Two games this Saturday night in the WNBA, one a wild matchup with crazy comebacks and buzzer-beaters galore, the other a demolition that sent a fanbase into yet further despair. Guess which one we’re going to start with?
Atlanta isn’t usually a fun place to arrive on the second half of a back-to-back. All they want to do is run you out of the building, and less than 24-hours after scraping past the Mystics, you wouldn’t have blamed Chicago for letting this one slip away. That wasn’t how it played out.
It certainly looked like it was going that way in the early stages, though. Both teams opened with their usual starting fives, but Atlanta looked like the only team who’d shown up mentally in time for the tip. With their defense playing passing lanes aggressively, and Sancho Lyttle in particular snaking those long arms out to pick up a swathe of steals, the Dream ignited their running game in the opening quarter. And this team is hard to keep up with once they start rolling. Armintie Price and Lindsey Harding were the main beneficiaries, as fast break after fast break led to easy points for Atlanta, and even on the rare half-court possession they had so much momentum that scoring seemed easy. Chicago head coach Pokey Chatman called multiple timeouts to try to break the momentum, and sent in a host of reserves to see if they could do any better than her starters, but nothing was working. Amazingly, Atlanta’s lead hit 22 in the first quarter, and it seemed like a blowout of monumental proportions could be on the cards.
But just as quickly as Atlanta had turned on the afterburners and raced away from Chicago, the jet fuel ran out and the pace of the game died. This was what the Sky needed to do to stick with the Dream – kill the pace of the game, turn it into more of a halfcourt battle, and stop turning the ball over. Substitutions had an impact, with Atlanta unable to keep up their pressure when players like Cathrine Kraayeveld, Tiffany Hayes and Ketia Swanier replaced the starters. Serbian forward Sonja Petrovic, making her first appearance in the WNBA after recovering from a broken finger, also helped Chicago with her hustle and perimeter shooting.
The starters returned for Atlanta, but they couldn’t pick the energy back up, and the game had clearly turned. Now, rather than Chicago turnovers and Atlanta breakouts leading to all the scoring, the Sky’s overwhelming dominance on the boards had come to the fore. At either end, Chicago were favourites for anything that didn’t drop in, and that wiped out Atlanta’s lead. The gap that had been 22 dropped as low as 2 in the second quarter, although Atlanta managed to inch their way to a 46-40 advantage at the half.
It was an extraordinary first half, like two completely different games had somehow balanced out and ended up almost tied. Chicago were ‘up’ 16-6 in turnovers in the first half, and up 19-7 on the glass. Atlanta had a 17-2 advantage in fastbreak points. Just a crazy 20 minutes of basketball.
Unfortunately for Atlanta, the third quarter picked up where the second had left off. They weren’t creating turnovers any more, and without those easy points their offense had dried up. Still getting destroyed on the glass by Sylvia Fowles and her cohorts, the Sky now had a considerable edge. Epiphanny Prince was also continuing her strong start to the season, knocking down shots as the Sky’s primary perimeter weapon, and even grabbing a few rebounds herself.
So despite those tired legs from playing the night before, and the horrendous start they’d had to endure, Chicago led 64-56 at the end of the third quarter, and pushed their advantage to double-digits early in the fourth. Atlanta had a grand total of two field goals in the opening 13 minutes of the second half. It looked like the Dream might have simply run themselves out in that opening salvo. But in a game this ridiculous, it was a long way from over.
Atlanta head coach Marynell Meadors has never been afraid to take a risk or two, and she went with some unusual options to try to turn the game around. 3-point specialist Laurie Koehn, who’s always a risk because of her limitations in other areas, came into the game for the first time with 9 minutes left. Backup point guard Ketia Swanier was left in when she seemed to be having some joy attacking the Sky defense. Aneika Henry was getting the minutes at center ahead of starter Yelena Leuchanka. And when Lyttle picked up her fifth foul, Cathrine Kraayeveld had to play heavy minutes at power forward. The only starter left in for the Dream as they attempted to fight back into this game was Angel McCoughtry, whose driving aggression and ability to get to the free throw line remained key.
With some of Koehn’s shooting from deep, some of McCoughtry’s trademark ability to get to the rim, some speed from Swanier and just a sprinkle of panic from the Sky when they realised this wasn’t over, Atlanta stormed back into the game. Koehn’s second triple tied it at 73 with 3:30 left, and we had a grandstand finish on our hands.
