Facing elimination this early isn’t what Sky’s championship core re-signed for

The Sky are the No. 2 seed and have the deepest roster in the league. They shouldn’t be in this situation, given the sacrifices and upgrades they made last offseason. Yet here they are, a game away from it all ending.

SHARE Facing elimination this early isn’t what Sky’s championship core re-signed for
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Not long after the confetti from the Sky’s first WNBA title was swept off the court last season at Wintrust Arena, they began plotting their repeat.

It started with making promises at the championship parade and rally. General manager/coach James Wade told the thousands in attendance at Pritzker Pavilion last fall to remember where they were sitting because they would be there again in 2022. From there came the intimate conversations among teammates.

A repeat was a tall order, considering the number of free agents the Sky had coming off the title season. But Wade’s core free agents — Allie Quigley, Courtney Vandersloot and Kahleah Copper — were confident the Sky could run it back if they all returned.

So they took less money in pursuit of another title. Copper signed for less than the supermax contract her core tag comes with. Vandersloot signed a one-year deal worth $5,000 less than she made last season. And Quigley took the biggest cut in what might be her final season in the WNBA, signing for nearly $60,000 less than she made in 2021.

The money the Sky saved on them enabled Wade to sign one of the biggest free agents of the class, 2019 WNBA Finals MVP Emma Meesseman. It was an addition that had Copper wondering whether the WNBA really was going to let the Sky create a superteam.

But six months after making those sacrifices in an effort to make history as the first WNBA team in 20 years to win repeat titles, the Sky are facing elimination on their home court in the first round of the playoffs against the Liberty. And leading scorer Copper’s status is in question because of an ankle injury.

‘‘A lot of people are focused on the future,’’ forward Candace Parker said. ‘‘We’re focused on the next game.’’

Parker wasn’t part of that core group of free agents, but questions surrounded her return, too. She signed a two-year deal worth $385,000 in 2021, but there was some speculation she would retire after leading her hometown franchise to its first WNBA title.

Parker, a two-time WNBA champion and the only player in league history to win Rookie of the Year and MVP honors in the same season, has admitted it’s a question she confronts every offseason. She said she’ll know it’s time to hang it up when she wakes up in the morning and says no to training.

That morning never came last offseason, but there’s no guarantee it won’t arrive in this one. Parker hasn’t definitively answered questions about her future, nor has Quigley. Both came back to compete for a championship, not to be eliminated in the first round.

‘‘We value what this season is going to mean,’’ Quigley said. ‘‘And we try not to think too deeply about whether it’s the last, whether we have one more run together. Not many people get to be defending champions and go for a second one. We’re trying to take advantage of the moment.’’

This season has, in a lot of ways, been the one they all re-signed for.

The Sky hosted the WNBA All-Star Game for the first time, and Copper, Parker and Vandersloot were selected to play in it. Wade coached one of the teams, and Quigley won her fourth three-point contest, becoming the first player in WNBA or NBA history to achieve the feat.

The Sky were in first place in the league for nearly the entire second half of the season and played the Aces in the Commissioner’s Cup championship game. They lost 93-83, but each player earned $10,000.

The Sky also finished the regular season tied with the Aces for the WNBA’s best record at a franchise-best 26-10.

Last season, the Sky finished the regular season .500 and were the No. 6 seed going into the playoffs. They advanced past two single-elimination games before beating the Sun in four games in the semifinals and the Mercury in four games in the Finals.

The WNBA changed its playoff format this season to feature series play beginning with the first round. The change was one the Sky jokingly took credit for on media day, and now it might prove to be their demise.

The Sky are the No. 2 seed and have the deepest roster in the league. They shouldn’t be in this situation, given the sacrifices and upgrades they made last offseason. Yet here they are, a game away from it all ending.

Some might say those would be motivating factors for a team. Not the Sky.

‘‘We’re not using that as motivation,’’ Wade said. ‘‘We just want to win a ballgame.’’

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