The Chicago Sky are no longer favorites, carrying confidence into the WNBA playoffs as they seek a second straight title.

The Chicago Sky entered this season with a neon dartboard on its back.

It’s a burden on any team that wins a title in the WNBA, a league in which teams rarely repeat and often struggle to get back to the Finals in back-to-back seasons.

Winning back-to-back titles hasn’t been achieved in two decades since the Los Angeles Sparks did it in 2001 and 2002. But with the No. 2 seed in the playoffs after a franchise-record 26-win regular season, the Sky are well positioned. to run it again.

This position was almost unimaginable a year ago for Sky, which opens its best-of-three first-round series against seventh-seeded New York Liberty on Wednesday night at Wintrust Arena. But Captain Courtney Vandersloot believes the change from unexpected underdog to reigning powerhouse won’t change her team’s mindset.

“Last year, we felt like we had our backs against the wall,” Vandersloot said. “This year obviously we want to win, but we are confident that we have the group to do it. We know what it takes.”

At this time last year, the Sky weren’t even sure if they would make the playoffs.

A loss to the Minnesota Lynx on August 21 had cut their record to 11-12. After an announced homecoming, Candace Parker was struggling to get back on the court, having missed a third of the season with ankle injuries. It was unclear if Sky had enough in the tank to break even in the season, let alone make the postseason.

Coach James Wade felt that last year’s roster was still defining his style of play in the early rounds of the playoffs.

“It’s a different team, a different year, different expectations,” Wade said. “Last year around this time, we had a losing record and were still trying to figure out who we were. We started this season and after five or six games we realized.”

This year’s success began with a series of off-season transactions: re-signing with Vandersloot after a heated period of negotiation; signing free agent Emma Meesseman, who had been a teammate of the Sky players in Russia; and reinforcing the bench with Julie Allemand and Rebekah Gardner.

Bringing in Meesseman, a two-time WNBA All-Star and former Finals MVP who averaged 12.4 points and 5.5 rebounds this season, was the final piece of a loaded roster. After signing, reigning Finals MVP Kahleah Copper felt the Sky achieved “super team” status.

“I was like, ‘I can’t believe they’re letting us do this,’” Copper joked in July during an All-Star news conference.

Defending a title is a different game, and Sky is aware of the pressure that hangs over this year’s postseason.

His underdog status last year honed a competitive advantage in the locker room. But Copper said this year’s motivation is even better: the hunger of a team sitting on top that isn’t planning to let the position slip away from him.

“It’s tough because it can go either way,” Copper said. “Last year we didn’t feel great going into the playoffs. Now I know we feel good. It feels good to be confident. Everything is going well. We are playing our best basketball and there is also a lot of room for improvement”.

Despite their franchise-best 26-10 record, the Sky have been far from indomitable.

They struggled to hold onto the lead throughout the season, often falling into third-quarter stalemates that left them struggling to prevent comebacks at the final buzzer. They finished the season on a 1-2 losing streak at the hands of the Seattle Storm (111-100) and the Las Vegas Aces (89-78).

Vandersloot and Copper believe that Sky have another level to unlock – an exciting prospect for a team hoping to peak with a second straight title.

“The motivation is a little bit different just because we feel like we have another level,” Vandersloot said. “We haven’t really put it all together yet. … Our ceiling is so high.

“It feels good to always know that you have something to improve, you have something to look forward to every day. That is a very good thing for us. It keeps us humble.”

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