led with a career-high five steals. It was her steal-and-score layup at 4:37 in the fourth that gave Connecticut its first lead of the game since the game’s opening three minutes.

Moving forward, Miller wants Hiedeman to also remain focused on finding the right offensive distribution for the team’s key scorers. “I’m real pleased with Natisha,” Miller said. “She’s really taken a step up defensively. She’s really trying at that end of the court, that’s where her biggest growth area is. (I) want her to stay confident and hunt for her offense at the same time.

“We do have three All-Stars and two really talented wings, so she’s gotta find a balance of really sharing the basketball and equal distribution to hunting for her own shots. That’s the challenge for her.”

With Hiedeman replacing Thomas, Miller began to tinker with the rest of his lineup. He tried going all big and bringing Brionna Jones off the bench to start, but that wasn’t quite the missing piece. He then tried Alyssa Thomas at the point, but that still didn’t solve his team’s problems of troublesome first quarters.

“We’ve struggled,” he said. “We’ve put ourselves in the hunting, on our heels and in some deficits and always felt like we’re fighting from behind after first quarters.”

Connecticut waived Yvonne Anderson in early June and signed Jazmine Jones on June 15. Then on June 24, the Sun waived both Jazmine Jones and Joyner Holmes before putting them each on a seven-day contract two days later.

The team has relied on its veterans more than ever. Alyssa Thomas, who only played six games last season after recovering from an Achilles injury, leads the team in minutes on the court (32.5 per game) and assists (5.6). She led all scorers Sunday with 23 points.

Williams, who joined the Sun in the offseason after she last played In Uncasville from 2016-19, has become the team’s energetic spark. On Sunday, she made three straight jump shots to start the fourth quarter to get Connecticut within one point of Washington. Off the court, Miller said, she’s become just as positive-minded in the locker room.

“Courtney was brought here to score, give us a closure,” Miller said. “I love coaching Courtney Williams because she’s positive and she loves the game. She’s the most positive in the locker room and keeping everyone together and that’s invaluable that the fans will never see, but her positivity day in and day out of who Courtney Williams is as a person is irreplaceable.”

While Jonquel Jones continues to show why she was named last year’s MVP — she leads the team in both points (14.9) and rebounds (9.0) per game — she’s learned to best utilize her minutes since becoming the target of opposing teams’ defense. On Sunday, she put up two blocks against Washington’s Myisha Hines-Allen. While she sat for most of the second and fourth quarters in foul trouble, Brionna Jones was able to step up.

By the end of the game, six of Connecticut’s 10 available players had played over 26 minutes, with four scoring in double figures.

“That halftime we weren’t gonna talk a lot about strategy, we were gonna talk about our desire, our intensity,” Miller said after Sunday’s game. “It was a want to but a want to pour into people. Pour into the person next to you and when you make a mistake, own it and that empowers other people because they feel that everybody’s taking a little bit of this. That no one person, no one coach, is to blame. We all had to take a piece of it and we all can give to each other.”

On Sunday morning, the Sun renewed both Holmes’ and Jazmine Jones’ seven-day contracts (each team is allowed to renew a player on a seven-day contract three total times in one season).

Jonquel Jones has been named an All-Star starter, while Brionna Jones and Alyssa Thomas have been named All-Star reserves. The three will play in next weekend’s All-Star game in Chicago.

As for when the team comes off the All-Star break, it will be a matter of continuing all the work it’s done on the court through the second half of the season for the best chance at making this season’s playoffs and continuing its hunt for the franchise’s first championship.

“We (are) trying to win a championship, so it’s going to take all of us, and we have that mentality of ‘Next man up,’” Williams said.

maggie.vanoni@hearstmediact.com

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