Rookie Imani Boyette helps Chicago extend series with Los Angeles

ByMelissa Isaacson ESPN logo
Monday, October 3, 2016

ROSEMONT, Ill. -- The text came from the back of the bus. The Sky had lost two straight games in the WNBA semifinals and were on the ride from O'Hare to practice Monday after a four-hour red-eye flight from Los Angeles.

"Can we talk?" Sky rookie Imani Boyette texted coach Pokey Chatman. "I promise, I don't want to suck this bad."

The sixth-year Sky coach smiled as she relayed the story Sunday night, minutes after her team's 70-66 Game 3 victory over the Sparks at Allstate Arena.

"That's difficult for anyone to do, to admit when they're not up to the level they expect for themselves," Chatman said. "But for a rookie in crunch time, that was the first thing on her mind. We only talked for three or four minutes, and it wasn't about the message I gave her because it didn't change.

"It was just about that moment for her, and I just reminded her, 'Listen, we trust. We believe. Relax. Don't overthink it. Be instinctive. And do what you're capable of doing.'"

Boyette did exactly that by tallying 13 points and 11 rebounds to force Game 4 (ESPN2, 8 p.m. ET Tuesday) in the best-of-five series. She had six points and five rebounds in the fourth quarter and six points, three rebounds and a block in the final 2:18 of regulation.

"I just felt I hadn't shown up in this series yet. The lights have been kind of bright," said the 6-foot-7 center, who was named to the WNBA's all-rookie team last week. "I've been guarding two of the best players, so yeah, I was very much a rookie this series."

Those two players -- Nneka Ogwumike, the league's MVP, and Candace Parker, a two-time MVP playing minutes from where she grew up -- had been a force this series. On Sunday, Ogwumike scored 14 of her 22 points in the first quarter as the Sparks charged to a 13-point lead five minutes into the game.

That's when the Sky's zone defense kicked in and shaved the deficit to nine points at the half. Chicago took its first lead since 2-0 on a driving layup by Courtney Vandersloot with 2:11 left in the period and held Los Angeles to just eight points in the third quarter.

"That is just unheard of for a team that skilled and with that many offensive threats," said Vandersloot, who led the Sky in scoring with 17 points on 6-of-13 shooting and five assists. "That's going to be the key. Offense has kind of been our thing all season, and this game was low-scoring for us, but we got it done on the defensive end."

For the second consecutive season, Chicago led the WNBA in scoring. But playing without Elena Delle Donne the last five games of the regular season and all of the playoffs, after she suffered a thumb injury that required surgery Sept. 13, the Sky had to look for various sources to extend their season.

Boyette was the difference-maker on Sunday.

Chatman praised Boyette's aggressiveness in the paint. After picking up her fifth foul while trying to block a shot from Ogwumike with 4:46 remaining, Boyette blocked Parker's layup a little more than 2 minutes later with the Sky up 60-59. Five points from Kristi Toliver helped stretch the Sparks' lead to 64-62 with 1:30 left in regulation. Then back-to-back putbacks by Boyette gave the Sky a lead they would not relinquish.

"She's a body down there, and she can't go ignored. And I think that we weren't prepared for that," Ogwumike said. "I think this is the first time we're really seeing her in the series, and someone has to be on her at all times, especially when the shot goes up. That's a huge adjustment we're going to have to make."

For Boyette, pep talks by teammates and coaches were instrumental.

"My coaches were just kind of like, 'Don't worry about it. You're playing timid because you're scared of foul trouble. We've got somebody to replace you. Just go out there, be aggressive and play your game. If you foul out, you foul out,'" she said. "It's a lot easier to play that way."

The Sparks, who lost for the first time in six games against the Sky this season, had to endure hearing their coach praise Chicago for its spirited play.

"Not that I like to be on the other side of it," Sparks coach Brian Agler said, "but it's good to see a team compete like that."

The Sparks said they will be ready for Game 4 on Tuesday in Chicago, especially after a motivating speech from Toliver in the locker room.

"This is what champions strive for. You're not going to sweep everybody. This is the semifinals," Ogwumike said in echoing Toliver's sentiment. "And I think that's a little bit reflective of how we responded today. We got up by a lot, and we got a little frazzled. We need to relax, calm down and understand that in games, there are going to be ups and downs."

Related Video