UNCASVILLE — Ahead by six with 30 seconds to play Sunday in Los Angeles, the Connecticut Sun couldn't have been blamed for feeling as if the worst was finally over.
This has been a difficult summer for the young team. When they headed to San Antonio last week, they had lost four straight and 11 of 13. They also lost the momentum built during a six-game winning streak that seemingly righted them in June after a 2-6 start.
But after the Sun beat the Stars they suddenly were on the verge of taking down the Sparks to end the nonconference season on a two-game winning streak. That would send them home heading in the right frame of mind to make the playoffs.
It turned out to be the most disastrous 30 seconds of the season. The Sparks used a Candace Parker basket on an offensive rebound, a turnover and a three-pointer by Kristi Toliver for a 70-69 win.
Chiney Ogwumike led the Sun with 23 points and 13 rebounds, 17 points in the second half. Katie Douglas had 15 points.
"It is really painful," Ogwumike told the Los Angeles Times after the loss. "But at the same time, we play a lot of young players, and I guess in order to win as a team and to deserve the wins, you have to go through these pains."
The Sun (11-18) return to Mohegan Sun Arena Tuesday to play the Chicago Sky (12-16) with five games remaining and absolutely no room for error.
Connecticut is in last place in the Eastern Conference, two games behind New York (12-15) and 2 ½ behind Washington and Indiana (both 13-15) for one of the playoff spots behind first-place Atlanta.
Also on the schedule Tuesday are conference games involving Indiana (at home against Minnesota) and New York at Washington. Should the Fever and Liberty win, and the Sun lose Tuesday and again Friday at New York, the chances of Connecticut not making the playoffs for the second straight season would be great.
A loss to the Liberty on Friday would also give New York the tiebreaker in their season series, something Washington already has over the Sun.
That is just one reason why Sunday's loss to the Sparks was so devastating.
"We just need to know the importance of crunch time in late-game situations and make sure everyone is in the right spot," Douglas said after the game. "About the WNBA, we've only got a few games left and every game is like a battle and a war and you can't sit in here and be too heartbroken, because your heart is going to be broken on Tuesday if we're not ready to play. We just need to regroup, re-gather, learn from this, and be ready to go on Tuesday."
The Sky are coming off a 76-65 win over Washington on Sunday. And that was made possible, in large part, by the return of Elena Delle Donne.
Delle Donne scored 21 points in her second game back after a recurrence of Lyme disease that caused her to miss 17 of the previous 18 games. The only game she played in during that stretch was at the casino on June 25. During the Sun's 79-69 win, the last of the Sun's six-game winning streak, Delle Donne was 3 of 11 with 13 points in 17 minutes.
''It was definitely just great to be out there and feel good and healthy," said Delle Donne, who played 16 minutes on Sunday. ''The only thing holding me back a little bit right now is my lungs. It's definitely a positive thing and I'm happy that I was able to bounce back for a second game.''
The Sun play four of their final five at home. They end the season with two against Washington (Sunday and Aug. 15) and the finale against Atlanta on Aug. 17.
But playing at home has provided little comfort. The Sun's last home win was June 25 against the Sky. They have lost four straight since and are barely above .500 (7-6) at the casino this season.