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Inside the W: Sun Rising to Challenge

The underdog jersey doesn’t quite fit the way it used to.

The Connecticut Sun score too much and win too much to wear it comfortably anymore.

Highest scoring team in the WNBA. More balanced team in the WNBA. Best record in the WNBA. Still, the prove-something mentality sticks to this team.

“Every player on this team has an underdog journey,” said forward Chiney Ogwumike. “We are a whole bunch of players with a chip on our shoulder. We play hard, we care about winning. We have fought so long to be a team that’s respected and it’s finally happening.”

The Sun are nobody’s surprise after 2017’s breakthrough season, in which a young, balanced team rode their chemistry and versatility to a 21-13 record and a No. 4 seed in the playoffs.

But the redefining season ended in bittersweet fashion with a second-round, single-game playoff loss to Phoenix.

That loss was fuel for a new season, said forward Alyssa Thomas.

It made the Sun tougher and hungrier, said center Jonquel Jones.

“We have a tenacity and an intensity about us this year,” said Jones, who set the WNBA single-season rebounding record last season. “We definitely have experience now and we want to go further. We have Chiney back, another person to do great things for us, we have great chemistry and we are moving along.”

Los Angeles and Minnesota have been the league’s pace setters in the past two seasons. So far, in 2018, Connecticut is not just keeping up, but leading the pack at 7-2 heading into Friday night’s game at Seattle, a game that will feature a gathering of some of the league’s best young talent.

“Losing in the second round last year, not getting into a series…we wanted to build on that,” head coach Curt Miller said. “We are off to the best start in my tenure here. A lot of that has to do with our camaraderie and chemistry. They play for each other and root for each other.”

Miller said he feels fortunate to have a deep team of players willing to sacrifice their own individual opportunities for team success. He calls it a “pack mentality.”

“They really believe in keeping this core group together. We infused Chiney back into the lineup,” Miller said. “Right now, we don’t have an alpha dog like other teams, but we have a few talented players.”

And they are all taking their turns in the leading role.

On Wednesday night in Uncasville, Conn., the Sun faced down a 30-point deficit (tying for the biggest deficit overcome in league history) and charging back to take a lead, before ultimately falling 95-91 to the Mystics. It was an emotional night, to be sure, with Connecticut players absorbing the news that Anne Donovan, who coached the Sun from 2013-2015, died of a heart ailment.

But Courtney Williams’ performance broke through the sadness. Williams scored a career-high 34 points in the game, setting a franchise record with 15 field-goals and becoming the sixth player to lead Connecticut in scoring in nine games.

“Every night can be anybody’s night and that makes us harder to prepare for and harder to guard,” Miller said.

In a year where individual scoring is way up, and five players are averaging more than 20 points a game league-wide, Connecticut is bucking the trend.

Six players on the Sun’s roster are averaging double-digit scoring. Only one player, Alyssa Thomas – who led the league in plus-minus last season – is averaging more than 30 minutes a game. Seven players are playing at least 18 minutes a game.

Ogwumike said the Sun players are legitimately happy to “share the wealth.”

“All everybody cares about is winning,” Ogwumike said. “Nobody cares who gets the credit.”

Ogwumike’s return has provided scoring, rebounding, defensive presence inside and energy.

“She brings that energy on the offense and defensive end,” Alyssa Thomas said. “She’s always playing hard and she adds a whole other aspect for us. She’s a different post than JJ (Jonquel Jones) or (Morgan) Tuck or myself.”

The Sun started the 2017 season 0-4 before finding their identity and balancing injuries with breakthrough performances from players like Jones and both Alyssa and Jasmine Thomas.

Connecticut knew a strong start was critical in 2018. But it wasn’t a foregone conclusion. Jones arrived late to camp after attending to family issue in her native Bahamas but was with the team before the season opener.

“Last year, we didn’t start well. We had injuries and we made some changes, and we found something that worked for us,” Alyssa Thomas said. “This year, we wanted to make sure we picked up where we left off.”

Connecticut came into the season chasing Minnesota and Los Angeles, looking to catch the league’s elite teams. For the moment, at least, now everyone is chasing the Sun.

“There’s no pressure on us,” Ogwumike said. “But we still feel like we have to prove a lot. We are not just a one-season team. Now it’s about building upon what we have now. We know we are capable of making the playoffs and we are capable of being top teams. But we aren’t satisfied with one good year. We want to make the playoffs and do something when we get there. And we need to put ourselves in the best position to do that.”

Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith writes a weekly column on throughout the season. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.