With 17 seconds left and his team trailing by three, Sky coach James Wade called a full timeout.
Before his players left the huddle, he followed it with a 20-second timeout. As they re-emerged on the court, the fans at Wintrust Arena rose to their feet.
What came next brought them down to earth. Courtney Vandersloot found Candace Parker for a shot from three-point range. Parker sidestepped Brionna Jones, rose and missed the rim entirely. If anyone was going to hit that shot Sunday night, it was Parker. She had put her team on her back with 18 rebounds and six blocks to go along with 19 points, five assists and four steals.
But the Sky missed four of their last five shots and fell 68-63 in Game 1 of their semifinal series against the Connecticut Sun.
“It’s a series for a reason,” Wade said.
Before the fourth quarter even began, the expectation that a heavyweight bout was about to unfold permeated the arena. With five minutes to play, a tie-up between Kahleah Copper and Courtney Williams resulted in neither player relinquishing the ball even after officials attempted to intervene. It exemplified the intensity each team brought.
“That’s the type of series this is going to be,” Azurá Stevens said.
The Sky and Sun were first and second in the WNBA in points scored in the paint during the regular season, so physical inside play was emphasized by both teams ahead of the game. Nothing came easy for either team. Both shot below 40% from the field and 30% from three-point range.
But it was the Sun’s defense that decided the opener.
“I think we were a little surprised by the hedging,” Stevens said. “I don’t think we were prepared for that.”
The Sun succeeded at limiting the Sky’s points in the paint, forcing them to score from the perimeter and long range. Connecticut’s stifling defense led to 20 points off of 12 Sky turnovers. The Sky, who averaged 42.1 points in the paint during the regular season, were limited to 26. The Sun had 36 points in the paint.
Vandersloot was held to five points, and after breaking out with nine points in the first quarter, Copper didn’t score again until the fourth. She finished with 13 points and three rebounds. Stevens had two points and four rebounds.
“We were scrambling around on defense,” DeWanna Bonner said. “We know they’re a team that moves the ball, and we never stood still. Our communication was huge tonight.”
Wade’s team struggled to find its rhythm on offense, but in the third quarter, they were really shut down, scoring only 12 points. The Sun ended the quarter on a 12-2 run, giving them an eight-point advantage heading into the fourth.
Alyssa Thomas and Jonquel Jones scored 12 points each for the Sun. Bonner had a team-high 15 points, nine rebounds and five assists. The Sun’s bench outscored the Sky’s 18-9.
Coach Curt Miller’s team hasn’t brought up last year’s semifinal exit in four games other than to emphasize how close all of the games have been in recent years.
“It’s uncanny how our recent games have come down to the final plays,” Miller said. “Tonight we made the big plays.”
The Sky return to Wintrust Arena for Game 2 on Wednesday at 7 p.m. before traveling to Connecticut for Game 3 on Sunday.