It was a wild last couple of minutes in the fourth quarter. A Petrovic three put Chicago in front, before another Koehn bomb tied it back up. McCoughtry, thoroughly unreliable from beyond the arc, rained in her own three with 42 seconds left to grab Atlanta’s first lead since early in the third quarter. It looked like it might be over when a pair of McCoughtry free throws took the gap to 5 with only 31 seconds left.
But no, Atlanta’s problems on the glass bit them again. Prince missed a three, but got a second chance when Tamera Young grabbed the board. Prince missed again, but Fowles snared the rebound and calmly sank two at the line when she was fouled. That cut the gap to three, and it came down to two when a technical foul was called on Koehn while the players were pushing for position before an inbounds pass. It was either a very silly shoulder-barge from Koehn, an unnecessary overreaction from the official, or a very smart piece of baiting from Swin Cash, depending on your perspective. Maybe a little of all three.
After a series of free throws with a Fowles layup mixed in, Chicago were down 86-83 with 6 seconds left and no timeouts. Prince took the inbounds pass from under her own basket and went the length of the court, picking up two solid screens from Petrovic and Fowles along the way. Off one leg, diving around McCoughtry, fading to her left, Prince put up a heave from just beyond the arc that slammed off the backboard and went right through the hoop as the buzzer sounded. An amazing game had an amazing finish – to regulation – and we were on our way to bonus basketball.
At least we were eventually, after the refs took an eternity to review what seemed blindingly obvious on the very first replay to most of us.
Just like the closing stages of the previous night’s game, overtime was the Epiphanny Prince show. She opened it with another three, hit yet another triple minutes later, and then ran the hero-ball clearout to perfection, nailing a step-back two over Harding’s outstretched arm. Atlanta were doing their best to stay in touch at the other end, and the reserves who’d kept them alive were given the chance to keep playing, but Prince was keeping Chicago’s noses in front.
With 20 seconds left and Chicago up 94-92, Prince finally missed when she drove to the hole and couldn’t convert or draw the foul. Out of a timeout, Atlanta went to McCoughtry, who couldn’t convert on a drive (and also couldn’t get the call – the refs had swallowed the whistles by this point). The offensive board fell to Harding, who also couldn’t find the basket, but the ball went out of bounds off Fowles to hand the Dream yet another chance.
Atlanta ran Koehn off multiple screens to receive the inbounds pass, but she airballed the resulting three. Then Lyttle airballed the extra chance after Koehn’s miss fell to her. Chicago finally grabbed the rebound, but after a foul had to inbound the ball with 5 seconds still remaining. A terrible inbounds pass from Swin Cash almost turned the ball over, and eventually resulted in a jump ball with only 2 seconds left. McCoughtry won the tip, and Lyttle took off, but even a game this extraordinary couldn’t find a finish quite this improbable. Lyttle’s heave from halfcourt that would’ve won the game was short, and Chicago had clung on for a wild 94-92 victory.
It was one of those games that nobody deserved to lose. Both teams dominated for stages, and both made outstanding comebacks when they could’ve quit. Prince finished with 33 points, going for 30+ on consecutive nights. Fowles was 7-11 for 20 points and 19 rebounds. As a team, Chicago outrebounded Atlanta 48-23, and that overwhelming dominance was what ultimately won them the game. Their 26 turnovers and the 37 times they sent Atlanta to the free throw line almost gave it back. Petrovic had a very nice debut, going 4-4 for 10 points, 4 assists and a couple of boards. She’ll be a nice addition to the Sky’s rotation as a swing-forward who can do a little bit of everything.
Losing at home to an Eastern Conference rival, after you had a 22-point lead in the first quarter, is obviously never great. But the fact that Atlanta’s bench was central to fighting their way back into the game is a nice bonus for the Dream. McCoughtry was the leader with 33 points on 7-16 shooting (and an amazing 17-17 at the line), but the other starters did the vast majority of their work in the first quarter. The support for the rest of the game came from players like Koehn and Swanier, who haven’t done much worth writing home about so far this year. If the starters and bench players can just show up together for a few games to help McCoughtry out, this could be a pretty decent team. Putting up some kind of fight on the glass would be nice, too.
Simultaneously with all that excitement in Georgia, two old rivals were meeting yet again up in Indiana. After a miserable 0-4 start that already has fans talking about Brittney Griner more than the playoffs, New York desperately needed something to kickstart their season. Indiana, on the other hand, were 3-0 and more than happy with their opening to the year. They’ve looked deeper than ever, and the switch of Tamika Catchings to power forward has been going smoother than even head coach Lin Dunn could’ve imagined. It’s safe to say that the Fever were strong favourites coming into this one.
