Team effort carries Chicago past Atlanta and into WNBA semifinals

ByMechelle Voepel ESPN logo
Monday, September 26, 2016

ROSEMONT, Ill. -- Chicago point guard Courtney Vandersloot stood in the hallway outside the Sky's locker room, her wet hair still up in a towel. She didn't look the part of a fearsome nemesis. But to Atlanta, that's exactly what she was.

Vandersloot had the best playoff game of her six-year career in Sunday's 108-98 victory at Allstate Arena: 21 points, 13 assists and four steals.

"We were so ready to play," she said. "Super ready."

And from an 8-0 run to start the game, right through to the end, Vandersloot and the Sky took all those pregame predictions of an Atlanta victory, wadded them up, and tossed them into the trash.

The fourth-seeded Sky were on fire most of the afternoon, shooting 55 percent from the field, and the No. 6 seed Dream just couldn't extinguish it.

The second-round victory advances Chicago to a best-of-five WNBA semifinal series with No. 2 Los Angeles. And no, your eyes do not deceive you: The Sky, even without leading scorer Elena Delle Donne, really did hit 108 points.

That ties the WNBA postseason record for a regulation game. Only one playoff game in WNBA history has seen teams score more points: Game 1 of the 2009 WNBA finals, when Phoenix beat Indiana 120-116 in overtime.

Sunday's game exemplifies one of the reasons we love to watch sports. No matter how much you think you know what will happen, you can still sometimes be totally wrong. Most folks probably thought that Chicago, minus Delle Donne's 21.5 scoring average, was going to last for just one playoff game.

Sure, the Sky had won three of five games to end the regular season after Delle Donne suffered a thumb injury on Sept. 7. But considering the Dream were coming off a game in which they shot 53.1 percent and beat Seattle 94-85 -- even without their second-leading scorer, Tiffany Hayes -- Sunday's contest definitely seemed to favor Atlanta.

Especially with Hayes back. She sat out a one-game suspension after getting her seventh technical foul to end the regular season. And if we had told you beforehand that Hayes would score 30 points Sunday, just two off her career high, Angel McCoughtry would have 27, and the Dream's other three starters also would be in double figures, what would you have said? Poor, poor Sky, right?

Hardly. The Sky obviously would have preferred not to give up 98 points; they're always concerned about their defense. Vandersloot said it's the thing they talk about constantly. But when you're as good offensively as Chicago was Sunday, that takes away a lot of worry.

Even with Delle Donne in cheerleader mode on the bench, the Sky were bursting with confidence offensively. They got points from sources you would expect, such as veteran guard Cappie Pondexter's 16, and sixth-woman specialist Allie Quigley's eight.

But what about Jessica Breland, who like Vandersloot had the best playoff game of her career? Breland is a natural power forward who will do whatever Chicago coach Pokey Chatman asks. Play small forward in a big lineup? OK. Play center in a small lineup. OK. Do a Delle Donne impersonation when the Sky's season was on the line? Sure, why not?

Both Chatman and Atlanta coach Michael Cooper referred to Breland as an "X factor," and she lived up to that and more, finishing with 20 points on 10-of-14 shooting, 16 rebounds, three steals and three blocked shots.

Whatever the categorical opposite of trash talker is, that's Breland. She barely says a word, just does her job.

"She's like a silent killer, you know?" Vandersloot said. "She's filling Elena's shoes, really, and she looked comfortable out there today."

Then there was forward Tamera Young, who took on most of the responsibility for slowing down McCoughtry in the second half. McCoughtry had 37 points on 14-of-21 shooting Wednesday against Seattle. Sunday, she had 21 points on 7-of- 11 shooting in the first half. But led by Young, the Sky held McCoughtry to just six more points on 2-of-10 shooting in the second half.

"It's tough to guard their best player but still hit your own shots," Vandersloot said of Young, who had 16 points. "To have a player like that on your team is everything. We see how hard she's working defensively, and it just makes everybody come together."

We also have to mention Chicago rookie center Imani Boyette. She brought what the Sky expected in rebounding (11) and defense (six blocked shots), but also added eight points.

Pulling it all together was Vandersloot. Cooper referred to her as "my nemesis going back to college." When Cooper was coach of the women's hoops team at Southern California, he faced Gonzaga twice when Vandersloot was a star for the Bulldogs. She had 11 points and nine assists in 2009, when Gongaza beat USC, and 19 and five in 2010, when the USC beat Gonzaga.

In the 2014 WNBA playoffs, Chicago upset East No. 1 seed Atlanta 2-1. Cooper was in his first season back in the WNBA then. And even though Delle Donne did much of the scoring damage in that series, Vandersloot had 20 assists. And Cooper, one of the NBA's premier defenders in his playing days, knows exactly how much impact a point guard has that doesn't show up statistically.

"She's the type of player you need; she's a true leader," Cooper said of Vandersloot. "She knows the pace of the game that they want to play, and she really dictates that tempo. She gets the ball where it's needed."

Vandersloot suffered an ankle sprain early this season in practice, then hurt it again in a game. She missed three games with the injury, but it lingered as a factor in limiting her effectiveness in several other games. She had to play through the pain, knowing when she got to the Olympic break, she'd finally be able to let her ankle fully heal.

"I couldn't practice to full capacity, and I couldn't get back into the flow in games," Vandersloot said. "I knew I just needed some time to get my body right."

Of course, then the Sky lost Delle Donne shortly after the Olympic break. That could have been a devastating blow to Chicago. Frankly, most people expected it would be. But the Sky has adjusted, and now they head to Los Angeles knowing that while they may be underdogs, they believe they can compete.

And after watching them Sunday, you have to agree with them.