A Look Back at the Connecticut Sun's *almost* Historic Season and What's Next?
The Connecticut Sun knew the 2022 season was set to be theirs. For them, winning a championship was now or never—before players entered free agency and reached the end of their contracts. They finished the 2021 season as the top overall seed but met a red-hot Chicago Sky team in the playoffs to knock them out. The Sun entered the 2022 season ready to go. Alyssa Thomas was ready and healthy, Michigan State star Nia Coulden was newly-drafted, and the group had the reigning MVP, Jonquel Jones, on their side.
With a solid starting five, the Sun were prepared for a dominant season, but an early season ACL tear for Jasmine Thomas threw Connecticut their first challenge. Jasmine Thomas has been a long-time leader and starter for the Sun since 2015, which forced Natisha Hiedeman to step up in her fourth season in the league. Prior to 2022, Hiedeman only started nine games across two seasons, but she started 31 games after Jasmine Thomas’s injury. Averaging just over nine points per game this season, Hiedeman’s clutchness has proven to be important for the Sun. She is able to hit big buckets when it matters most, making her one of the Sun’s most valuable players last season.
Having Alyssa Thomas back was a huge win for the team, especially after losing a veteran in Jasmine Thomas. Alyssa Thomas returned at the end of the 2021 season for the playoff push after an Achilles tendon tear kept her out for most of the season. She averaged 13 points and over six rebounds per game in 2022 as she added creativity and reliability to the Sun’s sometimes messy offense.
Finally, you can’t talk about last season’s Connecticut Sun squad without mentioning Brionna Jones, the 2022 WNBA Sixth Player of the Year. Jones is usually the first player off the bench for the Sun but adds the same quality as a starting player could. Jones is a strong defensive presence, coming up with at least a steal a game, while also averaging 13 points per game. She won the Sixth Player of the Year award almost unanimously, winning all but three votes. Having been in the league for six years, it is always good to see an underrated player of her caliber be recognized for the work they do.
Connecticut’s season was by no means perfect. They lost their first game of the season, was defeated by Chicago all four times they played them, and lost to the Las Vegas Aces twice, raking up 11 total losses on the season. They recorded 25 wins, putting them in third place to end the regular season. Some notable wins came against the Las Vegas Aces on June 2, the Washington Mystics on July 3 as they beat them 74-72 in overtime, and then finishing the season on a 5-1 run into the playoffs. The Sun were not the most efficient team on offense but were one of the best defensive teams in the league. As the players have said themselves, their defense runs their offense.
Round 1: #3 Connecticut Sun vs #6 Dallas Wings
The first round of the playoffs is always unpredictable. Teams may come out hot, low-ranked teams may catch fire right when they need it most, and high-ranked teams may show their dominance. It’s always a fun watch. The Sun and the Wings met three times during the regular season with the Wings taking two out of the three games. Playing the first two games without Arike Ogunbowale, who had iliac crest core muscle avulsion repair surgery in early August, Dallas was without their star and leader but still managed to steal a game from the Sun.
The Sun took Game 1 in a dominant fashion, topping the Wings 93-68 after an impressive performance from Jonquel Jones. She had another great night in Game 2 even with the Dallas Wings flipping the script and beating the Sun at their own game. Despite being down by over 20 points during Game 2, the Sun tried to mount a late fourth-quarter comeback but fell short in the end. This run did give them the momentum and motivation they needed to go out and take Game 3 in Dallas. DeWanna Bonner played a huge role in this game, pushing the Sun through the next round.
Round 2: #2 Chicago Sky vs #3 Connecticut Sun
After Conneticut's last season’s disaster against Chicago, they were ready to match up again. The Sun had a lot of doubters heading into this series against the defending champions, but they showed up. Taking Game 1 of the series, the Sun looked confident and ready to beat the Sky in their own arena. Chicago, especially as the defending champion, was not going to back down easily. Chicago went and won back-to-back games, stealing the first game at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut.
With their season on the line, Bonner called a players-only meeting prior to game four. The meeting was one of the reasons the Sun’s belief was reignited, propelling them to the WNBA Finals for the first time since 2019. Game 4 showed that belief, as we saw a Sun team that was relaxed and confident in their abilities. They were no longer forcing easy layups and it was paying off. After shooting less than 40% in field goals in Game 3, the Sun came out and shot nearly 57%, which was their highest shooting percentage for the entire season. Every Connecticut player got points on the board as the Sun routed the Sky 104 to 80 to save their season and force a Game 5.
Game 5 wasn’t as high scoring, but was just as exciting. After scoring only eight total points in the fourth quarter, Connecticut was down by 10 entering the fourth quarter. The Sun showed the world what Connecticut basketball looks like as they finished the game on an 18-0 run to send themselves to the Finals. Their 18-0 run is the longest scoring run any WNBA team has ever mounted to close out a playoff game. This win from Connecticut set up a finals match-up between them and the top-seeded Las Vegas Aces, ensuring that we would have a new WNBA Champion. While Connecticut was aware not many people would pick them over the Aces, they were ready to go out and play tough as they fought to bring a trophy back home to Connecticut and Mohegan.
