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Home court advantage gives lead to Mohegan-owned WNBA team

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UNCASVILLE, Conn. - At least one court is still friendly to Indians, but it
helps that they own it.

That's the basketball court at the Mohegan Sun Arena, where the tribally
owned Connecticut Sun is the undisputed leader of the Woman's National
Basketball Association.

At the end of July, the team had an 18 - 6 record, the best in the league.

Even more remarkably, the Sun had won 16 straight games on its home court
on the Mohegan reservation (counting a six-game winning streak in last
season's playoffs). Fan support has steadily grown. Attendance at some
games has increased up to 35 percent above the previous year, contributing
to a healthy growth in traffic at the surrounding Mohegan Sun Casino.

Even though the winning streak ended July 30 with a home court loss to
arch-rival Detroit Shock, more than 8,400 attended, one of the season's
best turnouts in the 9,431-seat Mohegan Sun Arena.

Mitchell Etess, president of the Mohegan Sun Casino and governor of the
basketball team, withholds any statement that the team is now a business
success. "We won't be able to say that," he told Indian Country Today,
"until the end of the financial reporting period, which is after the end of
the season."

But average home game attendance for the year is running above 7,000. After
the tribe acquired the team in 2002, Mohegan Tribal Chairman Mark Brown
said that its break-even benchmark would be average of 6,000.

The Mohegan Tribe is already an unquestioned success as team owner,
however. It bought the Orlando, Fla. franchise and moved it to Connecticut
after the WNBA dropped its rule restricting ownership to NBA teams. Against
all predictions, the Sun won the Eastern Division last season and came just
points short of the national championship. By way of endorsement of the new
policy, the WNBA held its nationally televised All-Star Game July 9 at the
Mohegan Sun Arena.

Credit for the athletic success goes to Head Coach Michael Thibault,
already a legend for spotting talent. (A scout for much of his career, he
was part of the team that brought Michael Jordan to the Chicago Bulls.
Appropriately, Michael Jordan's 23.sportscafe anchors a balcony row of
restaurants facing the arena entrance.)

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Over the past year, Thibault quietly reshaped the team into the present
powerhouse. He changed its configuration as the shortest team in the league
by trading top draft choices from this year and next for San Antonio's
7-foot-2-inch Margo Dydek. The popular Polish native has proved a highly
effective tent pole for the Sun offense, picking off rebounds and funneling
them to aggressive shooters Lindsay Whelan, Katie Douglas or Nykesha Sales.

Along the way, the Sun has emerged from the shadow of the string of
national champion womens' basketball teams at the University of
Connecticut. "We're no longer UConn South," said Etess. "The public is
getting to know and love our own players just as they love the UConn
players."

In old Yankee tradition, however, Connecticut fans are often restrained in
expressing their passion. At a July 28 matchup with the New York Liberty,
one of the few teams to beat the Sun this year, Sun mascot Blaze, a giant
cuddly orange creature of indeterminate species, worked the crowd steadily
with a hand-held poster saying "Make Some Noise."

Some of the most demonstrative fans were members and employees of the
tribe, including Etess himself. The veteran casino executive has gotten in
the habit of watching home games while standing in a court-level ramp with
associates, air-punching as Sun players score and occasionally heckling the
referees.

In the Liberty game, the fans showed what a home court advantage could do.
The first half ended glumly as Sun players missed baskets and lost the ball
on 14 of their last 17 possessions. The Liberty had moved to a 10-point
lead, the widest Sun hole of the season.

But the Sun hit the court in a burst of energy, inspired by a blunt but
business-like halftime talk from Coach Thibault. "He doesn't use
profanity," Sales said later, "but he told us what we had to do." A quick
series of baskets and spectacular steals brought the crowd to its feet. No
exhortations from Blaze were needed to produce a deafening roar.

As the excitement rebounded on the players, they quickly evened the score
and moved 10 points ahead. In less than five minutes, the team made a
20-point turnaround. "Everybody got into it," said Sales. "The coach, the
players, the crowd all got into it."

The Liberty still had sting, with deadly accurate three-pointers from its
Russian star Elena Baranova and driving lay-ups by South Dakotan Becky
Hammon. The score narrowed to a three point difference, and both teams took
timeouts with three seconds to go. But a foul gave free throws to the Sun's
Douglas, and her teammate Sales kept the rebound to dribble as time ran
out. The Sun kept its home victory string alive by 73 - 70.

In the locker room after the game, where a large sign on the wall said
"Eastern Division Champions - Unfinished Business," Sales told reporters
that the Sun was now playing with an eye to the post-season schedule. "We
want to get the home court advantage," she said. "We're comfortable in our
own building."