The weight of Brittney Griner’s sentence hangs over WNBA game between Connecticut Sun and Phoenix Mercury

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There was a sense of heaviness in the air at Mohegan Sun Arena as Connecticut Sun and Phoenix Mercury players linked arms in a circle before Thursday night’s game.

DeWanna Bonner and Diana Taurasi, who spent a large portion of their careers playing together alongside Brittney Griner in Phoenix, pulled each other into an embrace as their respective sides gathered at midcourt.

The players stood there, arm in arm, for a 42-second moment of silence in honor of Griner, whose trial in Russian court ended with a nine-year prison sentence for drug smuggling earlier that day. Fans eventually broke out into chants of “BG!” and “Bring her home!”

A chippy game would be played between the two sides shortly afterward, but the 77-64 result in favor of the Sun didn’t seem to carry much weight compared to that of the emotional burden players were carrying following the news of the day. Their teammate, friend and sister remains a pawn in the middle of a tense geopolitical situation.

Griner has been held overseas since Feb. 17, when she was taken into custody at a Moscow airport after authorities found vape cartridges that contained less than a gram of hashish oil in her luggage. During her trial she told the Russian court that she had no intent to break the law and they were only in her luggage because she packed hastily. The star WNBA center has been classified as “wrongfully detailed” by the U.S. government.

A guilty verdict was expected due to the nature of the authoritarian country’s legal system and is a necessary step for negotiations of a prisoner swap to move forward. Still, watching the look on Griner’s face as she received the sentence, trapped behind bars on foreign soul, was extremely emotional for these players.

“It’s very hard to watch,” said Connecticut Sun guard Odyssey Sims, who played with Griner at Baylor University. “I watched a little bit, but I couldn’t stand to see her behind the bars, she was talking, it was a little much for me. The sentence is, I don’t even know what to say about the sentence — unheard of, unbelievable. I feel like it’s just unreal. But I hope that President Biden and everyone in the White House can do whatever they need to do to get her home.”

The Mercury players gathered in the visiting locker room to watch the verdict before Thursday’s shootaround. Sun assistant coach Chris Koclanes led players in a discussion before their shootaround as well. Connecticut Sun head coach and general manager Curt Miller didn’t join the team until shortly before the game, as his mother passed away Thursday morning. As he spoke to media before the contest, it was as if all the oxygen in the room had vanished, the weight of the day palpable.

“A range of emotions today for the team,” Miller said. “Certainly our heart and thoughts are with Brittney.”