— though don’t let it be forgotten that she’s been a top player in the league prior with two All-Star selections —Two weeks ago, the Connecticut Sun, a team easily identifiable as the hotbed of Maryland women’s basketball alumni in the WNBA, were eliminated by the Las Vegas Aces in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
After spending over three months in what was trademarked as the “Wubble” at IMG Academy’s campus in Bradenton, Florida, former Terps Alyssa Thomas, Brionna Jones and Kaila Charles saw their season — easily the most unusual in league history amid the COVID-19 pandemic — come to a close.
As one would expect, the entire team echoed its disappointment with falling one game short of reaching the Finals for the second straight year.
While the team would likely beg to differ, the Sun weren’t expected to be here, at least by most. The organization underwent significant personnel changes in the offseason, bringing in 2020 WNBA Second Team selection DeWanna Bonner along with numerous other pieces, while a pair of consistent scorers in Courtney Williams and Shekinna Stricklen left to join the Atlanta Dream.
Then, prior to the start of the bubble season, Jonquel Jones, the team’s leading scorer, opted out due to concerns surrounding COVID-19. With the loss of their star player, the Sun entered the year with the same number of returning players as newcomers, including nine with less than two seasons of experience on the roster.
Establishing chemistry and a new team identity was expected to present some challenges, especially since there was no training camp or preseason games due to the pandemic. But the group, led by head coach Curt Miller, pushed past an 0-5 start to land the No. 7 seed in the playoffs. The Sun then easily defeated the favored Chicago Sky and Los Angeles Sparks in the two single elimination rounds to will their way to the semifinals. The trio of Terps played a sizable role throughout the saga.
“I know one of the things with Curt Miller, you know through the years and the conversations that we’ve gotten to have, is he loves how our players transition,” Maryland women’s basketball head coach Brenda Frese told Testudo Times. “He knows that they’re team players, they know how to win and they handle their business off the court.”
Thomas took that concept to a new level this season as she entered 2020 as the team’s top returning scorer and rebounder. With Jonquel Jones out, she stepped up to carry more of the load on the court and also served as a key leader throughout the Sun’s stay at the isolated IMG Academy campus, which began back in July.
“I’m going to try to cause havoc and impact the game and just fight with my team.” — Alyssa Thomas
The seven-year pro proved she was ready to take that leap and guide the team past its initial hump to start the season — though don’t let it be forgotten that she’s been a top player in the league prior with two All-Star selections.
“She runs the team,” Jasmine Thomas said after one of the semifinal games. “We play through her. We feed off of her energy on offense and on defense.”
Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images
Thomas produced career highs across the board, averaging 15.5 points, 9.0 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 2.0 steals per game in the regular season. Come the playoffs, she put up 18.1 points, 8.1 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.7 steals per game. If it weren’t for a dislocated shoulder in game four of the series against the Aces — more on that later — those numbers would have jumped to 20.8, 9.5, 4.7 and 2.0 a contest.
“I still think she doesn’t get as much notoriety as she should,” Frese said of Thomas. “People are starting to understand what a special kind of player she is, but she continues to show it every time she steps out on the floor.”
Jones also rewrote her career stat line as she took on a new role as the starting center and established her presence in the league.
The Havre de Grace, Maryland, native averaged 3.5 points and 2.2 rebounds in a mere 8.4 minutes per game in 2019. But her fourth year as a pro was a different story; the former Terp averaged 11.4 points and 5.4 rebounds per contest, also leading the team with a shooting mark of 60.5 percent on field goals.
“Bri had the opportunity,” Maryland associate head coach Karen Blair told Testudo Times, “And she took advantage of it really early on.”
Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images
Charles showed off her versatility in ways that weren’t normally her role at Maryland, such as being an aggressive defensive prowess and the ability to hit shots from long range, which was a big question mark for teams during the draft process.
She finished her rookie season with averages of 5.4 points, 2.6 rebounds on 19.9 minutes a night during the regular season. Though she earned a start in seven games alongside Thomas and Jones, her time on the floor was often limited depending on the game situation.
“We all know the heart that Kaila has and the amount of work that she puts in behind the scenes.” — Karen Blair
Regardless, Charles showed glimpses of the impact she can have in the league as she continues to develop. She scored 13 points or more in four games (combining regular and postseason), and she also had five outings in which she hauled in at least five rebounds.
Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images
Though the stats don’t reflect it, Miller often referred to the Terrapin standout as a key defensive spark for the team. She had her share of big plays in crucial moments as well.
After the Sun turned the ball over during an Aug. 12 matchup against the Dallas Wings, Charles quickly charged after guard Tyasha Harris and leapt up to block her layup to stop a fast break, which would have put the opposing team within two points with less than a 1:30 remaining on the game clock.
