Among the popular expressions used to describe a team entering the critical stage of a season is the one comparing it to a marshmallow on a twig on a warm summer night.
Below it there is fire. Above it the puff dangles.
“We understand our feet are to the fire,” Connecticut Sun coach Anne Donovan said.
For the last-place Sun (6-14), losers of two straight home games, the kindling simmers in the fire pit of the Verizon Center. Waiting there above them in the Eastern Conference standings are the Washington Mystics.
“It’s huge,” Sun coach Anne Donovan said of Sunday’s game. “Washington had somewhat of a lull then got a huge win in Minnesota [last week]. Now they have some momentum going for them.
“We need to take advantage of every opportunity we have. We had one Friday [against Chicago]. You can go down, but you want to go down having given your best effort and we didn’t do that. But there is no time to wallow.”
Three things stood out about Connecticut’s 77-61 loss at the Mohegan Sun casino.
The Sun was 1-of-14 from three.
“At some point, you need to begin to claw at someone who is next on the ladder. You have to take care of games like [Sunday] to have a chance,” said Mistie Bass, who scored 11 points.
MVP center Tina Charles, averaging 20.0 in her last five games, was 2-of-18 from the field and scored a season-low five points.
“I wasn’t able to make shots, but you know it was just one of those games,” she said.
And Chicago scored 20 second-chance points to build leads as big as 22.
“We have to move on, that’s our only option,” Kelsey Griffin said. “We need to drop this game and get re-focused for Washington. We need to go in there knowing the playoffs are slipping away if we keep sitting back and waiting for something to happen. It needs to start now.”
Washington (10-13) has had a building season for Mike Thibault, the former Sun coach. After winning just five games last season, they have doubled it, including two wins over the Lynx.
“I love playing for Coach T,” Mystics All-Star point guard Ivory Latta said. “He’s a great teacher and a motivator. He expects a lot from me, he’s always getting on me. But I tell everyone who asks me that the reason I am playing so well this season is because he believes in me. He has given me the leeway to take charge and be the leader he knows I can be.
“He’s been very, very hard on me. But I can actually say that he is the only coach I have ever had in this league that has believed in me. Playing for him is an honor and it’s to the point where I don’t want to make any mistakes because I don’t want to let him down. He’s a very cool guy.”
If the fourth-place Mystics win, they will increase their lead over Connecticut to 3 ½ games and have a 2-0 season-series lead [the first tie-breaker] with just two more games to play.
And even though the Sun would still have played three fewer games than Washington, and trail by just one in the loss column, they still have their west coast trip to come and six games against Minnesota, Chicago and Atlanta.
So Donovan has reason to feel the heat on the balls of her team’s feet. She knows time is short and that the Sun’s defensive effort against the Sky was not up to her expectations. Her belief is that her players lost defensive focus once their shots stopped falling.
While the numbers (25-of-78 from the field) seem to back that contention, one Sun player doesn’t make the connection.
“I don’t think [Chicago shooting 43.8 percent] was a lack of concentration, in terms of our effort,” Kalana Greene said. “We threw a lot of things at them defensively and it didn’t work. They found ways to beat us. We just couldn’t guard. It wasn’t a lack of focus.
“And there is emphasis on every game now. Every game we win moves us closer to the playoffs. Every game we lose moves us farther away. Washington will be no different than Friday’s game was.”