UNCASVILLE, Conn. - In a match up few would have predicted in the team's darkest days, the Connecticut Sun is facing league leader the Detroit Shock for the WNBA Eastern Conference title and a shot at the national women's professional basketball championship.
The series is starting on the Sun's home court, the Mohegan Sun Arena, Sept. 5 at 8 p.m. eastern time and will be broadcast live nationally on ESPN2. Detroit will have home court advantage for the rest of the potential three-game series, which will be televised on the Oxygen cable channel.
The Sun, the nation's first tribally owned major league pro sports team, reached the second round by continuing its winning streak to five and sealing the first round of the playoffs with two close victories over the Charlotte Sting. Its unexpectedly strong showing is delighting Mohegan tribal members, who originally made the controversial investment to provide an additional attraction for their 10,000 seat arena, and appears to be swelling a Connecticut fan base, which fell short of the break-even point in the frustrating first half of the season.
Although, according to a local paper, the team lost $1.1 million in the first three months, average home attendance increased nearly 40 percent after the All-Star Game break at the end of July. The year's average before the play-offs just notched the 6,000 seats that the tribe set for its standard of success.
The play-off success is clearly a bonus for a team beginning to establish its own identity in a state used to undefeated records and national championships from its University of Connecticut women's basketball program. Local pride in the Sun also appears to be quelling criticism about its association with an Indian casino and even counter-acting political hostility to the state's gaming-rich tribes.
"I don't think we could have imagined being at this point when we looked at buying the team," said Mohegan Tribal Chairman Mark F. Brown. "It's amazing."
Brown said the tribe decided to buy the team, which was formerly the Orlando (Fla.) Miracle, because of Connecticut's strong tradition of women's basketball and also as a steady attraction for the arena. But he said the tribe has since been caught up in the excitement over the team, which appeals strongly to young teenaged girls and their families.
"Its great to see the stands filled up with kids along with their folks," he said.
The Sun has certainly provided excitement in its last two home games.
On Aug. 28, with two seconds to go in its first-ever major league playoff in Connecticut, its players emerged from a time-out huddle with the plan for the winning lay-up.
Leading scorer T. J. McWilliams-Franklin made the play through flailing Charlotte Sting defenders, breaking the tie she had scored less than a minute before. A blocked Charlotte pass spun high into the hands of Sun star Nykesha Sales, who cradled the ball like a baby as the horn sounded.
The 68-66 final score kept alive a four-game Sun winning streak that brought it to the play-offs the hard way. The streak started at home a week earlier in another nip-and-tuck game with the Sting, won in the last six minutes by a score of 63 to 55 before a near sell-out at Fan Appreciation day. The Sun had to win its next two regular games to stay alive for the play-offs, and it did.
Player morale was sky-high after the dramatic first play-off win, a sharp turn-around from mid-season. "We've bonded as a team," said Debbie Black, the blonde five-foot-three playmaker.
Black predicted a strong showing in the away game, and the Sun sealed the first round at Charlotte two days later, 68-62.
The series with Detroit could shape up as a bruising challenge. The Shock has the best record in the Eastern Conference, with a regular season 25-9 against the Sun's 18-16. Sun Coach Mike Thibault calls the Shock one of his most physical opponents.
The only downer in the last two weeks was the weak attendance at the Mohegan Sun Arena at the first play-off game Aug. 28, at 4,100 less than half the sell-out for the last regular season home-game a week earlier. The fans apparently hadn't penciled a play-off game into their calendars, and much of the core tween-girl audience was further distracted by the opening of middle school earlier in the day.
But those who came cheered lustily and even uncharacteristically heckled officials as the Sun fought back from eight points down with four minutes to go. When a series of foul shots brought the tie within reach, nearly everyone in the solidly pro-Sun stands was on their feet. As "Taj" McWilliams-Franklin made her shots, the roar, for once, truly was deafening.