UNCASVILLE — The 5,014 Sun fans gave Kara Lawson a decidedly mixed reaction upon her return to Mohegan Sun Arena Thursday night. Although Lawson had nothing bad to say about anybody after the Mystics beat the Sun 74-66, it was no secret that she was looking to leave after last season — maybe even during it.
And then Lawson, one of the brightest players in the women's game and a popular one when she played in Connecticut, reminded me of when she used to come to the state as a member of the Sacramento Monarchs and before that as a Tennessee star. Yeah, they really used to give it to Kara then.
"It wasn't as forceful tonight," Lawson said with a big smile. "I think I'm growing on them, man."
The hard question now, of course, is the Sun growing on us or are they shrinking back into oblivion again like last season?
There were all sorts of former Sun and former UConn story lines at the casino arena on this night, and there were a number of current UConn ones, too. Sitting behind one of the baskets were Breanna Stewart and many of the national champions. Coach Geno Auriemma was here, too.
All this UConn stuff cannot be easy to deal with sometimes for the Sun. Mystics coach Mike Thibault lived with it. And now coach Anne Donovan is, too, and besides going 12-30 through 42 games, there is a niggling notion that Donovan isn't crazy about UConn players. What's grown clearer is that she's not so crazy about being asked about their playing time. At any rate, even if it's not true, being on the wrong end of a public relations perception on the UConn women is a lousy place to be.
If Tina Charles, who wanted out and got her way, was lined up with Chiney Ogwumike, the Sun would be scary. Instead, they are 2-6 and if things don't start turning around, the best thing about this season will be their 2015 first-round pick and the one they have from the New York Liberty from the Charles trade.
"Ogwumike is a beast," said Thibault, run out of the casino for being a big winner but not a champion. "She's going to be one of the best players ever to play in this league."
I asked Thibault about coaching UConn players in state. He had nothing but good things to say about them.
"The hardest part is when the UConn players here are fringe WNBA players," Thibault said. "The ones that are clearly good WNBA players, there's never going to be an issue. The issue for fans is they have favorites that are borderline players in this league. It's tough if you cut them or don't play them as much. That's hard."
Thibault went on to talk about how no coach would purposely sit out a player who would give him a better chance to win. He talked about how the coach sees the player every day in practice and film sessions. Still, it seemed like he was looked upon as more favorable to the UConn players than Donovan.
"Tell that to the fan that just approached me and said I didn't like UConn players when I was here. Of course, we had a lot of them who were pretty good and I brought them here."
Thibault broke into a laugh.
"I don't know if I ever felt the pressure of coaching a UConn player. What I felt was the fans' disappointment if you cut somebody. I remember when we cut Maria Conlon, waived Barbara Turner, waived Ketia Swanier. The coach's job is to put together a roster of players to best complement each other. It's not fantasy league basketball. Your 9-10-11 player might be there for a number of reasons.
"I was asked why we picked up Kalana Greene after being cut by the Sun. She fits my personality, my team, my roster. She knows that she's not going to play a lot, but she fits what we want to do as a team, and that varies from team to team."
Thibault's feelings about a fringe WNBA player would help explain the predicament of someone like Kelly Faris. She did not play in the first three games and only 13 minutes in the next four. She played 6:11 against the Mystics. The Renee Montgomery situation is different. Donovan showed exasperation with questions about her Sunday after a win against Atlanta. Donovan has spent time explaining how if Alex Bentley is playing well, Montgomery won't be getting as many minutes. Montgomery, confused by some of this early on, has been diplomatic in recent days.
If you've followed the team, you know that Montgomery has played 17, five, 15, zero, seven, eight, 19 and then a season high 21:49 against the Mystics. Those minutes are all over the place.
Nobody knows better than Thibault and Lawson what makes Montgomery effective in the WNBA.
"It's kind of interesting," Thibault said. "Her role [when he was here] was pretty definable. She didn't start for me that one year but she won the [WNBA Sixth Man of the Year] because it was a defined situation. We started Allison Hightower and Kara and brought Renee in off the bench and played her close to starter's minutes.
"She's always been a better offensive player than defensive player. One of the things she did well was get to the free throw line. She realized that one of the advantages of coming off the bench is you are checking into the game around the time teams are getting to the bonus. So if you're aggressive offensively you can get yourself to the free throw line. She was a really important part of what we did. The challenge for her from our staff was you got to get better at both ends of the floor. I can't comment on what's happening since I left. I know there is something going on. I don't know what. I'm not there every day. I do know she had her accepted role here, but she knew exactly what her role was going to be.
"Renee's a really smart player and it was very easy to play with her," said Lawson, an ESPN analyst during the offseason. "She is very in-tune with who might have it going or getting different people shots. But her greatest strength is high-pick spread. You cannot stay in front of her. You see how she gets into the lane time and time again.
"There were a lot of games down the stretch there would be Allison, Renee and me on the perimeter. A lot of times our play was give the ball to Renee, spread it out. We had Tina on the block, Asjha Jones, who was a threat picking and popping back. Renee won a lot of games for us down the stretch.
"She can score with the best of them."
Montgomery got to the rim a number of times, but in finishing 3-for-7, this wasn't one of those nights. The Sun missed 50 of 76 shots. The Mystics turned the ball over four times in the fourth quarter yet the Sun missed 12 of their final 13 shots. Everyone in these parts is interested in the emergence of Stefanie Dolson and Bria Hartley — the rookies played a huge role in a win the other night — but it was the Mystics' veterans Kia Vaughn, Ivory Latta and Monique Currie who won this game.
Sidenote: Dolson is in the midst of going to purple hair. How long before we change her nickname from Big Momma Stef to Big Momma Barney?
"I have no regrets here," said Thibault, off to a 4-2 start after making the playoffs with Washington in 2013. "I did everything I could to make it a championship team. The irony is that they are rebuilding, but that's what we had done a couple of years ago. The year I left we had the second-best record and the second-youngest team. I felt good about what we were doing and where we were headed. But apparently that wasn't good enough."