Within minutes of their first WNBA playoff win of 2022, the Chicago Sky completely missed a beat.
Nothing seemed to work for the reigning champions of the league. Kahleah Copper and Candace Parker missed passes at the top of the key. Allie Quigley, the Sky’s safest shooter, hit a three-pointer with less than a minute to go. And the New York Liberty capitalized on every mistake, rallying from a six-point deficit with 3:32 left.
A pair of layups by Natasha Howard and a 3-pointer and mid-range jumper by Sabrina Ionescu gave the Liberty a three-point lead with 2:01 left and they never looked back, ending the game on a 13-game streak. -0 for a 98-91. upset in Game 1 of the best-of-three series.
Game 2 is back at Wintrust Arena on Saturday, with second-seeded Sky suddenly facing elimination.
“In a way we panicked,” Sky forward Azura Stevens said. “We knew we were down and we were trying to get back. I feel like we haven’t panicked all year, but tonight we might have a little bit, which is uncharacteristic for us.”
The Sky rose to the challenge of defending their title when fans were presented with rally towels emblazoned with “Recrown Skytown” as they entered Wintrust Arena. The Sky brought the WNBA championship trophy to center court during player introductions, a manifestation of the pressure on the reigning champions as they seek their first consecutive league titles in two decades.
But the biggest pressure came from the seventh-seeded Liberty, who entered the postseason desperately after securing one of the final playoff spots.
They set the Sky on fire from long range, shooting 44% from behind the 3-point arc. Hot shots spread the Sky defense to a vulnerable width, creating lanes for Ionescu to rip apart with a deadly pick-and-roll offense. She and Howard each scored a game-high 22 points.
Liberty center Stefanie Dolson, a key player in last year’s Sky, was lethal from long range as she hit three 3-pointers and finished with 13 points.
The presence of bruises from Howard hit the Sky harder. Despite a deep frontcourt from Sky that rotates Parker, Emma Meesseman and Stevens, they had no early answer for Howard’s physicality in the paint.
The Sky regained control in the middle of a breathless third quarter, but the Liberty never trailed by more than seven points. Copper led Sky with 21 points, Quigley added 18 and Parker had 17, but Sky couldn’t counter Liberty defensively down the stretch.
“When our defense is solid and when we don’t turn it around, we’re hard to beat,” Parker said. “When we let our guard down, even for two or three minutes, you see what can happen.”
A year ago, the Sky were in a similar position to the Liberty after reaching the playoffs with a .500 record. They beat the Dallas Wings in a single elimination first round game to start their title run.
The WNBA revamped the first round this season, expanding to a best-of-three series. The new structure was a welcome change for Sky players and managers, who felt that the previous first round did not provide adequate competition.
As the No. 2 seed, the Sky hosted the first two games and will travel to New York for the final game, if they can avoid elimination on Saturday.
“There is no reason for us to panic,” Sky manager James Wade said. “We are the team that should not panic. When something went wrong, it just got worse.
“We play here again on Saturday. Our backs are against the wall, but we will respond.”