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Sun's 'engagement level' couldn't be higher

Finally, after a 508-day hiatus, rebirth and renewal came Sunday night to Mohegan Sun Arena. The daughters of Sun got to play before the home folks, even if but 2,300 of them were allowed in. The Sun even wore new uniforms with a hue of royal blue, trumpeting the word "Keesusk," which means "sun" in the Mohegan tribe's native language.

And while the Sun were down two Thomases (Alyssa and Jasmine) the opponent's roster seemingly had everything under the Keesusk. Nice win for the Sun over Atlanta the other night, sure. But this was different. This was the Phoenix Mercury with star power that the Keesusk rises and sets around.

The Sun won anyway, 86-78, during a thoroughly entertaining two hours in Neon Uncasville. And they won by playing their ascots off. Seriously: Their level of effort was to be appreciated, especially if you've watched their male counterparts cower to "load management" and other contrivances this season. Even Brad Stevens, the Celtics coach, questioned his team's "engagement level" last week.

Engagement level.

Swell.

Happily, though, the Sun came long to remind us of the unspoken beauty of constant effort. So many examples. Among the best: Second quarter and rookie DiJonai Carrington — the Baylor kid who got clobbered by Aaliyah Edwards late in the Elite Eight game — was all over Skylar Diggins-Smith, forcing a shot clock violation. Carrington nearly had coach Curt Miller's help, what with Miller cheering, jumping, encouraging and gyrating behind her on the bench, totally appreciative of the care in Carrington.

Or there was guard Natisha Hiedeman, the third-year kid from Marquette, who had four steals against a backcourt with brand names, repeatedly giving the Sun extra possessions. The Sun outrebounded the fighting Brittney Griners, too.

Veteran sports watchers might be saddened by the idea that recognizing effort is suddenly noteworthy. Effort used to be like French Fries: It came with the meal. That was before "load management" and "engagement level" became industry excuses for apathy. So now when you see professionals playing hard, you say so.

"A lot of times, that credit (of playing hard) goes to A.T. (Thomas), but it's been our pillar," Miller said. "That's the culture we have in our locker room. Nobody plays harder than Bri January or Jasmine Thomas. That's how Brionna Jones plays. That's how DeWanna Bonner plays. Now we're watching JJ (Jonquel Jones) with a motor.

"Our young players, (playing hard) is how they're going to stick with this team. Our team wanted this game tonight. In a long 32-game season, some nights in the pro men's game and pro women's game, sometimes you don't always have that. But (the Sun) played really hard and really wanted this one."

And isn't that all we can — and should — ask of the teams we watch? Miller saluted Hiedeman and January for "chasing around two really good guards" all night and admitted "it was a tough ask." And yet at the end, Hiedeman and January combined for 32 points, seven assists and five steals, while Taurasi and Diggins-Smith had 37 points and nine assists. That's a virtual tie. And a tie goes to the (harder) runners.

Miller also used the word "gritty" twice in his opening statement to the media after the game. It was. It had to be. Because Phoenix is quite talented.

Among the reasons we'll enjoy watch the WNBA here this summer is that the league has never been more talented. Where is the Sun's talent level? Neither at the top nor the bottom. But is that mitigated if the "engagement level" continues to be so urgent?

"Are we going to start the disrespect conversation already?" Miller said, alluding to a frequently conjured narrative here. "Alyssa and Jasmine are out and we've hardly had some veterans in camp and the power rankings can have us where they do. But I think this team can be special defensively. We'll have some nights where we struggle offensively. But we're happy to be 2-0."

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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