The Connecticut Sun came into the season with high expectations.
They traded to draft UConn center Tina Charles with the first pick in addition to second-year UConn product Renee Montgomery.
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Tina Charles was this year's No. 1 pick, selected by the Sun after a trade sent the No. 2 pick and All-Star guard Lindsay Whalen to Minnesota. Charles has lived up to high expectations that followed her to the WNBA after she capped her collegiate career with back-to-back undefeated seasons and national championships. Charles' 15 points and 15 boards Tuesday at Washington gave her 19 double-doubles this season, tying Natalie Williams' single-season league record.
Charles is averaging a league-high 12.1 rebounds per game and is effective as a scorer as well, adding 15.6 points. She's capable in the post but showed against the Storm she can also be dangerous when left open from midrange, knocking down a series of jumpers near the top of the key.
The expectations was that the collection of collegiate talent would transform into a playoff team. However, they now find themselves fight for their playoff lives with the Storm coming into town.
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Tonight at 7:30 at Mohegan Sun Arena, the Sun (14-15) begin a daunting task in the WNBA's Eastern Conference.
Trailing Washington by three games with five to play, the Sun likely need to win the rest of their games to have a chance to qualify for the playoffs — after missing them for the first time last season. Tonight's opponent is the Seattle Storm (25-4), the best team in the league.
"Our focus has to be on us," Sun forward Asjha Jones said. "We can't worry about what other people are doing. If they help us by losing games, what's the point if we don't win?"
For Charles, a member of that 78-0 UConn team that was the subject of much media hype this past college basketball season, the losing has to be an adjustment especially considering the high expectations. Yet she's trying to stay positive.
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On the basketball side of things I'm trying to stay positive about our season. For those who don't know, we are 14-15, and competing with Washington Mystics for the fourth playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. We can only control what we do right now. If we can go 5-0 in these last five games that is great. If we don't make the playoffs, it's definitely going to be disappointing, but it's something we can learn from and take into next year. The rest of our home schedule is tough too, with games against Indiana on Sunday, and Tulsa Tuesday.
So essentially, the Storm are where the Sun hope to be eventually -- a group of talented players that has come together as a cohesive unit to play well together. That simply comes with time.
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The Storm are four wins away from tying the league's single-season record (28), a mark set by both the 2000 Houston Comets and 2001 Los Angeles Sparks. Seattle's success didn't happen overnight. It hasn't won a first-round playoff series since beating Connecticut for the 2004 WNBA title, and it's spent the last few years building a new core around mainstays Bird and Jackson.
Guard Tanisha Wright, the Storm's 2005 first-round pick, was erratic for two years, but has slowly matured into a go-to player. Seattle added starters Swin Cash and Camille Little via separate trades in 2008 and signed Svetlana Abrosimova and Le'Coe Willingham this off-season.
"It's something we've talked about all season, what's led us to where we are right now," Bird said. "Having the same starting group and adding the depth that we've been lacking a little bit the last couple of years."
The Sun did challenge the Storm in their 83-82 loss in KeyArena last week and a large part of that was due to turnovers. And it seems as though the burden to overcome the problem lies especially with Montgomery.
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Prior to the Seattle game, coach Mike Thibault reiterated what he said in a pre-season interview -- ideally, the vision of having Lawson and Montgomery in the backcourt to replace Whalen was to distribute the responsibility she had as focal point of the offense to two players. At their best -- particularly in the third quarter against the Storm -- that's exactly what happened: both players were extremely effective distributing the ball with Montgomery getting into the lane and Lawson making savvy plays. At their worst -- the fourth quarter against the Storm -- the turnovers pile up and they have trouble getting into a flow: they had a 24% turnover percentage in the 4th quarter in Seattle compared to the Storm's 6%.
As Thibault said post-game, that Storm game was pretty much a microcosm of the season. They have typically been able to keep their turnovers down but when they go up -- and particularly when Montgomery's go up -- they struggle. Against the Storm at home tonight, it will be interesting to see if the Sun can replicate that third quarter of moving the ball with Montgomery attacking the basket or if they'll revert to their turnover prone 4th quarter.