August 31, 2023 

Chicago Sky notebook: Team mentality with four games to go

Evans: ‘We want to be in the playoffs. We're winners like I don't like to lose’

Despite all the adversity faced this season, the Chicago Sky remain within striking distance of a playoff spot with four games to go in the regular season.

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Fresh off a nail-biting road victory against the 8th-place Sparks on Tuesday, the Chicago Sky enter Sunday’s crucial matchup against the Liberty just a half-game back of the Sparks for the final playoff spot. Should the Sky and the Sparks finish the season tied in the standings, the Sky owns the tiebreaker advantage, having won the season series 3-1.

Heading into this final stretch, the remaining 2021 WNBA Championship team players are setting the tone regarding the team’s mentality moving forward. Kahleah Copper, Dana Evans, and Ruthy Hebard have been here before – and it shows. A renewed sense of urgency combined with better late-game execution has the Sky in a position to make the playoffs for the fifth straight year.

Kahleah Copper’s leadership

As the only remaining starter from last year’s team, Copper has embraced her leadership role. Arguably the best two-way guard in the league, Copper is averaging a career-high 18.3 points a game and has added a dangerous three-point shot to her arsenal too. But her impact on this team extends far beyond the points scored in the game.

During shootaround before the Sparks game, rookie teammate Robyn Parks spoke on Copper’s leadership ability, adding, “She’s a leader in every sense of the word, not just for her words, but with her effort and energy on the court. I feel like we just try to match that. She’s been doing an amazing job of leading us.”

Copper sets the tone as the team leader with her mentality and will to win. It’s contagious. Fellow champion Evans has been a teammate of Copper for three years. She highlighted how Copper’s winning mentality rubs off on her teammates.

“With Kah, I just know she’s a winner,” Evans said. “We want to win. We’re not satisfied and we’ll never be OK with not winning so that’s always been her mentality and I think it rubs off on everybody else”

Winning players make winning plays. Copper knows the level of fight it takes to win these late-season games. Copper knows, “When you gutting out wins, it’s about will, it’s about fight, it’s about having that toughness.”

In the victory against the Storm on Aug. 27, Copper was 4-of-18 from the field but had a team-high 12 rebounds. In perhaps the most important game of the season versus the Sparks, it was Copper who made the game-winning basket at the end to give the Sky the victory.

The Dana Evans show

The last four games have been “The Dava Evans Show” at both the offensive and defensive end of the floor. When checked into the game, Evans has made her presence felt. After dropping a season-high 23 points and eight assists in just 21 minutes of work against the Storm on Aug. 22, Evans talked about coming out with an aggressive mindset: “I think I was motivated from the jump. We talked about how crucial this game was for us. It’s a turning point. We knew we really needed this win. So, I think I came out with that mindset. And I think I just came out aggressive in attacking, and it just led to a pretty big game.”

Evans also discussed the championship pedigree and history of winning in the organization that motivates their collective will to win games. Evans noted, “We want to be in the playoffs. We’re winners like I don’t like to lose. So we gotta just continue to make the winning play, and continue to play for each other and play within the system.” After a 14-point and 6 assists outing against the Storm on Aug. 27, Copper praised Evans, pleading, “6th Woman of the Year, let’s just put that out there.”

Late game execution during playoff push

Early into Coach Emre Vatansever’s tenure, the Sky struggled in the fourth quarter. The playoff push has forced the team to learn how to close out games with mild success. A sense of urgency has been a common theme during this final stretch of games. After the comeback victory over the Storm on Aug. 27th, Coach Vatansever summarized the team’s mentality as playing with a sense of urgency, playing together, and trying to get it done whatever it takes. Before the game against Vegas, Elizabeth Williams referenced “the sense of urgency that we’re having with this playoff push.” Williams noted, “There’s a collective understanding from the start to the bench of what that has to look like”.

After the one-point victory over the Sparks, Copper noted the team’s growth in closing out games: “I think this team just growing…this team just growing throughout the season and us trusting each other and knowing what’s ahead. Knowing what we’re playing for and having our backs against the wall. It’s good for us. We’re working things out in the late game. We’re keeping our composure and we’re making that push.”

Marina Mabrey’s hot streak

Marina Mabrey has been on a shooting tear these past four games. This is the version of Mabrey the Sky envisioned when they traded for her in the offseason. Mabrey is averaging 18.5 points in her last four games while shooting 50% from three. Mabrey’s 16 threes are tied for the most she’s ever made over a four-game stretch in her career. For Mabrey, “Just taking advantage of the opportunities I get offensively, but also understanding how to play it within the team offense” explains her recent offensive efficiency increase.

Mabrey also recalls the immense amount of work she’s put in to get to this point: “I didn’t always have this offensive skill set. So just remembering that there’s a ton of work that goes into it.” Recall the Sky traded away their first-round pick this year to Dallas as a part of the Mabrey trade. As a result, the Sky have even more incentive to make the playoffs this year due to not having their first-round draft pick.

It is no secret that it has been a trying year for the Chicago Sky. Mabrey and her teammates are trying to keep the season going and give themselves a shot in the playoffs. Mabrey emphasized, “We’re trying to use that adversity that we went through, and what we learned about each other, learn about ourselves and keep going. Because once you get in the playoffs, it’s anybody’s game. It’s anybody’s series.” Once you are in the post-season tournament, anything can happen. Just ask the 2021 WNBA Champions Chicago Sky, who lost seven games at one point during the regular season and entered the postseason as the sixth seed.

Other notes

  • Candidate for Most Improved Player of the Year, Alanna Smith, was placed in concussion protocol after the Sky’s win over the Storm on August 27. Smith missed the following game against the Sparks. There is no timetable for her return. Morgan Bertsch started in her place and played well finishing with 12 points.

Written by Monique Newton

Monique Newton is a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at Northwestern University. She covers the Chicago Sky for The Next and has lived in Chicago since 2019. An Oberlin College graduate, Monique is a 2x Division III National Track and Field Champion.

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