Two hours before the tipoff of the game Saturday between the Sky and the Mystics, the Missouri Phenom 15-and-under girls basketball team streamed into Wintrust Arena. They were the first fans inside and sat courtside to watch both teams go through warmups.
As the time ticked closer to tipoff, the Mystics’ Natasha Cloud walked over to the group of young players and took a photo. Their smiles were beaming.
The AAU team was in town for the Nike Tournament of Champions at McCormick Place. It, along with a number of other teams, stopped by Wintrust for an overtime battle between Eastern Conference foes.
There were 15 lead changes. In the end, the Sky fell to the Mystics 89-85 in their final game before the Olympic break.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot, ESPN personality Michael Wilbon and former Simeon star Jabari Parker were just three of the 8,331 fans in attendance.
Five Sky players finished in double figures. Stefanie Dolson led the way with 20 points, and Candace Parker added a double-double with 17 points and 13 rebounds.
In the week leading up to the game, Sky coach and general manager James Wade discussed how important it was for the team to get a full week of practice with the entire team intact. Because of early injuries and national-team commitments, this was the first time all season they were able to do so.
In the first few days, Wade said the Sky focused on themselves, re-establishing the defensive intensity they’ve come to be known for. The Sky’s defensive rating (95.5) is second in the league to that of the Aces.
The Sky’s focus shifted to the Mystics later in the week. Entering the game, Wade said a key was taking away Ariel Atkins’ preferred shots, crowding her space and making sure every shot was contested.
Atkins, a member of coach Dawn Staley’s 12-player Olympic roster, is the Mystics’ second-leading scorer (17 points per game) behind Tina Charles (25.8 points), another Olympian.
In the teams’ first game this season, the Sky held Atkins to her lowest scoring output of five points. This time, she finished with 14.
Charles led the way for the Mystics with 34 points and 17 rebounds. Her biggest points of the night came on a putback at the end of regulation that sent the game to overtime.
The entire Sky team is expected to be in Las Vegas this week to support All-Stars Parker, Courtney Vandersloot and Kahleah Copper, as well as Allie Quigley, who will be competing in the three-point contest. After the All-Star Game on Wednesday, the Sky will take a couple of weeks off before returning to practice in preparation for the second half of the season.
The Sky open the second half with three home games, the first against the Storm on Aug. 15.
The Sky reflected last week on the first half, and their recurring thought is they can compete with anyone when they’re healthy.
”This team was built to have everyone healthy,” Quigley said.