The WNBA Playoffs are officially underway and all eyes are focused on the defending champion Chicago Sky. To kick off their quest to repeat, they took on the no. 7 seed New York Liberty on their home court.
The Sky came into this postseason conquering much of the high expectations they have dealt with all year and doing so together. Even with their all-star line up of Candace Parker, Kahleah Copper, Courtney Vandersloot, Allie Quigley, and Emma Meesseman, it never was a matter of one star shining over the rest. Each player had their moments, including the deepness of their bench, and all contributed to what has been the best season they have had in franchise history with a 26-10 record.
For the Liberty it was a grind to get here. For the Sky, it’s the way it was supposed to be all year.
From the beginning, it was clear that both teams came out ready to play. Chicago moved the ball around fluidly, took good shots, and fared well on the defensive end. New York did the exact same and took advantage of the Sky’s tendency to double team and leave a player open for the open look.
As the quarter was coming to a close, it was becoming evident that the Sky were starting to gain control of the contest. They were executing in the paint, grabbing rebounds, getting to the foul line, and playing solid defense. In particular, Parker was living up to her role as leader with pride as she was a commanding presence at both ends of the floor. At the end of the first, Chicago led 24-20. Parker had 8 points, 4 rebounds, and 3 assists.
In the second quarter, the pace of the game was very much the same. The Sky bench did what they could to hold onto their lead and it was Rebekah Gardner, a contender for rookie of the year, who took it upon herself to generate activity. She was all over the court at both ends as she was taking it to the hole when she could and diving for loose balls. There was also excellent ball movement on her part and Julie Allemand as they found open looks in the paint for Meesseman and Azurá Stevens.
Once the starters came back out, it was on from there. They simply pushed the tempo. At 6:11, Vandersloot hit a huge three to give the Sky the largest lead of the game at 35-28.
You would think that the Sky would continue that momentum going into the half, but it turned out New York had other plans in mind. Chicago started to go off the rails by making sloppy passes and leaving a player wide open for the easy basket. The end result was an 11-2 run for the Liberty.
At 1:28, Marine Johannès executed from three in superb fashion that generated a foul that resulted in an and-one that put the Liberty back out in front 46-43. New York maintained a three-point lead at the half.
The third quarter began with the Sky desperately in need of doing whatever it took to prevent a huge upset in the making. The group needed a boost and they got that from Copper, who took an epic drive to the basket which resulted in an and-one and a 56-50 game. An exchange of baskets soon followed and then at 6:29, Wintrust Arena let out a loud gasp with an undercurrent of frustration with the referees after Copper was taken down by two defenders after another hard drive to the basket. She was on the floor holding her ankle with many in the crowd expressing their dismay at the referees for not calling it a foul.
When play resumed, Copper was back onto the floor and in true KVP fashion, she took it to the whole yet again to draw the foul and was 1-of-2 from the strike to make it 60-55. At 5:50 it was Stef Dolson again sticking a dagger in the heart of her former team with yet another three pointer to make it a 63-55 game.
As if she had something to prove, Copper took over and she muscled her way to the hole drawing the foul and this time converting on both free throws to make it 63-57.
The Sky needed to up the pressure as the game was seemingly starting to slip away but nobody said anything to KVP. After another exchange of baskets, last year’s finals MVP made it her personnel mission to get her team back into it and did so as she scored her 17th point at the 4:16 minute mark to make it a 65-63 game and the crowd at Wintrust was becoming ecstatic.
At 4:00, Howard briefly quieted the crowd with two in the paint and one at the line to make it 68-63. At 3:41, Gardner went to the line for three and made two out of three to make it 68-65.
At 2:32, it was Copper once more at the foul line and she converted on both to bring the Sky within one at 68-67.
As the quarter started to wind down, it was unexpectedly anybody’s game. The intensity was palpable and anything could happen. In the final seconds, one of those moments happened when Meesseman scored an easy layup off a pass that could have been a turnover to give the Sky back the lead at 74-73.
The final quarter began with a sense of anticipation. Anticipation for a remarkable comeback or one of the biggest upsets in WNBA history. The Sky quickly got off on the right foot with an epic three by Stevens to put them ahead 77-73 and give her 16 points. Both teams traded baskets in a series from there and the Liberty would come back to tie it at 81.
At 7:19, Quigley was fouled as she hit a remarkable three that put the Sky up 84-81 or what was thought to be a three. During a timeout, the referees reviewed whether or not her foot was on the line. The three stood and she followed that up with a free throw to give the Sky a 85-81 lead.
With 5:21 left to go, Chicago led 89-85 and five of their top players had each scored double digits. It was simply a matter of them making smart plays, taking good shots, getting to the foul line as much as they could, and attacking the glass.
At 2:55, the Liberty had clawed their way back and it culminated in a 3-pointer by scoring sensation Sabrina Ionescu which gave her 22 points and brought the game back to a single point at 91-90. At 2:30, Howard scored her 22nd point on a drive to the basket to give the lead back for New York at 92-91 and at 2:01, Ionescu reciprocated with a 20-footer on the left hand side to make it 94-91.
Things started to look bleak for Chicago. It took a team effort to get to the Playoffs and it was going to take a team effort to hold off an upset in the making. The latter half was poised to take place as the Liberty would go on a 13-0 run that would eventually put the game out of reach for the Sky. In the end, New York pulled off one of the biggest upsets in WNBA history 98-91 and a 1-0 lead in the best of three series. Copper had 21 points, 8 rebounds, and 1 assist. Parker had 17 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 assists. Quigley had 18 points, 5 rebounds, and 2 assists. Stevens had 16 points and 4 rebounds. Vandersloot had 13 points, 10 assists, and 3 rebounds.
For the defending champions to lose on their home court to open the playoffs, this has to ring alarm bells. But even with their backs up against the wall, Stevens spoke with confidence in her team heading into Saturday.
“Being able to have multiple is a must,” she said. “We honestly have six players that can score double figures. I think even offensively we can be a little more aggressive and shoot more. We got to take open looks and be aggressive and not be afraid to miss because we have good rebounders too.”
That sentiment was expressed by Coach James Wade but under a certain condition.
“It is what is, we just have to show up,” he said. “But the thing is we got to play 40 minutes. We can’t play this team 35 minutes.”
Game 2 will be Saturday, Aug. 20 in Chicago at 11 a.m. CT.