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Connecticut Sun make playoffs the hard way


UNCASVILLE, Conn. - The Connecticut Sun rolled a hard eight to make the playoffs of the Women's National Basketball Association.

Beating the odds, and pulling together after a rocky first season, the Sun swept its last three games in regular play to win a post-season slot in the highly competitive Eastern division. Its first play-off game was scheduled for Aug. 28 in the Mohegan Sun Arena here against the Charlotte Sting.

But the team wasn't the only winner. For the first major league sports franchise to be owned by an Indian tribe, the playoff position vindicates a business decision by the Mohegan Tribe that drew its share of doubters just two months earlier.

The Sun is not only the first tribally owned team; it is the first to be unaffiliated with an NBA team. During the middle of the season, low attendance at the somewhat remote southeastern Connecticut home court reportedly worried the WNBA brass. The brand new arena nestled by the Mohegan Sun casino seats 9,341 and the Mohegans set their break-even point at 6,000 fans a game. But for much of the summer, the gate fell well below the benchmark, and dispirited team play reflected the frustration.

As the league hit the All-Star Game break in early July, however, something happened to the Sun and its fans. Average attendance in the last half of the season ran a good 2,000 fans above the first half. Even though the Sun still finished last in WNBA turnout, the season average was 6,044, just above its goal.

The dramatic upsurge in support filled the stands for the Sun's last season home game on Aug. 22, also against Charlotte. The near sell-out filled the once empty upper reaches of the arena, where rows of "tween-age" girls waved homemade signs. A corps of not much older cheerleaders was still egging on the staid audience by parading a sign reading "Make Some Noise," but tie-breaking baskets during the back-and-forth game called forth a roar that could be called deafening, or at least hard to talk over.

Perhaps the most note-worthy, if not obnoxious, sea change affected the stands behind the Sun's basket. At a mid-season game, a few women in gym shorts attempted to distract foul shots by waving long cylindrical clappers. By the finale, so many fans were joining in that the stands looked like a reef of agitated sea anemone.

That last home game against Charlotte presaged nip and tuck, battering play for the post season. The teams ended the first half in a tie and changed the lead repeatedly until a string of Sun baskets sparked by a three-pointer from the five-foot-three guard Debbie Black. Her huge grin as the Sun built an eight-point win showed how sharply team morale had soared.

Resiliency and a career-high 28 points from the often over-shadowed Katie Douglas brought the Sun through another tight game with the Washington Mystics. But with tight bunching around third place, the Sun went into its final game with no lock on the playoffs.

Halfway through the away game with the Indiana Fever, word came through that the Sun had no free ride. The other challenger for third place, the Cleveland Rockers, had just clinched its position. With a tie score, the Sun needed to pull out a win.

This time the hero was one of its top shooters, Taj McWilliams-Franklin, who had taken a hard fall and left the game. She returned for a run in the last nine minutes that gave the team a 72 to 62 victory and its shot at post-season play.