11:40 PM EDT, October 11, 2012
This was not the supposed to be the story line. This was not supposed to be the story line at all.
This was the night the Sun were supposed to celebrate their return to the WNBA Finals for the first time in eight years. This was the night the Sun were supposed to use their dominant regular-season performance to cash in on the homecourt advantage and make folks think, yes, maybe this is the year the Sun win their first league championship.
This was the night Tina Charles was going to prove why she was the 2012 WNBA most valuable player. This was the night the story line demanded that the Sun would meet a destiny written in February 2010 when the Sun and the Minnesota Lynx completed one of those blockbuster trades that would come to define both franchises.
And if not? At least they wouldn't stink out the casino.
Well, the Sun did stink out the casino. They stunk it out bad. They stunk on defense. They stunk on offense. They showed almost no poise. If this decisive 87-71 loss in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals wasn't the worst performance in a big moment in franchise history, well, there aren't many other nights to compete with this one.
"There really isn't a lot to say when you get your butts handed to you like that," coach Mike Thibault said. "We got outplayed in just about every phase possible. This is one of the most disappointing losses we've had here. It's a shame to end a good season feeling like that."
And, yes, their season is over, just like that. No finals showdown with Minnesota. No showdown with Maya Moore. No showdown with Lindsey Whalen. Taj McWillams-Franklin? Ain't gonna McHappen.
Let me rephrase what I wrote three paragraphs ago. This was the worst performance in a big moment in team history. The Sun were eliminated 79-55 by Bill Laimbeer and his Detroit Shock in 2006, but the Shock had all their players. And, yes, they blew a 22-point lead and lost in overtime to end the 2007 season. But the Sun actually took a 22-point lead on the road before they wilted in Indiana.
They never were in this game. Not for a moment. The only team record they set on this night might have been most airballs.
"Some of our balls we shot didn't even draw iron," Thibault said. "Football term: Wide right."
When Katie Douglas drove down the left side of the lane and landed grotesquely on her left ankle only five minutes into this game, matters did not look especially good for the Fever.
Douglas, the former Sun All-Star, not only is one of Indiana's veteran leaders, she can shoot the three all night. Yet as she lay on the floor and Catchings hit a three, it became obvious that the Fever would have to push on without her. Douglas went to a local hospital for X-rays. The Sun, however, were already dead in their coach's eyes.
"They were already killing us by the time she got hurt," Thibault said of a 12-4 score. "Everybody that was out there was making shots. I'm sure it's a rallying cry, but I think we all make more of those things than they are."
The Sun couldn't hit the three. They missed their first 11.
The Sun couldn't defend the three. The Fever hit their first seven.
When the Sun finally started scoring in the third quarter, they couldn't defend the lane.
We know who the best player on the court was Thursday night and, yes, her initials were T.C. And no it wasn't Tina Charles.
Tamika Catchings was terrific. She had 13 rebounds to go with her 22 points. She was all over the place, disruptive, creative, everything. Erin Phillips had a big game. The former Sun guard hit 6 of 9 shots for 15 points.
And led by Jeanette Pohlen's 14 points and Shavonte Zellous' 11, the Fever bench outscored the Sun's bench, 31-17. Pohlen hadn't' scored in five games since Sept. 28, but on this night she looked the way she did in leading Stanford when the Cardinal broke UConn's 90-game winning streak. All those outside shooters made up for Douglas' absence.
"It changed from quarter to quarter," Thibault said of the defensive woes. "In the first, they made jump shots with a hand in their face. Or we turned it over and they got buckets. They got long rebounds and ran. In the second half, when we tried to make a run, Briann January put her head down and drove by people. We didn't stay in front of her. We fouled."
"The interesting part at the start is it was a very aggressive game and your best players are either missing shots or getting fouled. Nobody went to the free throw line. They didn't. We didn't."
Mike Thibault is an excellent coach, a terrific team-builder, but he also has come to a point in his career where he seems to complain about every call. In the past few weeks, we saw him direct the sarcastic clap at an official. And we saw him turn to the crowd and encourage them to clap when he finally felt like he got a call. There's another coach in Connecticut, one who recently retired, who was known to pull that kind of stuff.
The officiating was spotty in the early going, very spotty. Running around like a maniac, however, only served to get his team and the fans in a snit. It does not good to treat every call like you've been sentenced to prison. It just isn't. People get tight.
In the end, the Fever scored 84 points without Katie Douglas. Amazing.
"I think it's mental sometimes as much as it's physical," Thibault said. "Stepping up in big moments."
Would it be unkind to say the Sun choked? Yes, but it's close to accurate.
"I have to debate whether I want to watch the tape in the next 24 hours or wait about three months," Thibault said. "If you would have told me beforehand it would turn out like this, I would have thought it was crazy."
Crazy, however, was the truth.
Jessica Moore and Danielle McCray entered the game with 2:14 left. Thibault threw in the white towel. Unfortunately, many of his players seemed to have done that two hours earlier. As fine a regular season as the Sun had, this game is going to define the 2012 season. That's the way it is in pro sports. No greatness this year.
"I live for winning games like this and we didn't win," Thibault said. "I'm going to be disappointed until we play again next year. It's going to eat at me. It's a shame all the good stuff we did is going to be defined by this. Unfortunately, it's the nature of the game you get judged by your last game usually."
"As young as we are, hopefully, we'll learn a few lessons for them. I'm not quite sure what they are all at the moment. If you can learn anything from this, it's in big moments, there is a toughness mentally and physically you have to have to get to the next level."
The Sun clearly weren't ready to get over that hump. They stunk out the casino.
Copyright © 2014, The Hartford Courant