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All-Star Alex Bentley hears, and deserves, the cheers of the hometown crowd

Mohegan — This was her day. Her gym. Her crowd. Her time. The Connecticut Sun, in such desperate need of a new identity, a new face, found one Saturday.

This is Alex Bentley’s team now. Her performance in the WNBA All-Star game at Mohegan Sun Arena: splendid. Twenty-three points on 9-for-14 shooting. Five assists. A 50,000-watt smile and an energy that would have Con Edison taking notes. Postgame interview on national television with Holly Rowe. And Rowe would have been interviewing Bentley as the day’s MVP, too, had the great Maya Moore not authored a personal 8-0 run in the closing minutes.

But maybe the best part of Alex Bentley’s day was the ovation she received from the crowd during player introductions. It was a roar that, frankly, is usually reserved for UConn players. And Alex Bentley noticed.

“It meant a lot,” Bentley was saying after the game. “I’m actually really starting to feel home in Connecticut. I don’t know. The fans have just been a lot more supportive. Obviously, the team is playing better and hopefully we can continue to make them proud.”

Late in the game, after Bentley played her nearly game-high 24 minutes, she emerged from a timeout and began to urge the crowd, waving her arms, asking her people to stand. Even Sun coach Anne Donovan, not prone to bouts of such emotion, stood. Donovan sensed what everybody else did: the hometown kid was playing the maestro now. Comfortable enough to do so. The hometown kid who became a Sun player after Donovan traded for her two years earlier, a gold star on Donovan’s resume.

“Man, I’ve been dreaming for days like this all my life,” Bentley said. “I’ve wanted to play basketball since I was five or six. I used to go to Indiana Fever games. I wanted to be in their shoes. I wanted to be in Tamika Catchings’ shoes. It’s pretty surreal for me today to be able to play with the greats in the game. An incredible experience. I’m very blessed.”

How fitting, that as one of the game’s greats, Catchings, the face of Bentley’s childhood team, bid adieu to All-Star competition, another kid from Indy emerged. That’s why Catchings, with a satisfying grin, told reporters after the game that the league’s in good hands.

And how lucky we are to have Bentley among us. Forget that she’s still a kid — 24 — and has a long career ahead as a potentially prolific scorer. It’s the personality. Bentley says she wants to work in the broadcast media industry. Maybe one day she’s the Holly Rowe asking the questions.

“It’s her energy,” East (and Chicago Sky) coach Pokey Chatman said. “She made a bucket and I looked at my staff and said ‘she looks like she’s enjoying it so much.’ It’s no secret that her fitness level, combined with her individual work and the season she’s having has given her confidence. I told her ‘you can’t ask me to go back in the game because I’ll be in trouble with coach Donovan (for tiring her out).’ She’s an infectious type player. A lot of energy. Her teammates cheer for her.”

Not just her teammates. Bentley was hardly a secret among her colleagues. But there’s a difference between making a few shots on a Tuesday night in May and doing so next to the game’s greats on national television.

“She played great,” Moore said. “She’s such an all-star player. That’s when she shines. She gets a rhythm. Gets the crowd involved. It made it a fun game.”

Earlier, Moore talked about how Connecticut fans could “double dip” Saturday. They got to cheer an old friend — Maya the Magnificent — and got to cheer for a new favorite, the one her friends call “A.B.”

“Our fans here in Connecticut are pretty amazing,” Bentley said. “I had great fans at Penn State. I loved my school. But today was about being a Connecticut Sun player. Our fans did what they always do. Support us and get loud for us.”

This was quite a day. An All-Star game that hit the right tone. The players had a blast. They entertained the fans. They entertained each other. They made us remember how fun sports can be. And should be.

Connecticut, meanwhile, watched the old mesh with the new. They’ll always leave the light on for Maya. Now they’re making room for another face.

“It’s not really about being the face of franchise for me,” Alex Bentley was saying. “It’s about winning.”

Bentley returns to her old job Tuesday night at America’s Most Beloved Arena. Sun vs. Indiana. A game with early playoff implications. She should expect another roar during intros. The Sun have a keeper.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.

Twitter: @BCgenius

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