Rosemont, IL— The New York Liberty and the Chicago Sky stepped into the Allstate Arena on Friday night carrying with them a toxic similarity — both team’s landmark players Tina Charles and Elena Delle Donne, would not be playing.
With New York’s Lady Liberty out (rest) for the playoffs, the Liberty stepped onto the floor with back-to-back losses for the first time since the end of May, and to make matters worst, down to seven players.
Similarly, with Chicago’s famous Skyscraper out because of thumb surgery, her blue and yellow companions were left alone to battle for a higher seed in the playoffs. Considering these key absences, both teams clearly had something to prove.
However, after the Sky conquered the top-ranked Minnesota Lynx in overtime this past week, without their shining star on Friday, they entered with a fearless mindset into their third brawl of the year with New York.
Sky coach Pokey Chatman said her players knew they needed to step up.
“In sports, it’s man down man up they’ve all worked hard, they know what’s at stake,” she said.
And man up, they did. The ball seemed to have a positive spell for the Sky, receiving magic touches from the hands of Chicago’s Cappie Pondexter and Tamera Young. Pondexter wailed up the first shot for Chicago and was followed quickly by attacks to the hoop by teammates Courtney Vandersloot and Jessica Breland.
But one player from New York set the paint on fire — Carolyn Swords towered over the Sky’s defense, and put up shots inside with ease.
“[She] had a really good game; really standing up for us out there both offensively and defensively,” Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer said of Swords’ strong first quarter performance.
While she scored eight of her team’s points, Chicago managed to hang on through the stealth of Pondexter and Young, swiping steals off New York’s sluggish offense and drawing fouls, to close the quarter out 25 to 24.
The Liberty slid into quarter two at a slow pace, with silence from the previous saving grace of Swords. The Sky capitalized, each player clouding the court, sending a mystified New York into their worst storm yet. Allie Quigley led the show of lightning, swishing a three, followed by a jumper by Faulkner.
Shortly after, Quigley swooped in for a steal and a fast break layup. With quick ball movement from Vandersloot and more points from Young, the Liberty exited the quarter paralyzed by the Sky’s dominating force, as they were now down 13.
For New York fans, the third quarter gave a short glimpse of hope — Brittany Boyd burst with more energy, dashing around Sky players with fervor. However, her thirty seconds of fame didn’t last, as quick-footed Vandersloot countered and quelled any momentum that Boyd had.
Once Vandersloot picked it up, it had a deadly effect, as Chicago really began to move the ball with such breathtaking precision.
Chatman said she’s been pushing fast ball movement for the last couple years, and it’s finally showing.
“They’re really comfortable with it [now], so that can give us an opportunity to get good shots,” she said of the pace. “And we’re fortunate enough to have a Faulkner, that can back up Vandersloot, Cappie that can lead the break. We have Allie Quigley with spacing, and I think they’ve just gotten really comfortable with pace and transition.”
As soon as the clock began ticking, there was no question in the Liberty’s mind – and body language -- that Allie Quigley was the queen of the fourth quarter.
The fierce guard sank a shot in the first few seconds, and then intercepted a pass, only to dash down the court and make another steal. Sparked by Quigley’s energy, Young revved up her engine and scored eight points in the fourth quarter alone.
“I just take opportunities that I get, and I’ve been getting opportunities more and more and more,” Young said after scoring a team-high 22 points.
“The first quarter, we played fairly decently, but on offense, I thought our turnovers really cost us tonight, they got a lot of easy baskets,” Laimbeer lamented, adding that focusing on player health is a must. “Overall I think, we know who we are, we know what we can do, it’s a matter of getting practice under our belt and getting people healthy.”
And while Delle Donne couldn’t play, she was on the sidelines watching her teammates seal the win, and she said she couldn’t be more proud.
“It definitely puts me in a better mood to know that we’re coming home with some solid wins,” she said. “We really want to get to that fourth place spot to get a bye, so we’re doing what we need to do right now, and it’s really exciting to watch, so I’m giving my support and trying to cheer as best I can.”
Moving forward, the Sky still need to beat Seattle on Sunday.
“I know how difficult it’s going to be,” Chatman said regarding the task of beating arguably the hottest team in the league. “We’re going to have to rest, recover, and hit the reset button and get ready for a Seattle team that’s probably, in my opinion, maybe the best since the Olympic break.”