Last year, the Dream was forced out of Philips Arena and into a long road trip that squelched the momentum of a great start. This year, the Dream decided to stay at home by visiting the McCamish Pavilion, home of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. It might be a little cozier than Philips, but it was Home Sweet Home to the Dream who extended their lead over the WNBA’s Eastern Conference with an 83-71 win over the visiting Connecticut Sun.
Dream head coach Michael Cooper had nothing to complain about. "We did a good job defensively on certain players, limiting their shots. Each game is important for us because it's leading us on the path to where we want to end up and that's a championship."
For Sun head coach Anne Donovan, the outlook wasn’t so rosy. "Our focus tonight was to take away their transition, take away points in the paint, to not give second shots, and we gave up all those things."
The Dream started out cold, but Connecticut couldn’t take advantage of it, turning the ball over early in the first quarter. The game stayed tight, with Connecticut guard Alyssa Thomas grabbing three quick rebounds but also earning two fouls and going to the bench. Dream forward Angel McCoughtry played 1-on-2 basketball and Cooper had point guards Jasmine Thomas, Shoni Schimmel and Celine Dumerc all seeing first quarter minutes. Atlanta took advantage of a 5-0 run near the end of the quarter to take a 21-18 lead.
Dream forward Aneika Henry came in to provide energy and boost Atlanta’s lead to six, 27-21 early in the second quarter. Connecticut attempted to attack from the perimeter while the Dream worked the ball inside. Atlanta brought out forward Swin Cash – who put Atlanta up by 34-26 on a pivot to the basket – and guard Matee Ajavon saw duty for the first time in several games. It seemed to work as the Sun could put nothing together and the Dream upped their lead into double digits. However, Connecticut rookie forward Chiney Ogwumike ended the first half scoring with a fast break layup to close the gap to 39-31.
The story of the first half? Connecticut shooting dipped from 44 percent to 35 percent. Dream guard Tiffany Hayes led all Atlanta players with nine points and Sun guard/forward Katie Douglas led her team with nine, going 2-for-2 from behind the arc.
At the beginning of the second half, McCoughtry came out and put on a show. For the first three minutes, she had a part in almost every play on the court, an unstoppable force lifting the Dream up 47-34. But Ogwumike and Douglas were ready to answer back for the Sun as Douglas hit another 3-pointer and Ogwumike got an offensive rebound to close Connecticut back to 53-45.
Was it something special about the new arena? "A gym is a gym to me," McCoughtry said. "For some of the girls, it was different with the floor, the rims, the locker rooms, but not me. A gym is a gym. You just have to prepare - get used to the rim, get used to the lights and get used to floor. The ball bounces different in each gym and the lighting is different, you just have to be ready."
Then McCoughtry ended the quarter as she began it, scoring four more points late in the third to help the Dream expand their lead and push their shooting to above 50 percent. In 22 minutes of play, McCoughtry had 19 points. Offensive fouls called – rightly or wrongly – killed the Sun’s momentum and the Dream almost pushed the lead to 20 points, finishing the third with a 67-50 advantage.
Down by 17, the Sun could afford to send Alyssa Thomas out in the beginning of the fourth while McCoughtry took a seat. Atlanta threatened to blow the lead up to 20 points but Douglas and Ogwumike attempted a comeback. A 3-pointer by Ogwumike and a later putback layup got the led down to 12 with 1:12 left in the game, but it was too little, too late. Dream forward Sancho Lyttle added insult to injury, hitting a 3-point jumper with 8.9 seconds left, and Sun guard Alex Bentley’s answer – a 3-pointer with 3 seconds left – changed little.
Four starters for the Dream finished in double figures, led by Angel McCoughtry on 8-for-14 shooting. Tiffany Hayes scored 17 points for the Dream, and the only player for Atlanta that failed to score was Matee Ajavon. The Dream went 33-for-66 with 50 percent shooting.