And by just the halfway mark of the season, Charles had already surpassed her total three-pointers made throughout her career in College Park. She drained a total 13 triples during her time in Florida, with a shooting clip of 36.7 percent in the regular season and 37.5 percent in the playoffs.
Frese and her current squad actively followed along with the performances of the six alumni in the bubble — Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, Crystal Langhorne and Tianna Hawkins and joined their respective teams as well, with Langhorne serving as a depth piece in the Seattle Storm’s championship run. There’s a clear sense of shared pride in the program’s consistent WNBA production, which includes 14 WNBA draft picks, eight of which were selected in the top-10, entering the head coach’s 19th season.
“Seeing three Terps and three people who went to the same school as me really just shines a light on the program that we have and the personal development that our coaching staff has for us,” Sophomore wing Faith Masonius told Testudo Times of watching the Sun tandem. “[It] really just makes me want to get to that next step and meet those hopes and dreams.”
Frese said the Terps typically come together as a group to watch the playoffs on TV each year. When the Washington Mystics and Sun squared off in the 2019 finals, many members of the team went downtown to cheer on the five Maryland alum competing. But as with so much in 2020, that wasn’t a possibility this time around.
Still, Frese and her coaching staff did all they could to show support to the women they’ve watched grow from college freshmen into established professionals. A combination of frequent texting, social media posts and, of course, livestreaming games quickly established as the new routine.
The Terrapin staff were eager to help Charles with the transition any way they could, especially given the unique challenges she faced given a late start to workouts, no training camp and entering an isolated “Wubble” environment just a short period after graduating college. The shortened season, which reduced from the traditional 36 games to just 22, also meant less opportunities to develop and prove herself.
“A lot of conversations we had with her [were], ‘Just be patient, your time is coming. Keep confident, keep the faith, you put in the work to be able to do it,’” Blair said “We all know the heart that Kaila has and the amount of work that she puts in behind the scenes.”
Masonius was elated to watch her former teammate endeavor on the next phase of her basketball career. Once Connecticut reached the semifinals, the Terps living together in apartments off campus made sure to tune in whenever they could. One morning, they gathered together for a big breakfast before turning on the game on a big screen.
“It was just really cool personally to watch Kaila take that next step into her career and just see her on the screen and be, ‘Whoa, I played with her!’ Like, ‘That’s my sister, Kaila,” Masonius said as her face lit up over a Zoom call. “It’s breathtaking and just exciting.”
However, perhaps the most thrilling moment of the season, came at the hands of Thomas in the fourth game of the Sun’s series against the No. 1 seed Aces. The 28-year-old, who has suffered her fair share of injuries in recent years, dislocated her shoulder five minutes into the prior contest. She said it was by far the most painful dislocation of her career, and Las Vegas players recalled hearing her scream in pain as medical staff pushed it back into place.
“We play through her. We feed off of her energy on offense and on defense.” — Jasmine Thomas
Determined to push through intense pain, Thomas went off for 24 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and three steals to secure the Sun a crucial playoff victory. With less than a minute left and Connecticut up 73-68, she stole the ball on an inbounds play, sprinted down the length of the court and scored an and-one layup.
By the time she joined ESPN sideline reporter Holly Rowe for an interview after the buzzer, Thomas was visibly drained and reeling in discomfort.
“I’m not thinking about it [while I’m on the court],” Thomas said after game, her shoulder wrapped in lots of ice. “It’s easy to just fall into that cycle like, I’m hurt or this is why I can’t do what I’m doing, but I’m not thinking about it. I’m out there to compete. I’m going to try to play my game the best I can. I’m going to try to cause havoc and impact the game and just fight with my team.”
As Miller put it: “You’re gonna have to amputate that arm & shoulder before it’s gonna keep her out.”
While the performance blew up on social media, the head coach and many of Thomas’ Connecticut teammates weren’t at all surprised. That’s just the competitor she is, which Miller said throughout the season is simply at a different level from any player he’s ever coached.
Frese, Masonius and Blair expressed the same sentiment. They had witnessed that unique mindset many times before. As program alumni often do, Thomas and Jones returned to College Park last November and practiced with the team.
Masonius still remembers the veteran gathering the team in a huddle and passionately yelling, “Listen, you need to hate to lose more than you like to win.”
Thomas’ hatred for defeat certainly showed throughout the 2020 WNBA season, and it was perfectly epitomized in that special performance that will be remembered for years to come. But as she said following the team’s elimination, the Maryland alum won’t be satisfied until her aspirations of a championship are realized.
“Just knowing who that kid is and just how much she fights through injuries to be on the court to help her team win, I just think she’s long overdue to win it all,” Frese said. “That’s where I am at with Alyssa and with the time that she’s put in.”