Published October 15. 2012 4:00AM
The long, cold winter and all the requisite wouldas, shouldas and couldas await the Connecticut Sun, whose Alex Rodriguez-like performance in the biggest game of the season last Thursday only added to the franchise's burgeoning reputation in big games:
If you hang around long enough, they'll fold.
I take no joy in typing the previous sentence.
I also didn't come up with that one on my own.
That was a sentiment floating around the Indiana locker room after the Fever's 87-71 win in the Eastern Conference finals, a game not as close as the score indicated.
Nobody from the Indiana organization said it for the record. But two functional ears and some eavesdropping produced a singular theme among the Indiana players: superior mental toughness.
One player said she knew the Sun players were "tight," based on the number of airballs Connecticut players tossed at the basket.
Just hang in there. They'll fold.
Every single Sun player should read that. It doesn't matter of they agree with it. That's what their opponents think.
I plead ignorance in the realm of psyches, psychiatry and psychology to know whether mental toughness is innate or developed. I don't know if you're born with it (Derek Jeter) or not (A-Rod). But I do know that it's the single biggest obstacle facing the franchise into next year and beyond.
Do the Sun have a championship window? Absolutely. Don't let one bad night fool you into thinking this isn't a very good team.
Do the Sun have a chance to reach the same spot in the season next year? Absolutely.
What evidence exists to suggest they won't lose their minds again? None. And worse, they'll not only have to play a worthy opponent if they reach the brink of the finals next year, but they'll have to answer questions about past failures. And take the court having to defeat their own demons and the other team simultaneously.
"I'm going to be disappointed until we play next year. It's a shame that all of the good stuff we did will be defined by this, but you're judged by your last game," Sun coach Mike Thibault said. "In big games there is a toughness mentally and physically that you have to have. It's hard to be a champion, we're not there yet."
Thibault is right on all counts. The Sun did a lot of good this year. They overcame their road woes and won 14 games away from Neon Uncasville. They won a playoff series for the first time since 2006. But the rattle and hum of opportunity lost will shroud any sense of perspective for a while.
So what happens next? Expect Thibault to return. He's in the final season of his contract. Mohegan Sun cannot possibly justify paying him off and paying a new coach, in the wake of the recent layoffs. Then there's this: He's an excellent coach. Virtually everyone improved this year. He's earned leaguewide respect and will become the WNBA's career wins leader next season.
The Sun will add Alba Torrens, one of the best players in Europe, who should give them a threat on the wing. They'll bring in 2012 first-round draft choice Astan Dabo, 20, a 6-foot-8 center from Mali, who might be able to help Tina Charles. They should get shooter Jo Leedham, who was very good for England in the Olympics. Plus, you never know what free agency brings.
Other than that, here's what else I'd like to see happen next season: The Sun players need to stop whining at the officials. I can't stand it.
It shouldn't be a news flash that the officiating in the WNBA is an embarrassment. Get over it. Let Thibault do the complaining. The rest of you shut up and play.
And Thibault, too, has to pick his spots better. His players adopted his personality early in Thursday's game. They looked bug-eyed at the officials after every hint of contact. It didn't matter if they were right. It's the playoffs. Get tougher and play through it. Their exasperation with the officials, parlayed with Indiana making every shot led to the avalanche of frustration that ultimately doomed them.
Thibault was at his best in Game 2 of the New York series. The Liberty ran to leads of 12-0 and 27-11. He remained composed. Play the next play. That should be the team slogan in 2013.
I've written the words "good season, bad ending" more times than I'd like. There's plenty to build on here. But the regular season of 2013 will be prologue. The real stories of 2013: Can they overcome their demons in the playoffs? Can they prove their opponents wrong and not fold? Can they be more composed and tougher? We'll all find out together. See you in May.
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.