The salt in this wound will sting for a very long time.
The Chicago Sky entered Thursday's game against the Atlanta Dream at Allstate Arena needing to win its final two games of the regular season to make the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. The Sky also needed the New York Liberty, the team it has been fighting the last few weeks for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, to lose its last two games.
Even with more than enough motivation and urgency in play, the Sky could not take care of business, falling to a hot-shooting Dream team, 75-66. The salt spread in the wound is the fact that New York kept the door wide open for the Sky.
The Liberty dropped its game at Tulsa 78-66 just minutes before the Sky's fate was finalized at Allstate Arena. Had the Sky been able to beat Atlanta, the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference would have remained in play through Saturday -- when the Sky would have needed to defeat visiting Washington in its regular-season finale and the Liberty would have needed to topple visiting Tulsa.
Needless to say, the Sky locker room was almost silent after the game.
"We blew it. We knew what we needed to do tonight and we blew it," whispered dejected Sky guard Epiphanny Prince, who scored 14 points. "We've been waiting for everyone else to do us a favor and Tulsa actually did do us a favor and we still couldn't even help ourselves.
"It's disappointing. We got off to a hot start (7-1). We were No. 1 in the league. It just makes it even more difficult to take because now we're back to where we always are: the bottom two."
The 13-20 Sky, which squandered a career-high 16 points from backup center Carolyn Swords, faced its fair share of adversity as it strained to stay out of that unenviable, familiar position this season.
Prince was leading the league in scoring early in the season and came up with some amazing game-winning shots during the franchise-best 7-1 start. But then she went down with a broken foot and missed the next nine games. The Sky went 1-8 in her absence.
Not long after Prince returned, Olympic center Sylvia Fowles started having her own injury problems. She's missed seven games down the stretch with a bum foot, knee and calf and has not played the last five games.
"Everyone talks about the injuries. So what," said a perturbed Pokey Chatman, the Sky's second-year coach. "I know Piph was out, I know Syl is out. It happens. You adjust.
"The fact is, we had opportunities to win games early in the season, in the middle and late and we didn't capitalize. Then we had opportunities here tonight. We cut (a deficit as big as 16 points) down to 3 points twice and just couldn't sustain (the momentum) and seize the opportunity. We didn't handle our business.
"I'm extremely disappointed. I feel sick, quite honestly."
The Dream, which shot 50 percent from the field, was led by guard Angel McCoughtry, who just about hit her league-leading scoring average of 21.9 points per game on the nose with 21 points. Former Sky guard Armintie Price had 12 points for the Dream (19-14).
Having finished third in the East, the Dream -- the two-time defending Eastern Conference champion -- will attempt to defend its title when it opens the playoffs next week against the Indiana Fever. The Connecticut Sun won the Eastern Conference and will take on the Liberty.