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NEWARK, NJ – Already an NCAA national champion, a WNBA Rookie of the Year, a gold medalist – after starring for Team USA to a romp through the London Olympics earlier this month – and the fastest WNBA player ever to 1,000 rebounds, Tina Charles now has one goal in mind.
And she’s not afraid to tell you about it.
When asked what her goal was for the rest of her season, a normally reserved Charles smiled and gave a direct, two-word answer, as if the question was almost wasting her time.
“A championship,” Charles said.
For the Sun to get there, though, they’ll need Charles at the top of her game, especially with Asjha Jones, Charles’ former Connecticut teammate and fellow Olympian, out for about two weeks to rest her Achilles tendon. But Connecticut coach Mike Thibault said he has no doubt that Charles will be able to devote her energies to the Sun right away even after a quick Olympic turnaround.
“This is her daily job,” Thibault said. “She’s become a great leader. Wants to win, wants to win a championship. So you’re in a position where you have your most talented player highly motivated and that’s a good combination.”
Charles has already showed signs of being that player in the second half. After a shaky performance for a season-low four points in a Connecticut loss to New York on August 16, Charles bounced back to score 23 points (on 11-for-17 shooting) and grab nine rebounds in an 85-74 win over New York just two days later. In that second game, Charles also grabbed her 1,000th rebound, accomplishing the feat in just 89 career games to break Yolanda Griffith’s previous record of 92.
Charles may only be in her third season, but it’s on her to drive the Eastern Conference-leading Sun to heights this franchise has never seen. While she’s been dominant since entering the league as the top pick in the 2010 WNBA Draft, the opportunity to play for Team USA – and thus play with 11 of the best women’s basketball players in the world – might help Charles get her team to that championship apex faster, she said.
- Thibault on Charles
While their Olympic experiences appear to have the potential to help both Charles’ and Jones’ game, they say it was also a great thrill to have an entire country -- including their Sun teammates, who had a team lunch together to watch Team USA’s semifinal matchup versus Australia -- rooting them on.
“It was great for us,” Jones said. “As a basketball player there’s no higher honor than being able to represent your country and actually being able to come away with a gold and just maintain the USA’s dominance in the basketball area.”
While Team USA technically only played together for about a month before accomplishing its ultimate goal, the Sun will have to take it day-by-day in what will be a much longer journey -- one that started in May -- if they want to give Charles her wish.
“We haven’t talked about games down the road,” Thibault said. “We’ve talked about the next game. And if you stay in the narrow focus then things have a way of taking care of themselves. I think we’re not going to try to deviate from that. Everyone’s goal in the league is to win a championship but it gets there in steps. There’s no big leap to it. So we gotta take care of the first couple steps along the way.”
“She’s the anchor,” Jones said. “She’s our big person in the middle. Without her, everything else is difficult. When she’s playing well, we get the inside going and she can take a lot of attention away from our guards. And if she’s drawing a lot attention inside, it’s going to be tough to guard our guards. Her play is key. As well as she’s playing is as well as we’re going to play.”
Charles will not have the benefit of teaming in the paint with Jones, who averaged 13.1 points and 7.7 rebounds in the season’s first half, for a few more games, but as we’ve seen thus far, the Sun have more artillery than just Charles and Jones.
Look no further than 10-year veteran Kara Lawson, averaging career highs in points (14.5), rebounds (3.8) and assists (3.6) this year.
“She’s been terrific,” Thibault said. “Great, great shape. I think she feels the total freedom to be a coach on the floor right now, to run our team. She’s obviously put in all the work in the offseason to get herself to that point and that’s key. I think she’s ready to pick up where she left off.”
Picking up where they left off is a key theme for Sun (16-5) in the second half -- even for Charles who is still waiting for the ink on her passport to dry.
“It’s definitely a whirlwind,” Charles said of her schedule the past two weeks. “I just have to get back and get focused with the Connecticut Sun right now and the position we left ourselves in.”
That position being, of course, first place. That’s where they are and where they want to stay. Simple as that.