By Patricia Babcock McGraw
It took eight years and a special 24-win season fueled by two MVP-caliber players to get here.
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And now, thanks to the dreaded Indiana Fever, the Chicago Sky is just 40 minutes away from having its first-ever playoff run in the eight-year history of the franchise end before it really even got started.
Yep, the Fever is at it again. Twisting and shoving that knife into the Sky's gut a little deeper with every opportunity, the Fever continued its role as the Sky's most frustrating nemesis. Indiana got an 85-72 victory at Allstate Arena on Friday night in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
The Fever, which was up by as many as 19 despite being without star guard Katie Douglas (back), is now 28-6 against the Sky all-time, and 4-1 this season.
To make matters worse, the Fever played crazy-good basketball, as it often seems to do against the Sky. Normally the worst-shooting team in the WNBA (39.3 percent from the field), the Fever connected on 50.8 percent of its shots overall and 62.5 percent of 3-pointers (10 of 16).
The three-game series now shifts to Indianapolis for Game 2 on Sunday (2 p.m., ESPN2). The defending WNBA champion Fever, which battled major injuries all season, moves to 17-18 overall.
"We've got 48 hours to figure it out," said Sky center and WNBA defensive player of the year Sylvia Fowles, who scored 16 points and grabbed 10 rebounds for her 18th double-double of the season. "You can hang your head low or you can figure it out, and I want to figure it out and I'm pretty sure everyone is on the same page as me.
"We're going to be motivated. We always bounce back when we have our backs against the ropes. There's no doubt in my mind that we can go out there and get it done."
That will require the Sky to tighten up its usually very tough defense. Fever guard Briann January was especially effective at penetrating the lane and finding open teammates, or finding her own offense. All five Fever starters finished in double figures.
January (16 points on 3-of-4 shooting from 3-point range) also dished out 6 assists. The Fever got a team-high 20 points from guard Shavonte Zellous and 11 points from former Stevenson High School great Tamika Catchings.
"They were shooting practice shots out there because we were just getting beat," said Sky point guard Courtney Vandersloot, who guarded January. "It starts with me. I've got to keep whoever I'm guarding, especially January, in front of me so that we're not having to rotate and help and they're not getting these wide-open shots."
The Sky got a team-high 20 points from WNBA rookie of the year Elena Delle Donne and 19 from Epiphanny Prince. But the Sky, normally an up-tempo team, got just 2 fastbreak points and got out-rebounded 32-21. Heading into this game, the Sky was the second-best rebounding team in the league.
"I know this team will respond," Sky coach Pokey Chatman said of her players. "I've watched them do it seven of the 10 times we've lost this year.
"The margin of error is not quite as large as it used to be, but they've always responded well and I expect them to do the same on Sunday."