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Passionate performance by Alyssa Thomas was uplifting

Mohegan — There is a reason we sports fans sit inside barbershops, coffee shops and gin mills, complaining about salaries and strategies, feeding the 24-hour-a-day venom of sports talk radio:

It's because we, the fans, care more than the players do.

Or at least that's the way we perceive it.

We care more about winning and losing because we have been loyal to our teams back through generations, rooting for the uniform, while players come and go like the mail carrier.

And what do we get for our loyalty? Traffic jams into the ballpark/arena. Traffic jams leaving the ballpark/arena. A $15 beer. An $8 hot dog. Jogging out ground balls. Loafing up court. Staring at the ceiling at 1 a.m., knowing the alarm is coming at 5 or 6, but still unable to sleep, exasperated at how the hell we just lost.

That's why what happened at Mohegan Sun Arena on Friday night was so uplifting. In 16 years covering the Connecticut Sun, I have never seen another player try as hard as Alyssa Thomas did.

She played all 40 minutes against Las Vegas, negotiating her way to the basket around 6-foot-8 center Liz Cambage, among others. Thomas, often a picture of perspiration, finished with 27 points, 12 rebounds and made Cambage look like she was wearing stilettos at times, with the way Thomas whizzed past her for layups.

Alyssa Thomas — soft spoken, aw shucks, do I have to talk to the media? — never came off the floor during the Sun's 89-85 win that earned them the tiebreaker over Vegas in the standings and into the No. 1 perch overall in the WNBA.

Alyssa Thomas showed the fans that she cares about winning as much as they do.

Please ponder that last paragraph again.

Isn't caring as much as we do all we really ask?

"I tried to go to a place where I wasn't thinking about being tired," Thomas said. "I'm just a competitor. I've been here since the start of my career. I hate losing. This is an important year for us. We don't know what next year will look like for us. I think we have the pieces to win a championship. I'm giving all I got."

Funny, too, how maximum effort leads to a stronger voice for a young woman whose voice isn't often her most identifiable trait.

"There's nothing bigger in this league than peer accountability and peer modeling behavior when you see your teammates laying it all on the line," Sun coach Curt Miller said. "When players model behavior in practice and in games, it's hard not to follow those people. A.T.'s toughness in willing us gives credibility to the tough talk. Those guys had some important tough talk in the huddles together. I'm not sure we would be mature enough a couple of years ago to have those kinds of discussions in a game like this."

Thomas' effort was more than coincidence. Maybe call it symmetry. Because her will Friday night came in front of former Sun great Taj McWilliams-Franklin, the conscience of the 2004 and 2005 team that made the WNBA Finals. McWilliams-Franklin was in the house to honor former Sun great Lindsay Whalen.

The last time I recall a moment that rivaled Thomas' effort and passion from Friday night came in 2004, not long after McWilliams-Franklin returned to the court after giving birth to her daughter, Maia. (We saw Maia Friday night ... and she's 16 now ... and where does the time go?)

When time and score grow desperate, Tamika Catchings, an all-time WNBA great, put her head down like a bull running through Pamplona, determined to get to the basket. This was Sun vs. Indiana. McWilliams-Franklin, a thirtysomething mother of two, held her ground, knowing she was about to be flattened like a train running over a tricycle. She crashed to the floor and bumped knees with Catchings. Yet as official Bob Trammell pointed to the other end of the floor, indicating McWilliams-Franklin had indeed drawn a charge, the grimace on Taj's face turned to anguish.

McWilliams-Franklin didn't move, only mouthing the words, "oh, please, oh, please," asking The Man to whom she prays frequently that this be anything but the dreaded anterior cruciate ligament tear.

It turned out to be a bruise.

Willis Reed McWilliams-Franklin returned to the floor in overtime, in time to see Nykesha Sales make the game-winner at the buzzer.

This was a woman with off-floor responsibilities different that her teammates. Or think of it this way: Picture your mom in her 30s attempting to draw a charge. Taj did it anyway.

I've never forgotten that play. Or how much McWilliams-Franklin cared.

"I still remember that knee I took," Taj said with a grin Friday night.

And so, I say this again: There are just some things that happen in sports that defy analytics. No number can measure the residual effects of Thomas' effort. Surely, analytics shouldn't be abruptly refuted by anecdotes. Yet there's a side to sports that drift beyond computer readouts.

Sun fans probably don't know Alyssa Thomas as well as others who have come through Neon Uncasville. But they sure should appreciate how hard she tried Friday night. She's the Grand Dame here now, the longest-running player on the roster.

With the longest running motor.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro


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