Coming into their Camp Day match against the visiting Chicago Sky, the Atlanta Dream - losers of five of their first six - had blown an 11-point lead against Washington and a 10-point lead against San Antonio. Leading by 14 points late in the third quarter, the Dream squandered that lead as well.
A Camp Day downer for Atlanta's kids? Hardly.
Last second heroics by Atlanta point guard Lindsey Harding and defensive specialist Armintie Price kept Atlanta alive as the Dream beat Chicago 71-68 for their first home game victory of the year.
"Our confidence level has been fragile because we've lost games, and we've lost a lot of them in the fourth quarter," Atlanta head coach Marynell Meadors said. "But this time, you know, our practice yesterday was really good. It was up-tempo and we required them to do things that we don't normally do the day before a game. It was a pretty tough practice - for about an hour and fifteen minutes - and we got back to what we do, and that's defend, rebound and run."
"I thought we were soft today," Chicago Sky head coach Pokey Chatman said. "We have to be a little tougher. We need to come out and be more consistent in playing to our strengths."
Chicago came strong off the starting block with six points by Chicago center Sylvia Fowles in the first 3:23 of the game but Atlanta forward Angel McCoughtry was at full health and the Dream were playing like last year's championship squad. Atlanta capped off the first quarter with a 9-2 run with backup post Courtney Paris scoring four points during the run and holding her own against Fowles and Sky forward Michelle Snow to give Atlanta a 25-16 first quarter lead.
Unlike previous games, the Dream managed to stay out of foul trouble. Atlanta would visit the line 13 times in the second quarter, with the Dream hitting nine free throws and building their lead to 14 points, 40-26, with two minutes to go. Atlanta's final basket in the quarter was a 22-footer from McCoughtry, who would finish the first half with 12 points and five rebounds as the Dream lead 43-31 at halftime. Paris had nine points and five rebounds in an impressive first half showing.
The Dream kept their double digit lead, leading 51-38 with 4:13 left in the third. Atlanta, unfortunately, would implode the same way they did against the Mystics and Silver Stars. Atlanta would not score again in the third as the odd lineup of Armintie Price, Alison Bales, Courtney Paris, Coco Miller and Shalee Lehning took the floor in the last couple of minutes. Price's put-backs off her own rebounds refused to fall and the Dream finished the last minutes of the quarter with ten consecutive misses and two turnovers. Chicago went on an 11-0 run to close the third quarter 51-49 in favor of Atlanta as the Dream shot 3-for-19 in the quarter.
Pokey Chatman described the difference between Chicago's first and second half play as "our mental adjustment." Chatman said, "It wasn't tactical. I didn't go in there [at halftime] and throw in a new play. Marynell didn't change anything. Eight points in the third quarter is all they got. They used the same players and the same plays."
"I just think that we got a little bit nervous," Meadors said. "That group that we had out there have played very well together, and today they didn't make shots. They had open looks and they just didn't make shots. But there'll be other times this year. It's early in the season. They'll have that same opportunity and they'll probably play a little bit differently."
The fourth quarter would present the same perils. Atlanta center Erika de Souza - the Dream's hope of containing Fowles - picked up her fifth foul with 7:29 left as Fowles put back her own layup to put Chicago up for the first time since the first quarter, 54-53. The rest of the game would keep both teams within a handful of points of each other in a race to the finish. With the Sky up 66-63 with 2:57 left in the game, Atlanta put together a 7-0 run marked by an amazing drive by Atlanta point guard Lindsey Harding, sprinting around de Souza and Fowles to put Atlanta up 70-66 with 1:03 remaining.
Michelle Snow found Fowles under the basket to close the gap to 70-68 with 22.9 left on the clock. The play of the game happened when Armintie Price intercepted an errant lob by Chicago rookie point guard Courtney Vandersloot with 15.9 seconds left. The Sky fouled Harding and sent her to the free throw line where she hit one of two, putting Atlanta up 71-68 but setting up a last possession for Chicago. Sky guard Epiphanny Prince was given the last second 3-pointer shot, but Prince's shot did not fall and Chicago could not get the putback as time expired.
"Our execution helped us get back in the game in the final minutes," Fowles said. "But we didn't get things done both offensively and defensively. We didn't take the lead and then stick with it."
"When that bench comes in, they're really exciting to watch," Meadors said. "They play really good defense and they like to run the fast break, and they were doing that. They were taking the ball right into the lane."
Angel McCoughtry led all Atlanta scorers with 14 points, adding eight rebounds and four steals. Erika de Souza scored 12 points and Lindsey Harding finished with 11 points and six steals. Dream guard Iziane Castro Marques finished with 10 points on 4-for-10 shooting.
Sylvia Fowles led Chicago's players with 21 points. Sky guard Tamera Young - a former first-round draft pick for the Dream - scored 14 points and four rebounds for visiting Chicago. Epiphanny Price scored 10 points for Chicago but was held to 4-for-14 shooting. Rookie point guard Courtney Vandersloot only scored four points but had six Sky assists.
* The win by the Dream was the first home game victory against Chicago since 2008. After losing their sixth game of the year against the Sky 86-72 on June 6, 2008 the Dram would beat Chicago 91-84 in Philips Arena on July 5, 2008 for the franchise's very first win after an 0-17 start. Since then, the Dream have been 0-5 vs. Chicago at home, going 0-2 in 2009 and 0-3 in 2010.
* During the second quarter, a shot by Armintie Price landed on the metal support holding the rim to the backboard - and remained there, perfectly balanced. An offensive foul was called, making whether the basket fell or not a moot point.
* The Dream's 12 turnovers were a season low. "I thought we handled their pressure pretty well," Meadors said. "I thought that the things that we did offensively, we were in more control of what we did. But a lot of that was because we ran the ball. We push the ball, and we're a pretty good fast break team."
* Dream forward Sancho Lyttle is playing in Poland for the Spanish team for 2011 Eurobasket. As soon as the Spanish team knows its fate - to be eliminated, to finish between second and fifth and to later participate in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament, or to win the tournament and qualify automatically for the 2012 Olympics - Lyttle will return to the Dream.
* On the Camp Day experience, where the audience is made up mostly of children. "The kids don't care who scores," Meadors said. "Anybody scores, they yell for them! So every time Chicago scored, the kids yelled. Every time we scored, they yelled! But as long as they had a good time and they had fun at our game, maybe they'll come back and watch us play."
* More on the Courtney Paris signing from Marynell Meadors. "I tried to get her in training camp back in the off-season, but she came close to making L. A.'s team last year, so she thought she'd go back there and make it this year. But she was the last cut."