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Donovan has Sun fighting to finish

By Mike DiMauro

Publication: The Day

Published September 08. 2013 4:00AM

Mohegan

It was setting up to be the ultimate indignity during a summer inundated with them. Mike Thibault, the dismissed coach, would return to Mohegan Sun Arena on Friday night and clinch a playoff spot with his new team - the one that was 5-29 last year - on his old floor. Karma's a witch, right?

But a funny thing happened on the way to the Connecticut Sun taking another fastball to the ribs. The narrative changed. And maybe the 5,611 fans who were in full throat realized by the night's end that it wasn't about Thibault's return anymore as much as a salute to Anne Donovan's resolve.

Put it this way: What happens when the injuries heal, the draft choices come, trades happen and the people who don't want to be here are gone? What if a significantly more talented team illustrates the same give-a-damn as this one did Friday night - and has, frankly, through gruesome circumstances all summer?

They are still playing hard for Anne Donovan. Save all your "professional pride" bromides. Pro athletes have been known to call in the dogs and hose down the fire when they are 7-22. Not this one. And Donovan deserves some applause for that.

"Give Connecticut credit," Thibault said after the game. "I thought that those kids that did play played their butts off."

Eight of them played. Eight is enough, apparently, when there's want-to.

The conga line of injured players on the Sun bench - Lawson, Charles, Faris, Hightower - only added to the surreal scene at America's Most Beloved Arena. First, Thibault's return continued to feel awkward. The old regime has more friends here than the new one. Then there's the circumstances of the game. What if Washington really did clinch here? And then the fans. Not only did they show up. But they showed they still actually care - passionately - about a 7-22 team.

In 11 years covering the Sun, I've never seen anything remotely close to the bizarro world of Friday night. And yet from frustration came inspiration for the Sun fans, players and everyone else around the franchise.

Donovan wore a temporary look of happiness, but cracked, "I'm still miserable and I don't see that changing any time soon."

Kelsey Griffin, however, said, "Anne deserves a lot of credit. She came into a very difficult situation. I don't think enough people realize that taking on a successful program is almost more difficult than taking on an unsuccessful one. The standards were in place and really high. We were expecting a championship. Now, I'd like to think we're at least setting a foundation for next year."

Which invites the following thought: Let's talk next year. As the game progressed, I kept watching the combinations of players Thibault used. Let's be nice and say they were all underwhelming. The Mystics just aren't very talented.

It made me think: Would I rather be the marginally talented team that will make the playoffs, miss the lottery and have little chance to win a championship … or the team that has been a train wreck, but will have a lottery pick, chips to trade and a bunch of fans who care?

It wasn't close: I'd rather be the Sun. This doesn't excuse what's happened here this summer and the shortsighted decisions that led to it. But once you accept that you can't change history, you look forward. And the Sun have a chance to get better pretty fast.

Thibault summarized the evening thusly: "This is a great arena to play in. The fans were great and into it. They always are. I think they appreciated the effort those players gave them. There's a lot of hope here. When all those players who didn't play are healthy, they'll be better right away. (The others) played their butts off tonight."

It was quite a night. Sun fans were sprinkled throughout the casino after the game talking about the future with a renewed sense of hope. Who knew a narrative could change that much in a few hours?

"The reason I came to Connecticut, frankly, was because there's such passion for basketball and for this team," Donovan said. "For these people, despite a dismal season, to be so supportive … I doubt we'd have won if they weren't so into the game."

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.

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