Atlanta, GA -- The ball soared at the opening tip of Saturday night's meeting between the Chicago Sky (18-11) and the Atlanta Dream (12-17) but each team's top belles were not around for the start of the ball.
A Phillips Arena crowd highly anticipating a big-time show by the league's MVP frontrunner in Sky guard Elena Delle Donne was met with disappointing news as she was announced out for the game with a foot injury.
Delle Donne, averaging 32.7 points and 9.7 rebounds this season, impressed in her July 21st meeting with the Dream, scoring 27 points and pulling down eight boards.
Meanwhile, Atlanta started game action without star guard Angel McCoughtry, who watched from the sideline after a lowly 3-12 shooting performance in a little over two-quarters of play Friday night against Indiana.
"It doesn't matter if I play two minutes...twenty minutes. I just want to come out and be a leader," McCoughtry explained.
Longtime Atlanta center Erika De Souza, now a member of the Sky, was greeted by smiling Dream fans who arrived ready and waiting with banners honoring her return.
At the start of the first, Atlanta showed the effects of playing two games in two days, making mental errors and failing to get in position. As a result, the Dream played catch-up the entire first half.
Guard Vandersloot kept the Sky rolling, dominating on both ends of the floor, nabbing two steals and scoring seven of the Sky's first 13 points.
While the Dream kept themselves in the game with a two plus rating on the glass, Chicago carried the momentum heading into halftime. The Sky shot 52.9% from the field to Atlanta's 41.7% and dominated in three-point land, banking 4 of 6 attempts from beyond the arc to Atlanta's 1 for 8 effort from downtown.
While Vandersloot played a huge role in Chicago's dominant first half performance, the game shifted gears when, in the third quarter, she was kept off the court after committing her fourth foul.
While watching from the bench is never enjoyable for a player as electric as Vandersloot, she knew just what she wanted to bring to the table when she returned.
"Just that calm that we had at the point guard spot, so people aren't playing a little out of position and getting our team into whatever we wanted to run. Also, just making sure that we're composed," said the four-year pro.
However, while she was away, McCoughtry took advantage of her absence, persistently finding angles on the glass. The Dream star reversed course from her dismal effort against Indiana and caught fire, leading the Dream to a 20-10 offensive explosion. The 2009 first overall draft pick dropped a layup, putting Atlanta in the lead for the first time since early in the first quarter.
The intensity continued to heighten as Chicago-Atlanta contests often do. Amid looming frustration over incorrect scoring in the arena, McCoughtry was called for a technical foul on an inadvertent batted ball.
Just minutes later, she drove the court for two points off a fastbreak. The Dream's home crowd clamored in excitement as Atlanta owned the third period, managing to keep from turning the ball over once.
While a cat-and-mouse game ensued in the final quarter, Chicago Head Coach Dana "Pokey" Chatman reflected on previous wire-to-wire matches between the two squads.
"As they were setting up their play, about three different possessions in three different games went through my mind in terms of how they got a shot, how they scored, when we lost here before on the action where Angel back screens and gets a screen."
"Angel's just incredible because you can guard her with the best defensive player in the world and she's just one of the best. She got a nice shot off but Tamara Young was there and I told them that the biggest thing about Atlanta is you better block them up because they'll jump on top of your head and rebound, so it's nice we got those rebounds," she added.
McCoughtry's 33-point performance that backed Atlanta's resilient comeback attempt ultimately wasn't enough to top the Sky, as Chicago finished with the 98-96 win.
But Atlanta coaches and players are still inspired by their work in the court.
"I'm still very proud of these ladies, and we've still got an outside chance of getting into the playoffs. Magic's gonna have to happen but still...we'll play hard to the end," said Dream Head Coach Michael Cooper.
Next, the Dream face the New York Liberty at Madison Square Garden for the final time this season, while the Sky meet the Connecticut Sun Sunday for a back-to-back of their own.