Courtney Vandersloot is not a newcomer to the WNBA record books.
She held three of the top five playoff assist totals going into the Sky’s 101-95 double-overtime victory Tuesday against the Connecticut Sun in Game 1 of the WNBA semifinals at Mohegan Sun Arena.
By the end of the game, she still held three of the top five spots, but her name replaced Sue Bird’s at the top of the list with 18 assists.
The 12 points and 10 rebounds she added made her the second player in league history with a playoff triple-double. She joined Sheryl Swoopes, who had 14 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists for the Houston Comets in 2005.
The Sky go as Vandersloot does. If they want to advance to the WNBA Finals for the first time since 2014 and the second time in franchise history, they’ll need to follow her lead and her passes.
“I’m not surprised because this is what she does,” Sky coach/general manager James Wade said.
Wade compared the game to the boxing match between Rocky Balboa and Ivan Drago in ”Rocky IV.” He knew it was going to be a knock-down, drag-out fight to the finish, and it helps to have Vandersloot at the helm in those games.
That was never more apparent than in both overtime periods.
As exhaustion began to set in for the Sky, who were playing their third game in six days, Vandersloot turned things up a notch. She had four assists, three rebounds and two points in 10 overtime minutes, propelling the Sky to a 1-0 lead in the best-of-five series.
The triple-double wasn’t even the most impressive part of Vandersloot’s performance. Her hustle plays were vital. From the jump, she controlled the game, setting the pace for her teammates, getting in passing lanes and coming up with momentum-changing defensive stops.
“It’s remarkable for her to do what she did, play the minutes that she did, defend, rebound and come down and facilitate through pressure,” Candace Parker said. “Sometimes we get spoiled because we see it all the time. It really has been fun for me to watch the way she’s always two plays ahead of what the defense is going to do.”
A 10-year WNBA veteran, Vandersloot is playing the best basketball of her career, averaging 16 points, 9.7 assists and 7.7 rebounds in the playoffs. The Sky, as a result, are playing their best basketball of the season.
Vandersloot’s answer for the Sun’s No. 1 defense was to force it to defend multiple options.
The Sky didn’t settle for forced shots. They ran multiple plays and wore down the Sun, who had four players on the WNBA’s All-Defensive teams, including league MVP Jonquel Jones. The key will be maintaining that effectiveness the rest of the series.
“She picked us apart,” Jones said.
Vandersloot wasn’t the only player who dismantled the Sun’s defense: The Sky had 31 assists on 38 made field goals.
Certain aspects of the Sky’s game need cleaning up ahead of Game 2, including turnovers and containing the Sun on the offensive boards. The Sun had 19 points off Sky turnovers and 20 second-chance points.
Despite the punches the Sun threw, the Sky never lost their composure, not even when Connecticut went up by two with less than a minute to go in regulation. Vandersloot said the hits they absorbed in the regular season prepared them for the playoffs.
“We showed a lot of heart,” Vandersloot said. “When we were tired, we dug deep as a group. We need to keep doing that.”