It was another story for Connecticut. Alyssa Thomas and center Kelsey Bone were held to just 5 points combined. Chiney Ogwumike scored 19 points and 12 rebounds for Connecticut, and former Dream point guard Alex Bentley also added 19.
Dream guard Tiffany Hayes had a simple explanation for the win. "When we play great defense like that, the offense just comes around easily," she said. "We were able to get out and run like we like to do, and it worked out for us tonight."
Governor Nathan Deal showed up at last night's Dream game. I'll let Tanya Sichynsky tell you the reaction:
So Governor Nathan Deal just got straight up booed at the Atlanta Dream game I'm covering. Tough crowd.
— Tanya Sichynsky (@tanyasic) July 8, 2014
You do have to give the Gov credit, though. I think this is the first time any Georgia governor has been at an Atlanta Dream game, and it takes guts for a Republican governor to visit a WNBA game. The average WNBA fan leans farther to the left than any major sport. I'm glad to see him supporting women's basketball and I think he should get some credit for that.
About the Dream playing in McCamish Pavilion: My understanding is that Microsoft has Philips Arena wrapped up for a few weeks, which led to a tough choice for the Dream: a) go on the road for three weeks, or b) find another arena in Atlanta. I think b) was the right choice to make. McCamish Pavilion is a beautiful place to play basketball and last season's extended road trip killed our momentum.
McCamish Pavilion is only the third location where the Dream franchise has played home games. Aside from Philips Arena, the Gwinnett Center hasn’t been particularly lucky but Atlanta is now 1-0 at McCamish. The Dream will play their next two home games at McCamish.
The Dream is now 10-2 over its last 12 games…and is 27-6 over its last 33 home games. The Dream is also 10-2 against the Sun all time in Atlanta.
The Dream is 13-5 overall after 18 games. This ties the 18-games-in-record (who keeps such things?) with the 2010 Atlanta season where the Dream was also 13-5.
The Sun’s record this season when not shooting 40 percent? 1-7.
Excerpt from Michael Cooper’s opening statement: "I thought it was a well-played game by both teams. I thought we made a maximal effort to run this time as opposed to the last time we played this team. I thought we were a totally different team than the last time we saw them. I liked the things that we did. Rebounding is going to be the key to us winning a championship, moving the basketball and getting those assists are also a key."
Cooper on Angel McCoughtry’s performance: "That’s what you expect from Angel. She’s that type of player, she’s an MVP player. We’ve got to start talking about that, if people start talking about MVPs. I think she’s definitely one. And she’s one to be reckoned with. The thing I’m liking more of that she seemed to save until the fourth quarter is her rebounding. She’s starting to rebound offensively for us and get some extra shots for us. Again, when she’s doing those kinds of things we’re a very good basketball team."
Cooper on Tiffany Hayes’s performance: "Tiffany Hayes is an All-Star. She should be considered for All-Star caliber. I put a lot of trust in her defense and that’s why I think her offensive game is going. What young people don’t understand if that if you put defense first, offense will follow. I’m a big believer in that; I lived through that and I try to encourage her in that. She’s always had the toughest offensive player in the game and it’s making her offense a whole lot better."
Cooper on the Dream’s position in the Eastern Conference: "What we want to do is just stay on course, our game. Just keep on stepping forward, that’s what we want to do. Each game is important to us because it’s leading us up the path where we want to end up, and that’s the WNBA Finals and WNBA championship. Usually championship teams do championship things along the way."
Cooper on playing at the McCamish Pavilion: "It was more conducive for us because it was a college atmosphere. The crowd was close, it was more intimate, they were more excited, you could feel the electricity from the start. I think our players got a sweat right away as opposed to Philips – there’s a draft in there and you have to work your way into getting into a sweat.
Cooper on going into the bench : a necessity or a luxury for Atlanta? "It’s a luxury. We can legitimately go 10, 11 deep, actually 12 deep – I think Nadia [Colhado]’s learning how to play at this level. Nine deep? We can go and give our starters some rest because over the course of the season you have to provide some rest for your starters. When the end [of the regular season] comes your starters are fresh."