The Chicago Sky played with valor and vibrancy in welcoming back their beloved Courtney Vandersloot, now a member of the New York Liberty. However, they weren’t able to hold onto a sizable lead and came up short by one point in the final seconds.
The Sky were without Rebekah Gardner (foot), Isabella Harrison (knee), Ruthy Hebard (maternity return) and Morgan Bertsch (ankle).
From the jump, the Sky held even with one of the league’s designated superteams that includes Vandersloot, Sabrina Ionescu, Jonquel Jones, and Breanna Stewart. They were crashing the boards relentlessly, which has been something they’ve had to rely on lately and helped them in transition offense.
On defense, they were just as relentless in interfering with the passing lanes as much as possible. Offensively, they spread the floor with their quick ball movement, and that led to some crucial baskets.
Elizabeth Williams’ inside game worked wonders for them and on at least two occasions Courtney Williams was able to read her screen and find E. Williams open for a couple of easy points. Kahleah Copper was in full swing with her aggressive style at both ends and was once again putting the team on her shoulders.
The Sky went on a 12-0 run during a three-minute, 40-second stretch. At the end of the first quarter, they led 19-16. Copper had seven points and E. Williams had six. Jones had seven points for New York.
The pace was even-keeled during the second quarter. While the Sky’s offense started to cool and they were beginning to show minor struggles in their ball-handling, it was their defense that was keeping them in the lead.
It quickly became Copper’s game. She was finding her range all over as she was continuing to score from inside, mid-range and beyond the arc. Approaching the five-minute mark of the second, she scored three consecutive baskets, two of which were from the 3-point land.
As the quarter wound down, the Sky were knocking on the door of a double-digit lead and Copper remained lights out as she would score 11 of her eventual 18 first-half points in the frame. Chicago’s defense had continued to stifle New York whose shooting woes continued from long range.
With 56.9 seconds left in the first half, Copper went down to the floor clutching her ankle after a basket by Betnijah Laney. A literal hush went across Wintrust Arena as the team’s leader, who was in the midst of a great performance was hobbled. Obvious concerns immediately mounted.
As Copper was escorted back to the trainer’s room, she was able to put some weight on her foot which triggered a thunderous applause from the crowd.
The Sky ended the first half still on top at 43-35, but the worry about Copper’s status remained strong. All those worries faded immediately when she lightly jogged her way back onto the court to another thunderous applause from the crowd.
She was back and now it was a matter of Chicago sustaining its momentum.
While they were still playing smart and shooting superbly from long range, the Sky’s edge began to fade. The Liberty found some holes in the Chicago defense and exploited those. New York began to generate movement with the ball, create space and find open looks inside and out.
That propelled the Liberty to go on a 17-7 run from the 6:49 mark of the third to the 37-second mark of the third.
It was the tandem of Stewart and Vandersloot who did most of the damage. Stewart scored 63.2 percent of New York’s 21 total points in the third quarter and Vandersloot accounted for nine of those points.
Ionescu didn’t score a single basket until she found herself at the foul line with less than a second left in the third and converted on two freebies that cut the Chicago lead to 59-56. Her lack of scoring was a testament to the strong defense displayed by Dana Evans and Marina Mabrey.
Copper didn’t score in the third, but she was in full captain mode directing the offense.
New York took the lead at 60-59 early in the fourth on a fast break layup by Kayla Thornton. Ionescu hit her first 3-pointer of the game near the eight-minute mark to make it 63-59 and after a whole game of playing catchup, New York had caught up and was in command.
The Sky went back to their strategy of what got them ahead. The leadership of Copper was still going strong and the dynamic duo of Alanna Smith and Marina Mabrey was working wonders. They demonstrated themselves to be offensive powerhouses who could shoot from long range and score inside when needed — a versatility that has always been appreciated in Chicago.
Smith was perfect from the field and from beyond the arc.
E. Williams was holding it down on the defensive end, blocking shots and hitting the glass.
At 4:53 remaining, C. Williams hit a crucial pull-up jumper on the right shoulder that tied the game at 67.
Smith hit a big shot approaching the four-minute mark to give Chicago the lead at 69-67. Williams went back to that same sweet spot for another big jumper that made it 71-67 at around the 3:39 mark, completing an 8-0 Chicago run dating back to 6:19.
But Vandersloot tied the game at 71 before Thornton hit a three to give Liberty a 74-71 lead.
Mabrey hit two free throws to bring the game within one at 74-73.
With 55 seconds left, C. Williams hit an epic 3-pointer that gave the Sky a 76-74 lead and got a roaring response from the crowd.
Everyone held their breath as the Liberty had possession with 14.4 seconds left. With sheer might and tenaciousness, Stewart faded away inside and went off glass to give New York the lead back at 77-76 with 7.6 seconds remaining.
Last-second heroic attempts by C. Williams and Smith weren’t enough as the Liberty pulled off the come-from-behind victory.
Copper finished with 20 points and nine rebounds. Smith had 18 points, six rebounds and three assists. Mabrey had 15 points, seven rebounds and four assists. E. Williams had eight points, eight rebounds and three assists.
The takeaway of the night was that while the Sky didn’t get what they ultimately wanted, they demonstrated that they are not to be underestimated. Granted, it is early in the season, but they held their own against one of the league’s best teams.
However, to head coach James Wade that doesn’t say or mean anything.
“It says nothing,” he said. “We’re a WNBA team and I just think we have to play better in order to win.”
The Sky (3-3) will hit the road to play the Liberty (4-1) on Sunday at 2 p.m. ET.