The Chicago faithful converge at Wintrust Arena for Game 1 of the semifinals and what many are anticipating to be a highly competitive series between the defending champion Sky and the Connecticut Sun. Both teams share a unique playoff history which has established them as one of the most stellar rivalries in the WNBA. While most are anticipating the Sky coming away victorious in the end for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which is their undefeated record against the Sun in the regular season, if there is anything Connecticut has shown them, it is that they will take them to their limit. High scoring, high energy, and high intensity set the stage.
Last year’s Finals MVP and birthday girl Kahleah Copper scored the first two baskets right off the bat, carrying a level of passion. Unfortunately, those were the only two baskets the Sky would score halfway through the first quarter. The Sun, led by Alyssa Thomas, Courtney Williams and Jonquel Jones, were able to utilize their defense to neutralize the Sky’s high-caliber offense to their betterment. As a result, they were able to get back in transition with relative ease and left the Sky’s defense scrambling, which led to open-look baskets. With 5:46 left, the Sun led 11-4.
At the 5:19 mark, Candace Parker got the Sky back into it with a three to make it 11-7. But the Sun were very much in control at the beginning as they were still keeping the Sky at bay. It didn’t help that Chicago made some sloppy passes, missed some easy baskets, and looked as though they were still trying to get a feel for the game. At one point the Sun led 15-7.
At 2:14, All-Rookie Team member Rebekah Gardner brought the Sky back within two possessions by converting at the foul line to make it 15-9. In the last two minutes of the quarter, the Sky started to regain momentum by playing top-notch defense and some good motion offense. At the 1:20 mark, Parker blocked a shot that led to an amazing sequence facilitated by Azurá Stevens resulting in Copper scoring a three to bring them within three at 17-14. The remaining seconds showcased exactly what many had expected this series to be: Evenly matched and immensely competitive. At the end of the first, the Sun led 19-16. Chicago shot 42 percent from the field and 40 percent from 3-point range. Copper had 9 points.
As the second quarter began and Beyoncé’s “Break My Soul” played in the background, Julie Allemand made a profound statement by hitting a three with one second left on the shot clock to tie the game at 19-19, as if to say that Chicago’s soul will not be broken. It seemed as if the others heeded that call. At 9:03, Allie Quigley laid it up in the lane to give the lead back at 21-19. After the Sun tied it right back, at 7:50, Gardner slithered her way through two taller defenders in the post to make it 23-21 Sky.
The halfway point of the second quarter reinforced what was becoming evident and that was that neither side really had complete control. It was becoming a back-and-forth battle with both teams playing even-keeled. With 5:17 left, the Sky led 28-26.
The final three minutes showed signs of the Sky’s clear advantages being utilized but to no avail. They would get out on the break and attempt to find the open woman but they’d end up turning the ball over. They would move the ball around with excellent precision and find an open look in the paint but wouldn’t make the basket. They had an open three attempt that wouldn’t fall. If they had done all those things right and not turned the ball over seven times, they would have been well ahead.
With 1:28 left, the game was tied 32-32.
An exchange of baskets between Jonquel Jones and Azurá Stevens were the only remaining points scored to close out what was brewing to be a low-scoring but still-competitive contest. Going into the locker room, the game was tied 34-34.
As the third quarter commenced, it was make it or break it time for Chicago. They had no option but to get themselves together and like a jazz band find a riff they could go off of. At 7:26, Courtney Vandersloot gave them a brief sense of hope with a three to put them ahead 39-36. At 6:27, Parker almost lost control of the dribble but managed to muscle her way to the lane to score her 11th point which put the team ahead 43-40. A series of missed attempts on both sides followed but the intensity was certainly there. Sun forward DeWanna Bonner was given a technical foul which was subsequently followed by an Allie Quigly free throw to give the Sky a 44-40 lead with 5:08 left.
Once play resumed, the Sky seemingly started to come apart, allowing a 10-0 Connecticut run. At 4:50, Bonner hit right back with a three to bring it back to one point at 44-43. At 4:12, Thomas got the lead back for Connecticut at 45-44. Brionna Jones scored off a turnover to make it 47-44. With 2:50 left, Natisha Hiedeman topped it off with a 3-pointer for a 50-44 Sun lead.
Under the two minute mark, the Sky was looking all out of sorts. Bad shots plus sloppy passes resulting in an ever-growing amount of turnovers weren’t good signs of what was potentially to come. At 1:04, Parker ended their drought with a left-handed layup in the post to cut it to 52-46, but the damage had been done. At the end of the quarter, the Sun were ahead 54-46.
The fourth quarter was the testing ground for the Sky live up to their proven record of coming through when the pressure is mounting. At 8:47, it seemed as if that was going to be the case because it was the dynamic duo of Parker and Copper working their magic with Parker feeding Copper off the break for an epic drive to the lane that helped bring it back to two possessions at 54-50 which occurred shortly after a basket by Vandersloot. It was now up to the defense to be in sync and to play aggressive but smart. After Brionna Jones scored in the lane to make it 56-50 Sun, Parker hit a crucial three to give her 16 points and make it 56-53.
The momentum started to pick up for Chicago as they were back to a one-point game with an open jumper by Emma Meesseman making it 56-55. After a sequence of good looks that would have put them ahead that were to no avail, Copper converted at the foul line to make it 57-56 Chicago. She then followed up with an epic rebound resulting in a prolonged jump ball battle with Courtney Williams that got the crowd on their feet.
At 4:23, Brionna Jones got the lead back for Connecticut on an open jumper. Soon thereafter, Thomas scored to make it 60-57 in favor of the Sun. But you can never count the defending champions out, especially when it involves Candace Parker. At 3:22, she was back at it again, doing what she does best, carrying her team on her shoulders and converting from beyond the arc to tie the game at 60.
After a Sun basket, Meesseman found herself open for three just shy of the two-minute mark and gave her team the lead back at 63-62.
At the 1:45 mark, J. Jones gave the lead back to the Sun with a running jump shot. Bonner followed it up with two free throws to make it 66-63. As the seconds ticked away, it was anybody’s game and seemingly Chicago’s sweet spot to come through in the clutch. It was all predicated on playing smart but strong defense to where they could be in position to tie with a three.
With 17.1 seconds left, they forced a shot clock violation and got the ball back. The intensity and anticipation was palpable. But it wasn’t to be as Parker missed what would have been a tying three. The Sun walked away with a 68-63 victory and a 1-0 lead in this best-of-five series.
Parker had 19 points, five assists, and 18 rebounds. Copper had 13 points and three rebounds. Meesseman had 10 points and seven rebounds. Quigley had seven points and two rebounds.
Afterwards, both Stevens and Quigley expressed a sense of optimism going into Game 2.
“We always find a way to bounce back,” Stevens said. “We will be more prepared for anything they throw at us.”
“I know that we are going to respond again,” said Quigley. “We know what kind of game we want to make but we just gotta make it our kind of game.”
Coach James Wade spoke to that resilience as expressed by the likes of Copper who along with Parker has really taken on a leadership role. Given that she puts her body on the line every chance she gets and plays with tremendous grit and heart, he said it’s unfortunate that she seems to be an afterthought.
“Kahleah’s tough, man,” he said. “She plays through a lot of contact and never really complains. She’s on the ground a lot and I just feel bad for her sometimes, because she doesn’t get the respect that other people get.”
Game 2 is set for Wednesday at 7 p.m. CST.