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Courtney Williams is the heart of the Connecticut Sun’s WNBA title quest

Courtney Williams had 15 points, seven rebounds, five assists and a block in Connecticut’s  semifinal Game 1 victory over Los Angeles.
Courtney Williams had 15 points, seven rebounds, five assists and a block in Connecticut’s semifinal Game 1 victory over Los Angeles. (Jessica Hill/Associated Press)
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UNCASVILLE, Conn. — Joy radiates out of Courtney Williams, combo guard and beating heart of the Connecticut Sun.

It is apparent at all times but never more than when she is around a basketball court. It showed in the way she moved in the layup line Tuesday night before her Sun defeated the Los Angeles Sparks, 84-75, in Game 1 of their WNBA semifinal series.

She danced to a song playing over the arena loudspeakers, drawing a laugh from Sun assistant coach Brandi Poole. She went back to perfecting her midrange jump shot, then rushed over to her father, Don, for a hug.

“I love basketball,” Williams said after the game.

Her totals in the box score — 15 points, seven rebounds, five assists, two steals and a block — don’t make sense from a 5-foot-8 player until you watch her. Even then, the stats underrate her.

Jonquel Jones is the Sun’s best player by conventional measure, at 6-6 the team’s leading scorer and the league’s leading rebounder and shot blocker during the regular season. Power forward Alyssa Thomas is the highly skilled facilitator and rebounder. Jasmine Thomas is the veteran playmaker who seemingly always knows where to go with the ball.

Williams, though, is the show, “since always,” Don Williams said of his daughter, whose jersey is the most popular among fans in the Mohegan Sun Arena stands. “Always making sure she was best, too.”

The Sun, seeded second in the eight-team playoffs, has been pointed toward 2019 as its breakthrough year since Curt Miller arrived three years ago as its head coach and general manager. Most on the team speak of the project in careful, clinical terms. But Williams, who ranked second on the team in scoring (13.2 points per game) and assists (3.8) during the regular season, will tell anyone who will listen that the Sun is going to win it all. She is certain of it.

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She appears set on recruiting believers. The dancing comes first. On Tuesday, she darted here and there before the game, taking pictures with fans in the first row on one side of the court, then the other.

By the time she left one group, they were moving to the music. The Sun’s bench was, too, Natisha Hiedeman and Bria Holmes swaying as Williams clapped her approval.

“There’s something that’s so magical about her personality, and it’s her positivity,” Miller said. “You know, every single day she walks in the building, she is going to be positive. And no one loves to play more than her. She just loves the game. And so you know what is going to happen when you get in between the lines with her. In practice, in games, she just loves the game. And she brings the positivity, which is really important around this team.”

The belief extended to the game. Williams missed her first four shot attempts. Doesn’t matter, Jasmine Thomas explained. If she had missed her first six shots, Williams would still be confident she could make the seventh.

“We feed off that energy,” Thomas said. “And I think the fans, our fans, the league, they know that’s the type of person she is. When she’s feeling good and feeling like herself, she gives that energy to us.”

Out of halftime, with the Sun trailing 40-37, Williams was all positivity. “Let’s go!” she shouted, and the Sun complied, hitting three three-pointers, two of them when Williams found Shekinna Stricklen. Williams is a fine scorer, capable of rising above defenders and getting her shot anywhere on the floor, but she has improved her playmaking skills this year as well, with a career-best assist rate of 23.2 and a turnover percentage that has decreased from last year to 10.8.

But the numbers themselves understate the Courtney Williams effect. Her sense of timing increases her impact; for instance, with the score tied at 53 in the third quarter, she hit a baseline jumper at one end, then blocked 6-2 Nneka Ogwumike’s shot from behind on the other, forcing Sparks Coach Derek Fisher to take a timeout.

“Man, my teammates want to put the ball in my hand, I’m going to deliver,” Williams said with a smile, her legs splayed in her corner of the Sun’s locker room. “I’m going to deliver. I mean, that’s all it is. Look, I’m out here trying to win games. Put the ball in my hand, I’m going to do my best to go get a bucket, I’m going to do my best to get a rebound, get a stop. Whatever I’ve got to do for us to win, that’s what I’m going to do.”

She was at the center of another key moment with about five minutes left and the Sun leading by two, rising among the Sparks’ bigs to grab a rebound at one end and curling around a screen to bury an 18-footer at the other end for a 70-66 advantage. The Sparks would not get as close again.

In the final minutes, with the Sparks hanging tough within 76-70, Williams took the ball up the floor herself and drilled an 18-footer over Riquna Williams to bring the crowd to its feet.

At the other end, she corralled a Los Angeles miss and drew a foul, then rushed to high-five a fan before heading to the free throw line. Dad was dancing. The fans in the front row were dancing. Everybody was dancing, it seemed.

After the horn sounded, Williams was being interviewed on the court, her team five wins from fulfilling her prediction.

“We just doing what we do!” she explained, and the crowd roared. She yelled once more: “Let’s go!”

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