In a great decade as Sun coach, Mike Thibault did everything but win a WNBA championship. So it was simple for Anne Donovan to discern what was expected of her – bring title No. 1 to the Mohegan Sun Arena, just like she did in Seattle in 2004.
A little more than five months taking the job, Donovan began the process with the Sun’s preseason opener against the New York Liberty at the casino.
And the Sun came to play. They opened the new era with a nice 83-74 win over the New York Liberty that gave Donovan a long, good look at the some of the young players trying to wedge their way onto a very tight roster.
Allison Hightower led the Sun with 12 points. Kara Lawson and free agent forward Latoya Williams had 10 each.
The Sun have two more preseason games remaining, the first next Saturday against the Liberty at the Prudential Center in Newark. And Donovan is in no hurry to pare her roster from where it is now – 14 with 11 jobs for grabs.
“This is not going to be very easy at all,” Donovan said. “And the longer the roster stays this way it’s only going to get more difficult. We’re having a tough time figuring out what the final roster is going to be.
That’s because Donovan has been very happy with what she’s seen. And that’s without seeing much at all of Kelly Faris, the first-round pick from UConn, or veteran Tan White. Both did not play Saturday because of their injuries. Faris not even scheduled to practice for the first time until the middle of this week.
But what Donovan saw from New York likely sounded a siren. The Liberty are off in a new direction, as well. Bill Laimbeer, whose Detroit Shock teams taunted the WNBA for years, has returned to the league.
And Laimbeer has brought a coaching staff filled with experienced assistants (including former Sun players Taj McWilliams-Franklin and Tamika Whitmore) who can help his mammoth front line learn to lean on opponents.
In Plenette Pierson (6-2), Cheryl Ford (6-3), rookies Kelsey Bone (6-4) and Kelly Cain (6-6) and Kara Braxton (6-6) the Liberty are no lightweight. And they are certain to play the style Laimbeer made famous, both as NBA player and WNBA championship coach.
Without the depth or size of the Liberty in the post, the Sun now know how high the bar will be set, certainly in the Eastern Conference.
At the same time, they also saw the potential of a few of the new faces.
Ashley Walker, the former Cal star who led the Golden Bears in an NCAA Tournament game against UConn in 2009, played well.
“Things have been going great for me so far,” said Walker, the last cut in three different WNBA camps thus far. “I can shoot the ball better. Got the looks, just didn’t knock them down.”
Robinson is a junior college player without either Division I or WNBA experience.
“I wasn’t all that excited about how I played,” said Robinson, who played this winter in Croatia. “But overall, I am very excited to have this chance.”
And Chatilla Van Grinsven, a free agent from St. Joseph (Pa.), had six points and three rebounds.
“They all offer us different things,” Donovan said. “The three of them are going to battle for the one post spot we have [available].”
Both shot well and held their own defensively against the bigger Liberty post.
The Sun opened a 29-16 lead in the first quarter, shooting 11-of-20 from the field. Lawson and Hightower combined to shoot 6-of-8 in the quarter.
The lead swelled to 53-32 at the half. Hightower and Lawson combined for 22 points, shooting 8-of-11 along the way.
The Liberty were without top scorer Cappie Pondexter – who just returned to New York from Europe – and even all its veteran talent looked someone out of synch in its first game for Laimbeer.
And in the fourth quarter, while trying to hold off Liberty one final time, Donovan turned to the tryouts, alternating them on the floor with Renee Montgomery running the post.
The Liberty cut the lead to 70-58 with 6:33 to play with Sun using a lineup of Walker, Jo Leedham, Natasha Lacy and Latoya Williams with Montogomery. Within three minutes, the lead was down to six points (76-70).
“They understand the situation,” Lawson said. “It’s good in the sense that you want to see how people react under pressure; are they nervous, do they turn the ball over? It’s good to see how well they produced.