By Bailey Johnson
In the end, it was the poor start that did the Dream in for their fourth straight loss. The Connecticut Sun dropped 26 points to the Dream’s 13 in the first quarter, and though the Dream outscored the Sun in each ensuing period, it wasn’t enough.
A pull-up jumper from Alex Bentley tied the game at 57 points with just over six minutes left to play. In those final minutes, the two teams scored just combined 10 points. The ball went cold for both sides, and it was the Sun who were able to break through just enough to win, 65-59.
“If you’d have told me we’d hold a team to 28% field goal shooting and won three of the four quarters, I would’ve felt pretty good about our chances to win the game,” said coach Nicki Collen. “I felt like the first three and a half minutes looked a little like the last three games, but as soon as we subbed, we came with a different energy with the bench.
“We competed at the level I expect the Dream to compete at every single day, every single game.”
After a blowout loss to the Las Vegas Aces on Thursday night, Collen and the Dream had a raw, honest conversation in the locker room. Frustrations were aired and everyone left feeling like progress was coming.
Progress did come in Sunday’s game, though it still wasn’t enough to snap the Dream’s losing streak. On offense, the difficulties continued, and the Dream’s 59 points were a season low.
Touching the paint on each possession is a tenet of what Collen and her staff preaches to the Dream, and the Dream finished with 28 points in the paint on Sunday. But as the offense continues to struggle, Collen has other improvements she’d like to see in those situations.
“For us, we need to touch the paint,” Collen said. “28 of our 32 points in the first half were when we touched the paint. … What we have to do better is the same thing we had to do better at the beginning of last season. When we touch the paint, what decisions are we making when we get there. We took too many tough shots when we got in the lane.”
And while the offense ground its way to 59 points, the defense showed flashes of real improvement. Collen credited the defense’s new energy to a drill the Dream did for the first time in practice on Friday.
“It’s a drill that you want to do but you fear doing because it can get so competitive that you don’t want anyone hurt,” Collen said. “It’s basically a three-minute drill where you stay on defense for three straight minutes and your goal is to get eight points. You get points for a deflection, you get points for a stop, and you just run it back.”
In the second half, the defense locked down and gave the Dream a chance to win the game. The Sun scored just 21 points in the second half, but even a renewed defense couldn’t overcome the Dream’s 12 first-half turnovers.
“That was the biggest difference, obviously,” Collen said. “We were handing them the ball to start the game. They had 16 points off turnovers in the first half. They had four in the second half when we didn’t throw them the ball and were able to get into a stance. … When we just didn’t hand them the ball and got to sit down and defend, we were really good.”
While the fourth straight loss was clearly disappointing for Collen and her team, the signs of improvement the Dream showed are encouraging going forward. The Dream broke the streak of three straight blowout losses and came back from a deficit that was as large as 16 points to tie the game.
Tiffany Hayes scored double digits for the first time all season, which is a promising sign for a Dream offense in need of a spark. A nagging ankle injury limited Hayes in the Dream’s first four games, but she seemed to be back to her 2018 form on Sunday.
“I think she showed up in the three-minute drill,” Collen said. “She probably is tired of losing. … Tiffany is a player that her strength is her first step, her ‘slitheriness’ around the rim. And when you’ve got one bum ankle and you don’t push off that as well as you’re used to, it’s amazing how many of those tight shots around the rim were rolling out on her.”
Alongside Hayes, Sykes scored 14 points to tie for the scoring lead and Bentley, Sykes and Monique Billings brought energy off the bench. The Dream looked like a team ready to move forward from previous losses and change the trajectory of their season. Coming back from large deficits multiple times against the Sun exemplified that, despite not being able to break through once they tied the game.
“I thought we were putting ourselves in a position to win a game,” Collen said. “In this league, that’s what you have to do. You have to put yourself in position to win games. While we don’t like the result, we never want to lose games, we battled, and we looked like a Dream team. The way we want to look.”