The Connecticut Sun saw their season end in disappointment the first three times they earned a No. 1 seed in the playoffs. They’ll try to put an end to that trend starting Thursday night when they open their best-of-three semifinal series against the New York Liberty - whom the Sun mostly dominated in 2012.
The Eastern Conference champion Sun (25-9) will be trying to overcome their own daunting history in this postseason, as they were a top seed from 2004-06 but fell short of the WNBA title each time. Connecticut reached the league finals in the first two of those years, then fell in the conference finals in 2006 - the last time it advanced that deep into the playoffs.
The Sun have made the postseason four times in the six seasons since, only to add to their disheartening legacy. Connecticut, though, thinks this year could be different.
Behind league rebounding champ Tina Charles, who averaged 10.5 boards and 18.0 points, and guard Kara Lawson, who scored 15.1 points per game, the Sun will try to ride their formidable inside-outside combination to their first title.
Connecticut certainly looked primed for a long playoff run at the end of the season, winning its last three games and blowing out postseason-bound Atlanta 92-72 on Sunday to close out its schedule.
Lawson had 21 points and eight rebounds while setting a franchise record for 3-pointers in a season with 74. Charles, who had 17 points and nine rebounds, broke her team mark with an 18.0 points-per-game average after establishing the record with 17.6 last year.
Lawson quickly turned her attention to her team’s opening-round opponent after the game.
“I thought we ran the ball down the court well, which is how we want to play in the playoffs,” Lawson said. “Particularly when you’re talking about a defensive team like New York. They like to settle into their halfcourt defense, which makes it difficult for me to run my stuff.”
The Liberty (15-19) did manage to frustrate the star guard in the teams’ five meetings this season. Lawson, who averaged 15.1 points on the year, totaled 30 in the first four matchups before a 21-point, five-assist, five-rebound effort in the last one, an 85-74 Sun home win Aug. 16.
New York had considerably less success against Charles, who averaged 21.8 and 10.3 boards in the season series to power Connecticut to four victories.
While the Liberty are surely making shutting down Charles their top priority on defense, that could prove even more difficult with forward Asjha Jones having returned for the last two games. Jones, who averaged 13.1 points and 7.7 rebounds before the Olympic break, played a combined 17 minutes and scored four points in each of those last two contests after missing the previous 13 with an injury sustained playing for Team USA.
Jones averaged 8.0 boards in three games versus New York in 2012 and had a 20-point performance in a 92-77 win over the Liberty on May 20.
New York ended Connecticut’s season in 2008 with a 2-1 victory over the second-seeded Sun in the conference semifinals. The Liberty’s chances of pulling off another upset rest most heavily with Cappie Pondexter, named Eastern Conference player of the month after leading her team to a 6-3 finish to capture the final East postseason berth.
The star guard was third in the league with 20.4 points per game - nearly eight more than Plenette Pierson, who was second on the team in scoring. Pondexter may go head-to-head with Lawson in a high-profile backcourt matchup that could go a long way toward deciding the series.
The Liberty will also be looking to overcome their own recent disappointments in the playoffs as they make their third straight appearance. New York fell in the East semis the last two years, losing to top-seeded Indiana in three games in 2011.
“We have just got to focus on our stuff,” said veteran Kara Braxton, who will be tasked with battling Charles and Jones in the paint. “We need to click on all cylinders, rebound the ball, we’ve got to put in easy chippers, box out and contain pressure - which is a lot of stuff but we are going to work on it the next couple of days before we go up to Connecticut.”
New York is also seeking its first WNBA title after coming up short four times in the league finals. Connecticut took the first playoff matchup between the teams in 2004, winning 2-0 in the East finals.
Game 2 will be Saturday at Madison Square Garden.