• The San Juan Daily Star

Chicago Sky beat Phoenix Mercury for first WNBA championship

The Sky struggled during the regular season, but were the best team throughout the playoffs.

By Alanis Thames and Taylor Glascock

At the final buzzer, Candace Parker sprinted down the court in triumph.

The tears had already started coming moments before, as the Chicago Sky, the team she’d joined just eight months ago after a 13-year career in Los Angeles, took a four-point lead over the Phoenix Mercury in Game 4 of the WNBA Finals.

Sky guard Courtney Vandersloot then nailed two free throws. Phoenix center Brittney Griner missed a jumper on the other end of the floor, and it was over. The Sky had beaten the Mercury, 80-74, in Game 4 and three games to one in the series for the franchise’s first championship.

Chicago players barreled onto their home court at Wintrust Arena, their sweat-soaked faces now also dripping with tears. Parker embraced her family, and looked up at the crowd.

“Look at the city, man. They all showed up,” she said. “They all showed up.”

It was the second WNBA title for Parker, who signed with Chicago as a free agent in February.

She turned in a dominant performance on both ends of the court, finishing with 16 points, 13 rebounds, five assists and four steals. She was active on defense and knocked down a game-tying 3-pointer in the fourth quarter that gave Chicago game-clinching momentum after the Mercury had led for most of the game.

The sixth-seeded Sky were unlikely champions after finishing the regular season with a .500 record. But they were the best team in the playoffs. They had to win two single-elimination games to reach the semifinals, where they earned a finals berth by knocking off the top-seeded Connecticut Sun and their star forward Jonquel Jones, who won the regular-season MVP award.

The Sky won Game 1 of the finals in Phoenix thanks to a 21-point outing from forward Kahleah Copper, who was named MVP of the finals. They dropped a close one in Game 2, then blew out Phoenix by 36 points in Game 3.

In Game 4, Griner nearly willed Phoenix to victory by herself. The Mercury consistently got her the ball in the paint, and she made the Sky pay every time they didn’t send a double team, and sometimes, even when they did. Griner finished with 28 points, including 18 in the first quarter.

But the Sky had Parker, 35, one of the most decorated basketball players ever. She won two NCAA championships at the University of Tennessee, has two Olympic gold medals and won her first WNBA championship in 2016 with the Sparks. She was finals MVP that year and has two regular-season MVP awards. This year, she became the first woman featured on the cover of NBA 2K, the popular basketball video game.

The only thing she hadn’t done was, in part, why she came to Chicago: bring a championship to her hometown.

“Going home has given me a sense of peace,” Parker said in an Instagram post in February. She grew up in Naperville, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. “I believe things come full circle.”

Her arrival in Chicago put the Sky into title contention, even if an inconsistent season had many questioning how far they could go in the playoffs. That’s when Chicago relied on key performances from its other stars and role players.

Guard Diamond DeShields shifted to coming off the bench late in the regular season, but Parker said after Game 3 of the finals that the team depended on her athleticism. DeShields was an essential part of the Sky’s dominant defensive effort in their 86-50 win over Phoenix in that game.

“I wanted to guard everything. I wanted to guard everybody,” DeShields said after Game 3, in which Chicago held the Mercury to 25.8% shooting.

Vandersloot, the Sky’s point guard who led the league in assists for the fifth consecutive year, averaged 10.1 assists per game in this year’s playoffs.

Vandersloot logged a triple-double in a double-overtime win over Connecticut — the league’s best defense in the regular season — in the first game of the semifinals, joining Hall of Famer Sheryl Swoopes as the only players in WNBA history with a triple-double in the playoffs. She was a rebound away from another triple-double in Game 4, finishing with 10 points, 15 assists and nine rebounds.

Other Sky players have come through in big ways, too.

Their top scorer was Copper, who averaged 17.7 points per game in the playoffs. Vandersloot’s wife, Sky guard Allie Quigley, was averaging 14 points per game in the playoffs before Sunday, the second most on the team. And she saved her best performance for the title game. She scored 26 points on 9 of 14 shooting, including 5 of 10 from 3-point range.

“Allie really changed the momentum of the game there, and we just missed a few,” Phoenix coach Sandy Brondello said. “Maybe if we’d made a few of them, it would be a way more happier press conference, wouldn’t it?”

In an unusual move, none of Phoenix’s players showed up for their postgame news conference.

Sunday’s title culminated a remarkable rise for Copper, the No. 7 overall draft pick by the Washington Mystics in 2016. She was traded to Chicago before the 2017 season in a deal that sent Elena Delle Donne, the Sky’s former superstar forward, to the Mystics. Copper started in just 12 games from 2017-19, fading behind Vandersloot, Quigley and DeShields.

She had a breakout season in 2020 as she shifted to a starting role, more than doubling her minutes per game — to 31.3 in 2020 from 14.8 in 2019 — and points per game — to 14.9 from 6.7. Copper has since established herself as a star on the Sky and was the difference in this championship series.

“This is how you make household names in your city,” Chicago coach James Wade said after the game Sunday. “People are going to go around, they’re going to know who Sloot is, they’re going to know who Kah is. They already know who Candace is, but there’s so many stories out there on the floor that are unique.”

It was a disappointing finish to the season for the Mercury, who last won a championship in 2014, when they swept the Sky for their third franchise title.

Phoenix had a strong season behind Diana Taurasi, the WNBA’s career scoring leader, Griner, one of the best centers in the league, and Skylar Diggins-Smith, who has been a fearless scorer and playmaker her entire career since entering the league in 2013.

Taurasi, who had been inconsistent throughout the series, had 16 points Sunday, as did Diggins-Smith.

But though they had kept Phoenix alive in so many critical games up to this point, on Sunday they couldn’t do enough to extend their season for one more game.

The Mercury held a 63-54 lead heading into the fourth quarter, but were outscored by the Sky, 26-11, in the final period.

“It’s just so crazy what we’ve been through,” Vandersloot said after the game. “No one knows.”

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