Round 3, the Finals: #1 Las Vegas Aces vs #3 Connecticut Sun
The Sun returned home after falling 2-0 to Las Vegas in the first two games of the WNBA Finals. Game 1 was positive for the Sun, just barely missing out on a win as Bonner missed what could have been the game-tying three, giving the Aces a 1-0 lead.
Game 2 was all the Aces, as Connecticut couldn’t seem to find their groove. But the Aces' Kelsey Plum could. The Sun never led after the first quarter and the Aces kept making the lead bigger. Game 3 was a totally different story as the Sun came out ready to go. They were 3-0 in elimination games entering Game 3 and worked hard to make that 4-0. Despite being tied 17-17 with 3:48 remaining in the first quarter, the Sun were able to get ahead and end the first quarter up 34-19. Their lead only grew throughout the second quarter but fell a bit during the third. The team came out defensively focused in the fourth quarter, not allowing a Las Vegas basket after the 6:35 mark.
Alyssa Thomas recorded the WNBA’s first-ever triple-double in the Finals with 16 points, 15 rebounds, and 11 assists. In Game 4, she did it again, becoming the first WNBA player to earn back-to-back triple-doubles. Despite the Sun falling short of forcing a Game 5, their Finals performance is one to be proud of. They pushed hard, keeping it close late in the final quarter after going down big early.
Courtney Williams caught the heat in this game, leading the Sun in scoring. But the Sun’s offensive woes continued as they missed easy layups and jump shots from the paint, causing them to give the ball over to the Aces. For a moment, it looked like the Sun might pull off a win and force an elusive Game 5 with two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, but the Aces were able to go on an 8-0 scoring run to end the game and secure their victory.
What Went Wrong?
Scoring droughts. It's as simple as that. This was a huge issue for the Sun throughout the 2022 season. The team has players that can excel on offense, but there were multiple times throughout the year when almost every player would go cold at the same time during a game. This meant that defense would become sloppy as frustration rose. During these droughts, the Sun would dig themself a hole as the opposing team was able to continue scoring. If Connecticut wants to keep pushing for a title, that's going to be one of the first things they have to clean up.
The Sun look to be moving into an offseason that could see many changes. Brionna Jones, Williams, and Hiedeman are all free agents this offseason. This means unless the Sun are able to hold down all three players, their window for a championship is closing rapidly.
Brionna Jones may find a team able to fight her into the starting lineup, while Williams and Hiedeman are the two more likely to stay. With Hiedeman establishing herself as a starter, it will be interesting to see how things go next season with Jasmine Thomas most likely returning. She can easily put herself back into a starting role, especially with her leadership on the court.
While the window is closing for the Sun, it’s definitely not yet closed. They still have a chance to keep Brionna Jones, Williams, and Hiedeman, while Jasmine Jones, Alyssa Thomas, and Bonner will return. Bonner may be reaching the end of her career at the age of 35, but she shows no signs of slowing down. Alyssa Thomas is in one of the best forms of her career despite only being one year removed from an Achilles injury.
Former Head Coach Curt Miller's exit was announced toward the end of October, with him making the move cross-country to the Las Angeles Sparks. The Sparks struggled last season and Miller's caliber will help greatly in LA. But it left the Sun without a head coach, a big hole to fill. Miller won WNBA Coach of the Year with the Sun in 2019 after taking the team all the way to the championship. He brought them back to the championship in 2022 but was never able to win a trophy during his time in Connecticut.
On November 22, the Connecticut Sun announced Stephanie White as their new head coach. White, a former player herself, has the excellence and experience to help push the Sun over the last bump and toward a banner drop. Team President Jennifer Rizzotti said in White's announcement that the players asked that their new head coach be a former player. White played at Purdue, winning a national championship in 1999, and then went on to play for five years in the WNBA. White has most recently coached with Vanderbilt from 2016 to 2021 and was with the Indiana Fever prior to that. White has also worked as a basketball analyst with ESPN and Big Ten Network in recent years.
Next year, the Sun will need to focus on establishing a strong offense to lessen the number of times they fall into scoring droughts in integral moments. White mentioned this in her opening press conference as something she is looking to focus on with the Sun—a more free-flowing, high-energy offense. Their defense remained strong throughout this 2021 season and will continue to be a huge part of any campaign the Sun put together in the upcoming season. With a new coach and hopefully some of the free agents returning, the Sun will need to pounce on the opportunities in front of them this upcoming 2023 season.
As with any team, there is always a window for opportunity and this window is beginning to narrow for Connecticut. Adding a new coach can go either way; sometimes it's the best thing a team can do whereas, on the flip side, it can lead to a rebuilding year. The high caliber of players still in Connecticut should allow for the Sun to continue their success, but anything can happen.
The 2022 season is one to remember for the Sun. It didn't end the way they wanted in terms of championships, but they were a team that fought all year. The 2023 season will bring forth new challenges, but nonetheless, the Sun has proven that they can always rise to the occasion.