New York shook up their starting lineup again, going back to the five that began nearly every game last year (for a team which went 19-15 and comfortably made the playoffs). That meant Nicole Powell returned after a one-game demotion in place of Essence Carson, and Kia Vaughn got her spot back at center ahead of Kara Braxton. You certainly can’t blame John Whisenant for trying to recapture whatever this team had last year that’s been conspicuously missing in 2012. As you’d expect, Indiana kept the same starters that had opened their previous games.
The Liberty did indeed look a little better, and a little more engaged, to open the game. With Catchings freelancing slightly too much to help her teammates defensively, Plenette Pierson was finding herself open and knocking down jumpers. Meanwhile, Indiana were firing up shots too quickly from outside, they weren’t going in, and with their undersized frontcourt they weren’t getting any second chances. There were a lot of quick one-and-done possessions for Indiana early.
However, as the first half progressed, the natural order we’d expected coming into this game began to reassert itself. Cappie Pondexter had gotten herself involved in the game late in the first quarter, but a couple of shots from her and Pierson’s continued efficiency wasn’t enough to keep the Liberty scoring rate up. Indiana, on the other hand, turned to the depth that Dunn has somehow discovered on her roster this year. Jeanette Pohlen, Sasha Goodlett, Roneeka Hodges and Briann January all made an impact off the bench, with Pohlen and Hodges in particular joining Catchings in raining down a barrage of three-pointers. The Liberty couldn’t compete with the ball movement, speed, shooting and confidence of the Fever, and after New York had led by 6 in the early stages, they were down 13 at halftime, 49-36.
On the very first play of the second half, Catchings picked off a high-low pass intended for Pierson under the hoop. Clearly, Catchings didn’t intend to let Pierson continue her scoring spree. While New York tried everything they could think of, and didn’t quit in the second half, it never felt remotely like they were going to get back into this game. Indiana’s neverending stream of threes continued in the second half, as the additional shooter with their newly ‘small’ lineup continues to pay off for the Fever. New York couldn’t close out or rotate quickly enough to cause all those gunners any problems, and the scoreboard just kept ticking. Indiana ran out very, very comfortable 91-68 winners.
Things are getting desperate for the Liberty, but it’s hard to see what they’re going to do to turn things around. This is essentially the same squad that went 19-15 last season, and yet they’re not just 0-5 – they’ve lost their last four games by an average of over 20 points. This time around they got an outstanding offensive game from Pierson, who finished 10-13 for 24 points, and it made no difference whatsoever. Pondexter was 4-15 for an ugly 13 points, and bizarrely played the entire second half despite a return encounter with the Fever today back in New York. No idea what Whiz was thinking there. If anyone in the hierarchy of the Liberty organisation has been watching their start to the season, Whisenant’s job may be in jeopardy pretty soon. Unless they’re happy to simply keep losing and take their chances in the Griner Lottery.
No team has ever made the playoffs with an 0-x start worse than 0-3, by the way.
The Fever just keep rolling. After a start where it looked like the Liberty’s size advantage could cause Indiana problems on the glass, the game eventually finished 34-34 in the rebound column (although the 17 offensive boards New York pulled down may be a little worrying for Dunn). Offensively, the Fever had great balance, and their leading duo of Catchings and Katie Douglas barely played more than 20 minutes each. They’re getting such effective production from their reserves that Dunn must be in dreamland, and whenever a starter isn’t working out she has a whole variety of alternatives to choose from. Right now, everything’s sunny in Indiana.
The Phoenix Mercury announced that they’ve re-signed guard Andrea Riley. They didn’t mention any cuts, so we’re left to assume that the Mercury applied for a hardship exception, which they’re eligible for due to the injuries to Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor. Assuming that’s the case, the Mercury will have to cut Riley as soon as Taurasi’s fit to play again. At least the Mercury are doing something to fill in for their issues in the backcourt, even if that something involved re-signing someone who’s never exactly been reliable at WNBA level. LA still haven’t signed anyone to improve their backcourt depth, despite being eligible for the exact same exception.
Today (Sunday June 3rd):
Washington @ Connecticut, 3pm ET
Indiana @ New York, 6pm ET
Tulsa @ Phoenix, 6pm ET
San Antonio @ Minnesota, 7pm ET
Seattle @ Los Angeles, 8.30pm ET
Tomorrow (Monday June 4th)