Former Zags PG Courtney Vandersloot will lead Chicago in a best-of-five WNBA Finals series against Phoenix. Game 1 tips Sunday at 12:30pm PT on ABC.
Vandersloot, who also starred at Kentwood HS, is in her fourth WNBA season. She worked her way back from a left knee sprain suffered in June to help lead the Sky to its first finals. It’s Chicago’s second playoff run overall in the franchise’s nine-year history, the first postseason berth being last season where the Sky lost in the opening-round.
“We were in last place in the conference,” said Vandersloot of the Sky, which started the season at 5-1 with Vandersloot leading the league in assists (6.4) before dropping to last in the Eastern Conference by August due to a rash of injuries, including Vandersloot’s knee.
“There weren’t many people who thought that we would be even in the playoffs, let alone sitting here as the Eastern Conference champions,” Vandersloot continued. “But we all did and that’s all that mattered. I think that says a lot about our team. We stuck together and fought through all these injuries and illness and we won when we needed to win.”
Vandersloot’s injury coincided with F Elena Delle Donne, the team’s leading-scorer (17.9 points), missing half the season due to a Lyme disease flare and now she’s dealing with a lower-back injury. Chicago opened the season without C Sylvia Fowles (hip) and Epiphanny Prince, who was allowed time to recoup from overseas play in Russia.
As they battled to return to the court, key anchor during the regular-season, F Jessica Breland, suffered a shoulder injury in the opening-round of the postseason. She returned for the Sky’s Eastern Conference series victory over Indiana and is prepared to play in the Finals against a loaded — and healthy — Phoenix.
But don’t let the injuries fool you about this Chicago squad. If the young roster can overcome those, they can beat Phoenix for the WNBA championship. Yeah, that sounds crazy given Phoenix, a charter team, is going for its second title and features all-stars in G Diana Taurasi and C Brittney Griner. Not to mention G Penny Taylor, an Australian Olympian, and stealth F Candice Dupree, who began her WNBA career with the Sky (2006-2009).
Taurasi is a killer. She’s averaging 22.8 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 5.4 assists during Phoenix’s 4-1 run in the postseason. She went on a solo 13-0 scoring spurt to personally put Minnesota to bed in the decisive Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals. Yet, while the Mercury was 2-0 against the Sky during the regular-season, Taurasi averaging 17 points and 4.5 assists in the games, it was sans Vandersloot and Delle Donne.
Now the Sky (4-2) has the pieces to counter, so no one knows what this potential gem Finals series could be like.
Fowles is a 6-foot-6 Olympian who can matchup with Griner, who’s 6-8 and the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. In July, Chicago lost 72-66 but Fowles out-dueled Griner, limiting the second-year all star to 11 points and 10 rebounds. Fowles had 23 points, 11 rebounds, three steals and three blocks in the loss.
Delle Donne will help Fowles defend Griner this time around. The former is the second-coming of Australian star Lauren Jackson, Delle Donne averaging 17.3 points and 3.3 rebounds in the postseason despite the back injury.
Prince hasn’t played like her normal offensively-potent self during the playoffs (9.5 points), so she may be due for a breakout to help spread the Phoenix defense to free Delle Donne from constant double-team coverage. While reserve G Allie Quigley, who was cut by the Storm in 2012 to compete for the Hungarian national team, is the Sky’s MVP of the postseason.
The reigning 6th Woman of the Year, Quigley is averaging 14.5 points and 2.3 assists during the postseason. She finished with 24 points in Game 3 on the conference finals to assure the Sky would advance.
“Since I’ve been out both times we’ve played them, I think I’m going to be as aggressive as I can and try to get everyone involved,” said Vandersloot, who’s averaging 6.3 assists in the postseason. “As a unit, I think we need to do the same thing. We need to do what we have done to get us this far because like I said, we weren’t at full strength either time that we played them. We’re a different team.”
The only downer is Chicago having to host Game 3 of the WNBA Finals on Friday at the UIC Pavilion. The facility seats 6,958 and was Chicago’s original home court until it moved to the Allstate Arena in 2010. A sellout Garth Brooks show will be held at Allstate instead.
Unfortunately being bumped isn’t unusual for WNBA teams during the postseason. Seattle (Microsoft), San Antonio (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Los Angeles (“Batman Live”), and Atlanta (“Sesame Street Live”) are a few in the WNBA’s 18-year history that also had to relocate postseason games.
“We’re in the Finals,” Chicago coach Pokey Chatman said. “The basket’s 10 feet. The court’s 94 by 50, so we’ll make the most of (playing at UIC Pavilion). I remember when we played in Atlanta during the regular-season and they played a few of their games at Georgia Tech. I can remember it felt like the crowd was on top of you and I enjoyed that. And the players commented about it. There will be some advantages to the move.”
Phoenix won’t care about the venue, just winning a title to cap a record-setting season. The newbies, led by Vandersloot, will fight to stop that from happening.
“It hasn’t been easy this whole season,” she said. “The playoffs have been kind of an example of the season; we’ve had ups and downs and now we’re sitting here in the Finals. (But Phoenix) was on a roll all season. They’re playing really good basketball right now, so we’ve got to do something to keep them out of their rhythm.”
Here’s the full television schedule for the WNBA Finals:
ESPN, ESPN2 & ABC WNBA Playoffs 2014 Presented by Boost Mobile Schedule (subject to change)
Sun, Sept 7
WNBA Finals 2014 Game 1: Chicago Sky at Phoenix Mercury
Tue, Sept 9
WNBA Finals 2014 Game 2: Chicago Sky at Phoenix Mercury
Fri, Sept 12
WNBA Finals 2014 Game 3: Phoenix Mercury at Chicago Sky
Sun, Sept 14
WNBA Finals 2014 Game 4: Phoenix Mercury at Chicago Sky*
Wed, Sept 17
WNBA Finals 2014 Game 5: Chicago Sky at Phoenix Mercury*