Tuneup for a title run? Sun fall to Liberty in only exhibition game before season-opener, 82-79

May 9—MOHEGAN — DeWanna Bonner, the team's senior member entering her 15th year, has the same mentality entering every WNBA season.

"The goal is always to win a championship, no matter what," Bonner said before Thursday's exhibition game against the New York Liberty at the Mohegan Sun Arena.

Coach Stephanie White shares Bonner's mentality.

"We want to win now," White said. "And we know DB, especially, is toward the end of her career and we want to win for her and put the pieces together that give us the best chance to do that."

The quest for the franchise's first WNBA title begins with Tuesday's regular-season opener against the Indiana Fever.

Thursday's exhibition game provided the only tuneup for the Sun, who lost 82-79 to a team that eliminated them in the 2023 WNBA semifinals.

Rachel Banham, a free agent signing, made a positive impression in her return to the team that drafted her in 2016, scoring a team-high 20 points off the bench. She showed off her perimeter shooting prowess, sinking six 3-pointers. Bonner chipped in 16 points.

"Now I'm just a more complete player and I'm better than I was when I first was here," Banham said. "So it's fun to come back and know who I am and be welcomed so well. Everyone is just so great."

During the offseason, the Sun bolstered their roster by bringing in veterans Banham (9th season), Tiffany Mitchell (9th season) and former UConn point guard Moriah Jefferson (8th), who sat out the exhibition game due to an ankle injury.

The newcomers add to an experienced mix that also includes Bonner and Alyssa Thomas (11th) as well as Brionna Jones (8th), who missed most of last season after tearing her right Achilles tendon.

Jones played only 10 minutes in her return, finishing with a team-high six assists.

"It felt great to be back out there," Jones said. "To see all the rehab and everything that I've gone through this offseason come to this moment and get back out on the court with this team, it was great," Jones said. "I feel great. I can't wait to do a little bit more."

The Sun showed flashes of their potential Thursday against New York, who were led by 15 points from Sabrina Ionescu.

Bonner and Thomas, the team's top two returning scorers, joined Jones, Ty Harris and DiJonai Carrington in the starting lineup. White went deep into her bench while experimenting with different combinations and evaluating her roster.

White, who's in her second season coaching the Sun, can count on receiving regular contributions from Bonner and Thomas, two pillars of the program and all-star level players. They're coming off terrific seasons.

It's hard to quantify what Bonner and Thomas mean to the Sun and the organization, according to White.

"They really are the heart and soul of this franchise," White said. "You think about not just what they do on a day-to-day basis but the consistency with which they've done it since they've been here. They raise the level of intensity in practice every day, so they lead by example in that.

"They understand the ebbs and flows of the season. They're able to communicate with their teammates in a way that raises their game. And they understand what the expectation is. Having those guys and their experience is invaluable."

The Sun will likely go as far as the talented duo will carry them. They've lost in all four trips to the finals, falling to the Las Vegas Aces in their last appearance in 2022.

Could this be the breakthrough year?

Bonner is optimistic about the Sun's season.

"We've got Bri Jones back, so that's going to help a lot," Bonner said. "It's a stepping stone. It takes a while to get there. We want to be playing our best basketball in the playoffs, not right now. We're still trying to figure some things out."

One thing Bonner has figured out is she's not ready to retire. She proved last year that she's still a force, leading the team in scoring at 17.4 points per game.

"Right now, I'm still having fun and I feel like I'm playing great basketball and have a lot of basketball left in me," Bonner said. "So once I get to that point, I'll know."

A five-time all-star, Bonner already has won a championship, accomplishing the feat with Phoenix, while Thomas is still searching for her first one.

So there's still some unfinished business.

"This organization has been very close," White said. "And sometimes it's a little bit of luck that gets you over the hump. Sometimes, it's one or two pieces. And we've added some really veteran pieces and they have the ability to hopefully get us over the hump."