The colors of the rainbow were so pretty in the Chicago Sky as they welcomed back the Phoenix Mercury in a rematch of last year’s epic WNBA finals. It was also Pride Night which encompasses many things, not the least of which is the continued push to free Brittney Griner from Russian captivity.
Her name was not forgotten as fans brought signs and wore t-shirts. Pride Month represents the perfect time to amplify her name given all she represents to both the league and the queer community.
The Sky came into this still looking to get into a groove. Through the first seven games of the year, the defending champions on some nights look as if they are wanting to hold onto that title. Other nights, they look as if they will barely be in playoff contention. Their most recent game against the Las Vegas Aces was a prime example of that dynamic. Even with their core group intact, they are not quite there yet in terms of consistency.
Phoenix on the other hand is hurting without BG. She is an integral part of the team’s defense and in her absence, the Mercury is lacking in terms of size, strength, and height. Even with the veteran presence of Diana Taurasi, Skyler Diggins-Smith, and Tina Charles, the void is still waiting to be filled.
All signs pointed to Chicago coming out on top.
In the beginning, the Sky played right into the dynamic of playing like champions and quickly changing to playing like an average team. They made great passes in transition, took good shots, and were hitting the boards effectively. Then they would do the opposite in all those categories.
But as the first quarter started to wind down, they started to pick things up and at the 3:11 mark they were ahead 16-8. Most of their points came in the paint and from mid range.
The second quarter started off as rather stagnant for the Sky. Their lineup consisting of their bench players came out and didn’t produce much. Meanwhile, the Mercury started to make some inroads as they crashed the boards, got back in transition, and took good shots.
That dynamic quickly shifted once the core group came back and especially 2021 WNBA Finals MVP Kahleah Copper. She moved the ball with excellent precision, crashed the boards when needed, scored from beyond the arc, and drove to the hole. At the 5:31 mark, the Sky led 28-21 and she had 9 points, 2 assists, and 3 rebounds.
With 3:43 left in the half, things turned dramatically when Diana Taurasi was kicked out of the game for mouthing off to the referee. The crowd fed into it as they waved her off as she walked back to the locker room. Courtney Vandersloot followed up by hitting two free throws to give the Sky a 33-21 lead.
With the second quarter coming to a close, the Sky maintained the momentum at both ends of the floor. But the Mercury was not to be counted out. Even without Taurasi, they showed signs that they were not going out without a fight as they scored some crucial points down the stretch.
Going into the locker room, the Sky led 35-28.
As the third quarter began, the questions begged: Would the Sky continue to shoot better? Will they take advantage of the fact that the Mercury defense is lacking some of the tangibles? Or will they succumb to the pressure?
Both sides exchanged baskets at a rapid pace but the Mercury were starting to reclaim the momentum as they played with much more energy and determination. From there, they went on a 13-7 run and Tina Charles was on a roll in the paint and from beyond the arc. At the 6:00 minute mark, Skyler Diggns-Smith hit a big three pointer to give the Mercury the lead at 42-41.
Things began to look bleak for the Sky. At the 5:44 minute mark, they got a temporary relief from a three-pointer from Dana Evans to get the lead back 44-42. From there, a sequence developed on both sides that helped change the course of the game.
At 3:42, Shey Peddy hit a three to give the Mercury their biggest lead of the game at 49-44. At 3:33, Dana Evans scored her second three to bring the Sky back 49-47. At 2:59, Gardner scored a big basket off a reverse layup to bring it back to a 51-49 game.
As the minutes started to tick off, the Sky were rapidly losing the edge they once had. They left their opponents open for easy shots, were sloppy with the ball at times, and to make matters worse Phoenix was starting to hit threes. Furthermore, the Mercury’s supposed weak defense was starting to overpower the Sky. At the end of the quarter, the Mercury scored eight out of the last ten points and led 59-51.
The fourth quarter began with little hope for the Sky to make something happen. It was clear that the Sky were lagging from the three-point line and were starting to cool off within the perimeter. So they had to rely on driving to the basket and/or drawing fouls to gain some points.
It worked in some ways but not enough to totally alter the direction of the game at first. But at the 5:38 minute mark, the Sky were regaining some semblance of their spark for it to come down to the wire. At this point, the Mercury lead was cut to 64-60. But at the 5:14 minute mark, Tina Charles scored her 24th point to increase their lead 66-60.
At 4:04, fan favorite Rebekah Gardner brought the crowd to its feet with an epic drive to the basket followed by a free throw to make it a 66-65 game. Everyone in Wintrust held their breath and the anticipation that summed up Game 4 of the Finals was starting to come back to life. At 3:13, Courtney Vandersloot, on a give and go from Emma Messerman, gave the Sky the lead back at 67-66 with her 15th point.
As the seconds ticked down, the tension was palpable. With nine seconds left in the game, Vandersloot was sent to the foul line after being fouled by Diggins-Smith. She converted on one which gave the Sky a 72-70 lead. With 1.9 seconds left, Diggins Smith committed another foul on a loose ball. The clock was reset to 3.1 seconds and Gardner was sent to the foul line where she converted one of two to make it a 73-70 game, setting the stage for either an amazing come from behind victory or the Mercury to possibly send it to overtime on a three.
Diamond DeShields, former Sky player and returning WNBA champion, missed what would have been a game-tying three and the Sky took a huge sigh of relief as they persevered 73-70.
Vandersloot had 18 points, 6 assists, and 2 rebounds. Afterwards, she spoke about the way she operates in these big moments with the game on the line.
“I spend a whole game trying to get people involved, figure out the coverages, figure out what’s working and what’s not. When the fourth quarter comes around, I feel I got it figured out” she said. “I think just being able to adjust on the fly and knowing when the fourth quarter comes around the ball is going to be in my hands a lot and I think it worked tonight”.
The Sky (5-3) next take on the Washington Mystics (7-3) at home on Sunday, June 5 at 6:00 p.m. CT.