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A torn labrum in each shoulder can’t keep Alyssa Thomas from pursuing a WNBA title

Despite playing with a torn labrum in each shoulder, Alyssa Thomas has led the Connecticut Sun to the WNBA Finals. (Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP)
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Washington Mystics guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough was a freshman at Maryland in 2013-14 when she played alongside Alyssa Thomas, a senior regarded as the Terrapins’ unquestioned alpha for reasons well beyond her record-setting production.

Walker-Kimbrough saw firsthand how the school’s career scoring and rebounding leader was relentless during practice, regardless of how minor the drill, and challenged everyone to play with the same energy, grit and enthusiasm — qualities her college and professional coaches continue to extol.

So it hardly comes as a shock to Walker-Kimbrough that Thomas, in her sixth WNBA season, not only has become the centerpiece of the Connecticut Sun, which visits the Mystics on Sunday to open the WNBA Finals, but that the all-star forward is doing so with a torn labrum in each shoulder.

“Who has two torn labrums and plays like that?” Walker-Kimbrough said Saturday after practice at Entertainment and Sports Arena, the site of the first two games and the potential decisive finale of the five-game series. “Honestly, I’m not even surprised. She finds a way.”

The WNBA season started with big questions. It’s ending with hope from smaller successes.

Labrum ailments have plagued Thomas since her second year in the WNBA, but this season is different: Raising her arms much higher than ear level is an exercise in acute pain management. Second-seeded Connecticut swept the Los Angeles Sparks in the semifinals, giving Thomas extra time to rest and receive treatment.

“Some games, if I have to play physical in the post, the next couple days will be a little rough for me,” she said. “I feel sore, but at this point … I’ve been playing like this for years, so I just deal with it.”

Through the pain, Thomas led the Sun during the regular season in minutes (30.2 per game), field goal percentage (.505) and steals (1.9) while finishing second in rebounding (7.8) and third in scoring (11.6) and assists (3.1). That she stays on the court down the stretch in close games despite being severely limited in her free throw shooting motion — she shot a career-low 49.6 percent at the foul line — underscores how much Sun Coach Curt Miller values her contributions.

“One of the warriors of the league,” Miller said. “Her game’s built around physicality. It’s built around toughness, and you see it day in and day out. There’s not a more competitive player on our team, but she gives us an identity of toughness with a young team.”

The WNBA Finals pits Mystics vs. Sun and a bunch of Terps vs. each other

That’s exactly how Mystics forward Tianna Hawkins, a former teammate at Maryland, described Thomas, rolling her eyes in amazement while recounting some of the rugged practices the two went through together in College Park.

A vivid memory came during Hawkins’s senior season of 2012-13, when a rash of ACL tears had diminished the Maryland roster to the point that Coach Brenda Frese used a rotation of just eight regulars. Among those injured were starting point guard Brene Moseley and starting shooting guard Laurin Mincy, leaving the backcourt significantly depleted.

So Frese turned over primary ballhandling duties to Thomas — and she flourished, managing to balance her preference for rebounding and getting to the rim with facilitating her teammates. Thomas averaged team highs of 18.8 points, 10.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists while playing more than 34 minutes per game and guiding the Terrapins to the NCAA tournament’s round of 16.

“She’d never make any excuses,” Hawkins said. “Regardless of how she’s feeling, she’ll always bring it.”

Connecticut Sun is relishing underdog role in WNBA Finals

Asked how she’s able to ease the pain and deliver when the Sun needs her most, Thomas shrugged her shoulders — torn labra and all. She’s just aiming for her first WNBA championship.

“It’s pretty remarkable,” Frese said, pointing out that Thomas missed just one game as a four-year starter in College Park. "You wouldn’t even know it unless now it’s obviously been told, but just the fact that she doesn’t want to lose the season, whether it be in the WNBA or overseas and just being able to find that window.

“Most of us couldn’t even play through one [torn labrum], let alone both shoulders.”

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