Maybe it was because they dispensed of their opponent seemingly effortlessly in two preseason contests. Maybe it was because they bought into the notion that this was the new Connecticut Sun, this was a new season and all was right with the world. Maybe the two All-American rookies, whom the Sun will be relying heavily on, were lulled into thinking this was going to be easy. For whatever reason, the young Connecticut Sun kicked off the 2014 season much the way 2013 ended—with a disappointing 75-54 loss to the New York Liberty before an equally disappointing announced crowd of 6,039 fans at the Mohegan Sun Arena on Friday night.
This, of course, was the return of Tina Charles to Connecticut, where she had spent her entire collegiate and American professional career before forcing the Sun to trade her during the 2014 Draft. A double-double machine with the Sun, Charles did not start out that way with the Liberty, coming oh-so-close with a nine-point, nine rebound effort.
It also marked the professional debut for Chiney Ogwumike, who, like Charles in 2010, was the No. 1 overall pick in this year's draft. The superstar in waiting from Stanford had a solid pro debut, leading the Sun in scoring with 13 points and hauling down five boards—tied for the team lead with former Stanford teammate Kayla Pedersen—in 32 minutes of play. Alex Bentley, a second-year pro out of Penn State who was named to the WNBA All-Rookie last year as a member of the Atlanta Dream, was the only other Sun player in double digits, putting 10 points on the board. Bentley came to the Sun as part of the Charles trade—a three-way swap between Atlanta, New York and Connecticut.
Former Rutgers star Cappie Pondexter led all scorers with 17 points, while rookie Anna Cruz had 11 and 15-year veteran DeLisha Milton Jones added 10 for the Liberty.
Alyssa Thomas, the All-American from Maryland whom the Sun acquired with the first-round draft choice they received from the Liberty this season, had a solid pro debut with a seven-point, four-rebound effort, while Katie Douglas' return to Connecticut was less than auspicious. The 34-year-old, 13-year veteran was limited to five points—although she did have five boards.
The Sun led by 19-11 with under three minutes to play in the first quarter. Unfortunately for Connecticut fans, that was their high-water mark for the game. The Liberty went on a 16-2 and never looked back.
“[We have] a lot of younger players without much experience,” explained Douglas, without question the team later. “The Liberty have some smart veteran players that know what they’re going for. My voice can only lead so much. I know there was a point in the second quarter where we could just not get a score and we were in a long scoring drought and I just told the girls we have to be cognizant about that.”
“In the first half we found the right shots, we just didn’t knock them down,” added Sun head coach Anne Donovan, who led her team to a league-worst 10-24 record last season, her first in Connecticut. “As the game went on, you could feel us more and more panicked about it. We’re not always going to shoot the ball real well, so we have to grind it out defensively and we just didn’t do that. We have to have the mentality ‘We don’t score, they don’t score.’ Tonight we didn’t demonstrate that like I know we can.”
Huh? We don't score they don't score? According to that logic, a 14-12 victory would be the dream game for the Sun.
“It was just not our night tonight,” said Donovan, who coached the Liberty in 2009 and 2010.
Overall, the Sun shot just 30 percent from the floor (21-for-70, including a putrid 2-for-15 from beyond the three-point arc). Indeed, Connecticut had nearly as many turnovers (18) as field goals made.
Meanwhile, Charles, who received a decidedly mixed reaction from the crowd when she was introduced, was happy with her return to Connecticut.
“It’s a process in sports,” said Charles, UConn's all-time leading rebounder and the Sun's all-time leader in rebounds per game. “They’re gonna love you, hate you, and love you again. They have a right to how they feel. I’m going to still go out there and play my hardest.”
“We struggled mightily in the preseason,” added Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer, the baddest of the Detroit Pistons' 'bad boys' in the 1980s. '”We didn't have Tina [Charles], Cappie [Pondexter] or Plenette [Pierson]. We were really unclear what our basketball team was going to look like.”
The answer, at least for the first game, was a whole lot better than Connecticut.
''We came out and laid an egg,'' admitted Donovan. ''No doubt about it. We didn't have a good showing tonight, and I know they're disappointed about it.''
While it's certainly too soon to jump ship—the Sun have seven new players on the 12-man roster, including two rookies and four second-year pros—the sooner the team can develop some semblance of chemistry, the better.
“I think our offense was a little discombobulated, but I think we’re growing chemistry,” said Ogwumike. “It’s the first game, we’re not going to live or die by it. I think we now know what it takes to play defense as a team, what it takes to be aggressive on offense when our shots aren’t falling we have to attack the basket. But I think we’re a young team, with the exception of KT [Douglas]. She’s old. Just kidding. But I think we will only go up from here.”
Thankfully the young Sun will have little time to mope over their opening night debacle. Up next is a trip to Minneapolis to take on Maya Moore, Lindsay Whalen and the defending WNBA champion Minnesota Lynx on Sunday. Tip-off is at 5 p.m. (Eastern). There will be no live television or radio, but the game will be streamed live on WNBA Live Access.