It was win or go home. Game 5 of the semifinal matchup between the defending champion Chicago Sky and their rival, the Connecticut Sun, evidently was destined to be. After an intense back-and-forth series it all came down to one game to determine who will go play the Las Vegas Aces in the Finals.
For the Sky, they were in both the best and worst position. The best being that they get to play this decisive game on their home court, with the crowd on their side, which enabled them to a 14-4 record at home during the regular season. They are also one of the most clutch teams in the league and proved that by coming through in the elimination game against the New York Liberty in the first round. Historically speaking, they are 10-6 in elimination games.
The worst for them is that they are coming off a profoundly disappointing 24-point loss on Tuesday, 104-80, which gave the momentum back to Connecticut. Furthermore, they turned the ball over 15 times, couldn’t execute on offense, and their defense was stymied by the Sun’s motion offense.
Chicago came in needing to play the best basketball they have played all season in order to come through. They had to take care of the ball, play aggressive but smart defense, utilize the depth on their bench, crash the boards at both ends, and be patient on offense and try to set something up as opposed to running up the floor at every chance. But perhaps mostly importantly, minimize the turnovers as much as possible and let everything take care of itself.
The stage was set to determine whether the Sky could position themselves to repeat as champions or if the Sun could shake off those past demons of coming up short in the big moments. Either way, the stakes were extremely high and a WNBA classic was in the making.
From the outset, there was a real sense that both teams were a little tense. The first few minutes was a period of each side trying to get a feel for one another. As the quarter continued, it was becoming a real contest. Both offenses found a niche to work with as they exchanged baskets for the most part. With 4:12 left, the Sun led 16-12, shooting 60 percent from the field compared to the Sky at 40 percent.
In the remaining minutes of the quarter it was becoming evident that the Sun had control of the game for the most part. They were executing on good shots and took advantage of a couple Chicago turnovers. The tension in the air was palpable as a technical foul was rendered against Kahleah Copper with 3:07 left due to a jump ball that was deemed questionable which resulted in a free throw for the Sun to put them up 19-12.
The Sky were engaging in bad passes underneath the basket that were not needed and missed chances at some potential easy baskets in the paint. Their defense was in disarray as the Sun managed to take advantage of the Chicago double team that left a player open either beyond the arc or in the paint for an easy basket and Chicago scrambling.
At the end of the first, the Sun led 24-16. Natisha Hiedeman had six points, Jonquel Jones six, Copper five, Courtney Vandersloot five.
The second quarter began with Chicago needing to get themselves together. Right from the jump, it went back to trading baskets on both sides. But from there, the Sky began to regain control of the contest and did so by scoring one basket at a time. At 7:14, Vandersloot hit a crucial three that made it a five-point game at 30-25 in favor of the Sun. At 6:13, Emma Messeman scored her sixth point of the game on a jumper that put the Sky within three at 30-27, which got the Sky faithful ecstatic.
At 5:21, Copper secured a jump ball, got Chicago the ball back and followed it up with a basket in the paint to make it 32-29.
At 4:44, Candace Parker got to the foul line and converted one of two free throws. At 4:33, Messeman got the rebound and found Parker open for three, which she converted to make it a one point game at 34-33. The momentum began to swing back into Chicago’s favor as the lead was well within their grasp.
After a basket by Alyssa Thomas to make it 36-33, Copper hit a three to tie the game at 36 with 2:55 left. At 2:27, Copper, in dramatic fashion, drove to the basket and on a reverse layup gave the Sky the lead at 38-36.
The excitement was permeating Wintrust Arena as the Sky found themselves right where they wanted to going into halftime. All they had to do was finish strong. At 2:00, DeWanna Bonner briefly quieted the crowd with a basket to tie things up at 38.
With 15 seconds left, Copper stole an inbound pass and drove it to the hole to give the Sky the lead at 40-38. With the crowd on their feet, the Sky were hoping to go into the locker room with the lead but Bonner was able to score underneath to tie the game in the remaining moments.
At the half, the game was tied at 40. Copper had 14 points. Vandersloot had 10.
That tension that started the game came back in the first few minutes of the third as neither side was able to score. But that was soon broken by the defending champions. At 8:30, Messeman hit a three to give her nine points and give Chicago a 43-40 lead. At 7:28, Vandersloot scored her 12th point on a running jumper in the paint to make it 45-40. It was also becoming apparent that the Sky were scrambling and hustling at both ends of the floor as they put pressure on the Sun, who quickly turned the ball over four times. At 7:12, Courtney Williams scored to make it 45-42. At 6:01, Copper hit a three to make it a 48-42 game in favor of the Sky, which was their largest lead of the game to that point.
