<
>

Team effort lifts Dream past Sun

UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- Sometimes the Angel you know is better than the devil you don't.

The Connecticut Sun took Angel McCoughtry out of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, holding the Atlanta Dream star to fewer than 20 points for the first time in the past nine meetings. They took McCoughtry out of the mix figuratively, Sun defensive stopper Kalana Greene hounding McCoughtry into 1-of-7 shooting in the first half. Then they took her out in a more literal manner, tempting her into foul trouble in the second half.

And a crowd for whom the emotive former Louisville star might be the favorite foil who doesn't wear orange ate it up.

Indeed, when the action paused with just more than nine minutes to play in the fourth quarter, the crowd sounded as loud and looked as happy as it had all night. That McCoughtry stood on the sideline by her team's bench at that moment, hands on hips and a look equal parts frustration and contempt plastered across her face, was not at all coincidental.

The Sun led 68-63 and McCoughtry had just picked up her fifth foul on an impetuous attempt to strip the ball from Allison Hightower -- 36 seconds after she picked up her fourth foul with an equally rash charge.

Playing their first playoff game since 2009, it seemed the Sun had the Dream on the ropes. The trouble is, that's becoming a comfortable place for the defending conference champions.

"We all had to pull together and make up for the points that Angel normally gives us," Dream forward Sancho Lyttle said. "And when we saw everyone cheering that she was out with five [fouls], we knew that there was their game plan. So we all turned on a different switch."

With 5:55 to play, barely three minutes after McCoughtry headed to the bench with her five fouls, the Dream led 74-70. The Sun twice narrowed the deficit to a single point down the stretch, but an 11-2 run to take the lead proved the difference in sending the Dream back to Atlanta with an 89-84 win, a 1-0 lead in the series and their third win ever in Connecticut.

On a night when McCoughtry still somehow managed a double-double with 16 points and 10 rebounds, she was nonetheless a bit player in the proceedings. Top billing went to Lindsey Harding, who scored a game-high 21 points. It went also to Armintie Price, consistent from start to finish. It went to Lyttle and Erica de Souza, who combined for 29 points and 20 rebounds and limited Tina Charles and Asjha Jones to 12-of-36 shooting. It went to Iziane Castro Marques, who hit the only two 3-pointers the team had all night during the run that put the Dream on top to stay.

It went to a group that wasn't going to panic at being down five points without McCoughtry. Not after those same players didn't panic when they started the season with three wins in their first 12 games.

"This team has experienced a lot of adversity throughout this season," Dream assistant coach Carol Ross said. "They've learned how to embrace the challenges. Whether it's Angel out with foul problems or somebody injured, whatever the case, they've just been faced with it so often that they've learned how to deal with it, which is a real testament to them maturing as a team.

"We're still a pretty young team, but they've got a lot of wisdom and experiences that a veteran team would have."

The source of much of the adversity, Lyttle also looked like the embodiment of the savvy in totaling 13 points, 11 rebounds, 3 steals and 2 blocks in 33 minutes. Her absence earlier this season -- first while helping Spain's Olympic qualification effort and then from a subsequent back injury -- left the team without a key figure. The Dream might not have all of her back, but they have enough.

"She's still not completely healthy, but having her out there at 90 to 95 percent healthy is a blessing for us," coach Marynell Meadors said.

With de Souza beside Lyttle, the Dream have as good a one-two punch inside as any team this side of, well, the Sun. The Dream's duo isn't as prolific on the offensive end as Charles and Jones, but it isn't asked to be on most nights. The Sun might have wondered if they earned a few more trips to the free throw line than the final stats suggest, but as Thibault noted, the Dream played like a team familiar with how playoff games are officiated. No two players made better use of the physical play than de Souza and Lyttle in harassing Charles and Jones into one of their worst combined shooting efforts of the season.

"Sancho's huge," Harding said. "She's very agile. She's versatile. She's guarded 3s before, 4s, 5s. She rebounds well. She can score well. She does everything for us, especially for a big girl, which is huge."

It's reductive to suggest the Dream won because they were mentally tougher. It's foolhardy to look at the result and believe it proves superiority or predicts the outcome Sunday in Atlanta. But for a bounce here or a call there, the story might well be how effective the Sun were at holding home court by forcing McCoughtry's teammates to beat them. Play out a scenario where a team's superstar suffers through a night like this on the road in the playoffs, and mental toughness or no mental toughness, that team might lose more often than not.

The point is the Dream play like they believe it's always going to be the latter. And like McCoughtry believing she can always get the next steal or the next basket, that means it sometimes is.

"If you have to really put one word on this team, to me, they're competitors," Ross said. "And competitors just find a way. And they found a way. Your most talented player usually is the one who brings a personality to a team, and I would certainly say this team has a lot of Angel McCoughtry in them, as well. And I think Marynell has done a great job of bringing in players, personalities that complement that, so we're not in an identity crisis. That is our identity."

During a break in play late in the fourth quarter, a familiar line of dialogue from "Rudy" blared across the public address system.

"Nobody comes into our house and pushes us around."

The Dream didn't have to push around the Sun to win on the road. They just had to push back.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.