Thursday likely was the first of many sleepless nights Mike Thibault will have until April when it all begins again for the Connecticut Sun.
The first decade for the WNBA franchise is over and it ended four wins short of the way the only coach the Sun have ever had wanted it to end.
And it ended with a mess of a loss in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals. The Indiana Fever, playing without the injured Katie Douglas for 35 minutes basically annihilated them.
“I am sure it was a rallying cry [for the Fever], but they were already killing us by the time she was injured,” Thibault said. “I think we all make more of these things then they are.”
Perhaps, but the Fever moved on to their first WNBA Finals since 2009 with an 87-71 win fueled by great shooting, clinging defense and the inspiration that defines champions.
“It was a little rattling to see Katie go down like that [with an injured left ankle with Indiana leading, 12-4, in the first quarter],” Fever guard Erin Phillips said. “She is someone who is such an imperative part of this team. There was no way we were going to lie down and there was no way her injury was going to impact the game. If anything, we were going to do it for her. I am just so proud of the girls, everybody just stepped up a couple levels, it was amazing.”
The Sun goes home, still looking for their first title. Indiana moves on to Minnesota where it begins the WNBA Finals on Sunday. The Fever haven’t won one, either. And there is no way to tell yet whether Douglas will be around to help.
“We don’t know exactly what happened,” Fever coach Lin Dunn said. “We know there was a collision in that corner and I think Katie went down on someone’s foot. … Somebody goes down, someone else steps up.”
If it looked like there was a tear in Thibault’s eye, and a crack in his voice during the first minute of his postgame address, he said it wasn’t what it looked like.
“That’s the nature of this business,” Thibault said. “All of the good stuff we did will be hard to remember.”
The good stuff included a 25-9 regular-season record and top-seed in the conference. The Sun’s 13-4 road record was the best in the league.
Center Tina Charles, the former UConn All-American and 2010 WNBA Rookie of the Year, won her third straight rebounding championship, set a team single-season scoring record (18.0) and was named the 2012 MVP.
Guard Kara Lawson, seemingly reborn by her commitment to a new vegan lifestyle, had her greatest season, highlighted by 74 three-pointers. Those threes helped raise money for The Pat Summitt Foundation.
Guard Renee Montgomery may have never completely accepted her new role as the Sun’s sixth man, but she was so good at it that she won the WNBA’s Sixth Man award.
Guard Allison Hightower, basically a fringe player in her first two seasons, developed into a core player and is now one of the team’s young untouchables.
And Asjha Jones, the venerable forward, had an excellent season, albeit one interrupted for 14 games in the second half by a sore Achilles’ tendon.
The Sun set a franchise record by making 82.7 percent of its free throws in the regular season and nearly 84 percent in the postseason. Lawson’s shooting led the league for players with more than 100 attempts (93.5 percent).
“We got over one hump from last year to this year,” Thibault said. The Sun hadn’t won a postseason game since 2008. “But this next hump is harder, very much harder.”
The Sun should look much the same next season with a few minor adjustments. Spanish star Alba Torrens, 6-3, is expected to finally join the team next season. Torrens was drafted in 2009. The same is true for guard Johannah Leedham, the former Franklin Pierce standout, who skipped this WNBA season to play for England in the Olympics.
Until then, Thibault will be alone with his thoughts about a season that ended too early for his comfort.
“I don’t have a lot of answers,” Thibault said. “But it [Thursday’s loss] was one of the disappointing we’ve had here.”