(ATLANTA) – Basketball fandom requires a seed. The seed is usually a great game, a game where fandom germinates, takes root, and grows. Some of these seeds are so mighty that they only fail to grow in the most arid of terrains, where one’s indifference to the game would have to be obstinate, determined, cussed.
Last night’s 94-92 overtime victory by the Chicago Sky over the Atlanta Dream was such a game. If you didn’t leave that game a basketball fan, there is no hope for you. Bear the pall.
"I’m proud of the effort and the grit that we showed when things weren’t going well," Chicago head coach Pokey Chatham said. "Obviously early in the game but also late in the game I thought Epiphanny Prince was clutch."
"They out-rebounded us by 25," Atlanta head coach Marynell Meadors said. "That was the difference in the game. We didn’t defend and we didn’t rebound. Next time we’re going to realize that Prince can shoot the ball. She played an excellent game."
It was one of those back and forth battles of which classic games are made. In the beginning Atlanta held sway and even though the game looked like a foregone conclusion, the Dream’s dominance was spellbinding. The Sky turned the ball over eight times, and the Dream picked up seven steals, four from forward Sancho Lyttle. The dream shot 11-for-14 from the field and guards Armintie Price and Lindsey Harding hit double digits, with 11 and 10 points respectively. At one point, the Dream led 29-7. Stick a fork in Chicago!
"We turned it over so much early on," Chapman said. "We were getting bullied a little bit."
But Chicago, having miraculously won 65-63 the previous night against Washington, was not out of magic tricks. They rolled right back and erased most of Atlanta’s lead, helped by a half-quarter where Atlanta’s starters were resting and where the Dream found itself in foul trouble before the quarter was half-over. The Dream were simply caught napping, and were out-rebounded 13-1 during the second quarter. Atlanta forward Angel McCoughtry infused some spark back into the punchless Dream, but by halftime the Dream’s lead was only 46-40.
The third quarter didn’t stop Chicago’s roll. Chicago aggressively attacked the basket, scoring 16 of their 24 third quarter points in the paint. The Dream looked stunned as they turned the lead over to Chicago. With 1:23 left in the third Lyttle picked up her fourth personal foul as the Sky finished with a 12-4 run that boosted Chicago’s lead to 64-56 at the end of the third.
Given the battles between Atlanta and Chicago from the previous season, the Sky should have known better than to rest easy. Atlanta came right back in the fourth for a final assault. After a jumper from Sky guard Epiphanny Prince opened the quarter to push Chicago into a double-digit lead, the Dream began chipping away. Traveling calls would plague Chicago and the Sky were called for it three times in the first five minutes of the fourth. McCoughtry was determined to push the ball and got to the free throw line, and Atlanta point guard Ketia Swanier found 3-point specialist Laurie Koehn who fired away to tie the game 73-73 with 3:30 left.
"We finally found a combination [of bench players] in the end that was working there," Meadors said.
From that moment on, it was war. Koehn nailed another three to tie the game 78-78 with exactly one minute left. Prince turned the ball over and McCoughtry nailed a 3-pointer for her 27th point of the night to give Atlanta the lead 81-78. Prince then committed her fifth foul, McCoughtry went back to the line for two more and with 31.4 seconds left the Dream had an 83-78 lead.
The Sky would score again but with 20.6 seconds left the Dream had an 83-80 lead and possession of the ball. Atlanta had control. But on an inbounds play with both teams lining up against each other as they waited for the ball to enter the court, Laurie Koehn was assessed a technical foul by referee Lauren Holtkamp for contact with Sky forward Swin Cash before the start of play. Prince hit the technical free throw, and the lead was cut to 83-81.
"First of all, it’s a physical game and everyone is jockeying for position," Chapman said. "It was one of those things. They’re lining up to get the ball inbounds and people are trying to gain their position; she stepped in and gave a little shove. Credit the official for having the guts to make that call. "
The technical was where the momentum appeared to shift. Meadors complained that the officials never explained the technical. "I thought that the technical probably should have been on Cash for pushing Laurie out of position. That was displacing her. It was very costly."
Lyttle hit one of two free throws. Sky center Sylvia Fowles hit a bank shot to close the game to 84-83 with 8.3 seconds left. Chicago would have to foul, and Ketia Swanier sank two shots to give the Dream an 86-83 advantage with 6.0 seconds left.
Chicago would look for the three and to put the ball into the hands of Epiphanny Prince. At the buzzer sounded, Prince, in mid-air and suspended behind the line, launched a 3-pointer that found its mark. The referees had to give it a second look – but Prince had hit her 3-pointer and yes, time was expired. The game would go into overtime at 86-86.
Overtime. It belonged to Epiphanny Prince, who went 3-for-5 in the overtime period and hit two 3-point shots, scoring eight overtime points. Even so, with 20.1 seconds left, the Sky only held a 94-92 lead. McCoughtry and Harding both missed shots, but the Dream got the rebound and time out was called with 12.3 seconds left. Koehn would miss a 3-pointer, and Lyttle would get the rebound but miss again. The Dream had gone 0-for-4 over almost 15 seconds.
Could the Dream pull it out? With 2.7 seconds left, both Prince and McCoughtry had 33 points. It would come down to them, of course. McCoughtry stole the ball from Prince with 2.7 seconds left for the Sky’s 26th turnover over the night. But a tie-up near the sideline was called a jump ball and not as an out-of-bounds, and even though the Dream won the tip Sancho Lyttle was forced to shoot from midcourt as the overtime period expired. There was no more magic left in this game, and the Sky held on to the victory.
Epiphanny Prince scored 33 points for the Sky on 12-for-25 shooting with nine rebounds. "This is one of those games where her offensive production didn’t drop off at the point," Chatman said. "She understood that Atlanta’s going to sit on [Fowles’s] lap and she’d have some space up top and she’d have to make them pay."
Sylvia Fowles came close to a 20-20 game with 20 points and 19 total rebounds. Swin Cash added ten, and Sonja Petrovic made her WNBA debut with 10 points on 4-for-4 shooting.
Chatman pointed out the game of Le’coe Willingham, who only scored three points but played 21 minutes.
"When things are going a little, I don’t know, not so good, it’s nice to see the composure of a Le’coe Willingham. When I’m talking to the staff, she’s talking to the team. Sometimes things sound a little bit different when it’s coming from a teammate who has been there and done that. A little bit reassurant. Those are things that don’t make the stat sheet. It helps the comfort level of a Sloot (Vandersloot) or a Piph (Prince)."
Atlanta’s Angel McCoughtry had an amazing game with 33 points scored and a 17-for-17 performance at the free throw line, setting a WNBA record for most free throws hit in a game without a miss. Lindsey Harding added 16 points and six assists. Armintie Price scored 14 points, 10 in the first quarter. However, the Dream were held to just three offensive rebounds compared to 16 from Chicago.
"A lot of that is Erika de Souza not being in there," Meadors said. "We’ve got so many inexperienced post players right now. It’s really and truly tough right now. They play hard. They just didn’t rebound."