After coming so close to a WNBA title, Sun look to reload in offseason

Washington — Ten minutes.

The Connecticut Sun were one quarter away from winning their first WNBA championship in Thursday's decisive Game 5 of the WNBA Finals. They've never been that close, not even during their 2004 and 2005 appearances.

The Washington Mystics also stood in Connecticut's way. They had one more run in them than the Sun did in the final six minutes, pulling away for an 89-78 win and their first WNBA title.

"I think when the sting goes away, if we would tell them (the Sun) that we'd get to check it up with 10 minutes to go with a two-point lead in Game 5, a winner-take-all game, I think we would play that 10 minutes over and over and over again," Sun head coach Curt Miller said.

Connecticut had its shot, but literally could not make them (the Sun missed 10 of 15 fourth-quarter field goals). Now the Sun head into the offseason dealing with an absurd number of free agents (eight) and the need for added depth.

The Sun exceeded everyone's expectations but their own this season, especially after they were forced to trade one of their top players — Chiney Ogwumike — a month before the start of the season. They finished with the league's second-best record (23-11).

Miller's teams, dating back to college, have been known for being fast-paced and high-scoring. This season, he challenged Connecticut to get better at "grinding," i.e. winning games when all was not going well.

Connecticut was able to grind through tough games because it improved considerably defensively. It was third in the league in defensive points per possession.

The Sun were one of just two teams to have three players voted to the All-Defensive team, as chosen by the coaches. Jasmine Thomas made first team for the third straight season and was joined by Jonquel Jones. Alyssa Thomas made second team.

"They were not considered megastars," Miller said. "Well, that locker room is filled with a bunch of megastars, and they proved that."

The question now is how many of those megastars will be back next season.

Eight of the Sun's 12 players are free agents, including starters Jones, Shekinna Stricklen and Courtney Williams. It will be impossible to re-sign every player simply because they cannot pay all of them what they're worth.

Asked if she wanted to return, Williams said, "Of course. Yeah, I want to come back."

Those who do return have experience the playoffs, saw what it takes to win, and want to return.

"Every season we have accomplished more," Jasmine Thomas said. "I feel like we've grown, and we've matured as a team where we're completely different now.

"We know how to win. I think from the beginning of next season, we'll be determined to get right back here."

Connecticut was extraordinarily fortunate when it came to health. It was the fourth team in league history to start the same lineup the entire regular season, and just the second team to do it during a 34-game season.

The Sun needed their starters to stay healthy because their bench was an issue all season, an area that had previously been a strength.

Forward Bria Holmes, in her first season with the Sun, was the lone reserve the team could always count on. She added speed and an ability to get to the rim almost at will, something Connecticut had lacked.

Connecticut could use help at point guard and in the post. It did begin the season with the best one-two combination at point guard with Thomas and reserve Layshia Clarendon, who have both been WNBA All-Stars.

Clarendon suffered a season-ending ankle injury nine games into the season during practice. It put more pressure, and minutes, on Thomas.

Ideally, Connecticut could boost its bench via a quality free agent or two, but that's been a never-ending problem for the franchise. It will always fight the stigma of being the WNBA's only small market team in a region that's not for everyone.

The Sun may play at a casino, but southeastern Connecticut is no Las Vegas. Or Los Angeles. Or Chicago.

Miller has hoped, over the past few years, that the team's success and young talent might lure a free agent to Mohegan.

"We all know it's not an easy market," Miller said. "We're trying to fight for the small market franchise in pro sports."

n.griffen@theday.com

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