Sky begin title defense with 98-91 overtime loss to Sparks
This season is about more than the Sky trying to become the first WNBA team in 20 years to repeat as champions; it’s about solidifying their foothold in Chicago’s saturated sports market.
A lot has been said about the Sky’s 2021 championship season.
Words such as ‘‘historic’’ and ‘‘memorable’’ have been used, and they’re accurate. What’s also accurate, according to forward Candace Parker, is that the 2021 Sky weren’t good.
On Friday, the Sky ran out of gas in the fourth quarter. That led to late turnovers and, ultimately, a 98-91 overtime loss to the Sparks in their first game as defending WNBA champions in front of a crowd of 8,111 at Wintrust Arena.
‘‘We sucked last year during the regular season,’’ Parker said. ‘‘Let’s just say it. We were 16-16; we were not good. We were good in the playoffs, but during the season we sucked. It just doesn’t sit right with me. I think we learned a lot last year, and I’m waiting to see how we apply it this year.’’
The Sky’s struggles last season weren’t all because of poor play. They dealt with injuries early, but their inconsistency had them seeded sixth and facing two single-elimination games to start the playoffs.
But then guard Courtney Vandersloot averaged a double-double in the postseason and became the second player in WNBA history to have a playoff triple-double. Forward Kahleah Copper led the team in scoring en route to earning Finals MVP honors, and Parker claimed her second title.
By the end of the season, Chicago was behind the Sky more than even coach/general manager James Wade expected. Wintrust Arena was sold out for Game 4 of the Finals, even with the Bears and Packers playing two miles away at Soldier Field.
‘‘[During the Finals], we had a packed house,’’ Wade said. ‘‘And the Bears and Packers were playing across the way. I was scared. It’s the Bears and the Packers. I’ve heard about this [ever since I got to Chicago]. I thought we were going to have 10 people at the game.’’
This season is about more than the Sky becoming the first WNBA team in 20 years to repeat as champions; it’s about solidifying their foothold in Chicago’s saturated sports market.
One championship is good, but back-to-back titles would be another historic accomplishment. Aside from the Bulls’ two three-peats, only the Bears have won consecutive titles in the last century, and those came in 1932-33 and 1940-41.
For some organizations, it hasn’t mattered. The Cubs long have been a beloved team in the city. Even after the White Sox won their first World Series title in 88 years in 2005, they were cast back into the Chicago baseball shadows when they missed the playoffs the next season.
This means even more for the Sky than it did for the Sox because the Sky are trying to solidify a fan base. The Sox always might be a beat behind the Cubs, but their fans are loyal regardless.
The Sky’s first title earned them respect from casual sports fans, but citywide loyalty only will come with a second title.
So how can the Sky do what hasn’t been done since the Sparks in 2001 and 2002? It starts with forgetting last year and Friday.
‘‘I read [Heat president] Pat Riley’s book, and he talks about the disease of more,’’ Parker said on media day. ‘‘When you have success, everybody comes back wanting more individually, not wanting to sacrifice and do the things you did previously to win a championship. That’s the barrier we’re going to have to talk about and overcome.’’
The Sky had said all week that they’re good on paper. On Friday, it was time to show whether it translated to the court. They were without two starters in Allie Quigley and Copper, and spacing issues and exhaustion led to fourth-quarter turnovers and missed rebounds allowing the Sparks to erase a five-point deficit with less than two minutes left in regulation.
The Sparks’ Jordin Canada went to the line and sank three free throws with 1.5 seconds left to force overtime. The Sky’s Dana Evans was called for a foul, but a replay showed Canada throwing her body into Evans, who was trying to avoid contact.
‘‘I knew we were down by three, so I was trying to make a play and do something,’’ Canada said. ‘‘I knew she was going to run under me, so I was just trying to create the contact and get the call.’’
Canada led the Sparks with 21 points, eight assists and four rebounds.
Evans got her first WNBA start in place of Copper, who is completing her season in Spain and Quigley who sat out Friday because of her knee. Emma Meesseman was the other new face in the Sky’s starting five. She finished with 12 points, eight rebounds and five assists.
Evans showed just how valuable she can be in the starting rotation, finishing with a career-high in points (24) and assists (five) and added four steals. She scored 17 points in the third quarter alone. Parker added 21 points, which moved her into 10th place on the WNBA’s all-time scoring list, to go with six assists, six rebounds and three steals. All five Sky starters finished in double figures, but their 25 turnovers proved too much to overcome.
‘‘We ran out of gas,’’ Wade said. ‘‘I could have done a better job getting [players] out earlier just so they could have legs. That was my fault. The loss is solely on me.’’