The quarter was becoming a low-scoring quarter but a remarkable Chicago sequence would turn that around. After two free throws by Jonquel Jones to bring it to a basket at 48-46 at 4:26, Parker hit a three to make it 51-46. Then Vandersloot stole the ball and found Copper, who did what she does best. She took it to the hole, converted and followed it up with a free throw to make it 54-46 Chicago and give her 20 points.
The intensity that the Sky demonstrated in the second had not relented and it couldn’t have come at a better time. At 1:36, Azurá Stevens scored her first field goal on a pull-up jumper to make it 56-48. As the quarter wound down, Chicago had much to feel good about. They were playing smart basketball all around. With 10 seconds left, Meesseman put them up by double digits on a 2-on-1 break with a feed coming from Allie Quigley. At the end of the third, the Sky led 58-48. They outscored the Sun 18-8 and forced eight turnovers in the frame.
With another trip to the Finals on the horizon and a sizable lead to work with, Chicago simply had to maintain that energy for another ten minutes. At 8:30, Alyssa Thomas brought it back to single digits at 58-50 with a hook shot in the paint. At 7:19, Messeman made it double digits again with a three to make it 61-50 and give her 14 points. The intensity of the Sky defense was forcing the Sun into various turnovers and giving Chicago another chance to score. But the Sun were starting to make some inroads as they scored a few baskets to bring it back to single digits.
With 5:54 left, the Sky led 61-54.
In order to come away victorious, the Sky had to rely on their defensive prowess to make it happen. They could also rely on Copper to take it to the hole and make it 63-54 with 4:22 left. It seemed as if Chicago was playing without any sense of complacency especially on defense.
But just under the four minute mark it all drastically began to change.
With 3:46 left, Bonner scored in the paint off a foul by Copper which led to a brief exchange of heated words between the two. Copper was becoming increasingly irate as Coach James Wade ran out onto the court asking for a technical to be called on Bonner for apparently unsportsmanlike conduct after she scored the basket.
After a review, no technical was called and Bonner got to the free throw line which she converted on to make it 63-57 Chicago. Shortly thereafter, Courtney Williams blocked an attempted three by Allie Quigly then scored on a fast break after a long pass by Alyssa Thomas to make it 63-59.
In the remaining three minutes, the Sun started to show signs of a newfound confidence with the game down the wire nonetheless. As if that brief scuffle between Copper and Bonner renewed their intensity. There was a developing feeling of uncertainty on the part of Chicago as to whether they could hold their lead. It was as if they took it for granted.
The true essence of the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat was to be front and center. After two free throws by Thomas made it 63-61 Connecticut, it was No. 2 (Copper) that tied it up with a running reverse layup off a turnover with 2:10 left.
Then, to make matters worse for Chicago, Jonquel Jones got the lead back for Connecticut on an open look inside which resulted in an and one and a 66-63 Sun lead. At 1:16, Copper stole the ball and the Sky looked to set up their offense. Unfortunately, Vandersloot attempted to find Messeman in the paint for what was sure to be an easy two points but the ball hit off the backboard and resulted in a turnover.
Then, with 1:02 left, things began to look bleak for Chicago as Connecticut was in the midst of a 12-0 run. With 46.6 seconds left, Courtney Williams made it 68-63 with a jumper. Shortly thereafter, Vandersloot attempted a three that missed.
Two free throws by Bonner brought the game to a close and thus ended the Sky’s hopes to repeat as champions. The Connecticut Sun came away victorious 72-63 and will head to the Finals. They managed to outscore the Sky a whopping 24-5 in the fourth quarter.
Afterwards, a visibly disappointed and borderline emotional Coach Wade spoke to how he wants history to contextualize this team considering all the expectations that were placed upon them from the beginning.
“We are a team that gave everything for each other and played for each other, ‘’ he said. “A lot of people found joy in the way that we played. I just wanted us to represent Sky basketball and we just go from there.”
Vandersloot echoed that with an understood undertone of frustration plus a tremendous sense of pride in the team.
“For us it’s hard because we wanted to win a championship,” she said. “We put everything we had into this season. When you look at our group and if you spend enough time, we put everything we have into this. That’s what makes this team so special. We fell short but it wasn’t for a lack of effort.”
The future of the Chicago Sky remains uncertain, most notably considering all the buzz surrounding whether Parker intends to call it quits anytime soon. She said that the last thing she wants to do is to “cheat the game,” a clear reminder about her deep love for the sport and everything it has brought her. But whatever happens going forward, this team was one that made their mark on the league.
Even as what lies ahead remains unknown, the spirit, vitality, and sustainability they have established proves that old adage to be true: The Sky is definitely the limit.