While traveling during the WNBA all-star break last weekend, Chicago Sky owner Michael Alter took some time between flights to break down the first half of the season.
He used words such as "painful" and "disappointing" to describe what might be one of the most frustrating and bizarre seasons in the nine-year history of the franchise.
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"It's been rough," Alter said of the Sky's struggles (13 losses in the last 16 games) and its spot near the bottom of the Eastern Conference. "A lot has happened that we didn't anticipate, and it's thrown our players for a loop. I've never seen anything like this where it's one thing after another."
The Sky, which finished first in the East during the regular season last summer and returned its core, has yet to play a game this summer with its intended starting lineup. Injuries, illness and off-court issues have forced all five starters to miss multiple games. Leading scorer Elena Delle Donne has missed the most, out 14 games while treating a flare-up of her Lyme disease. All-star center Sylvia Fowles missed the first 13 games to recover from off-season hip surgery.
The list goes on and on, and now point guard Courtney Vandersloot is out too, nursing a knee injury that could keep her on the bench for the rest of the season.
"Really, really painful," Alter said. "Painfully disappointing."
Yet, as solemn as Alter was in his first-half assessment, he was also equally optimistic about the second half, which began Tuesday night at Allstate Arena with an inspiring 60-57 win over the Indiana Fever.
"I still think we're going to be in the playoffs," Alter predicted over the weekend. "Everyone has a positive attitude and (head coach) Pokey (Chatman) has done a great job of making sure the wheels haven't totally fallen off. We still have time to turn this around. The next few games are going to be a good test of mental toughness and character for our players to see if they can actually turn it around."
Breaking through against arch-rival Indiana -- and halting a six-game losing streak in the process -- is a good start.
The Sky (9-14) had to dig deep to beat a Fever team that always seems to have the Sky's number and also had multiple chances in the final seconds to win or tie the game.
But the Fever, which scratched its way back from a 12-point deficit, missed a couple of late free throws. Meanwhile, Sky reserve guard Allie Quigley sank 2 free throws on the final possession to put the Fever behind by 3 with 2.4 seconds left. Indiana never got another good look at the basket.
"Our mindset coming into the second half (of the season) is to be more aggressive," said Fowles, who finished with a game-high 21 points and 10 rebounds. "We want to utilize what we have right here in the moment, and come out and show other teams that we can battle as well, even though we've got (two players) down. Everyone has to step up as a unit."
Guard Epiphanny Prince, who missed the first seven games of the season due to personal reasons, scored 13 points for the Sky, including a driving layup to give the Sky a 57-55 lead with 21.3 seconds left.
Quigley finished with 9 points and forward Jessica Breland, fresh off her first all-star game, scored 8 points against her old team.
Former Stevenson High School star Tamika Catchings and Marissa Coleman paced the Fever with 11 points apiece.
"It's unfortunate that we gave the game away," said Indiana coach Lin Dunn, whose team drops to 11-13 but remains in second place in the East. "I thought we did everything we needed to do to get back in the game in the second half. But when you're on the road and you miss 11 free throws, you're going to have an awful hard time winning."
Chatman says that Delle Donne, who has been at home in Delaware for weeks, is completing the final stages of her treatment. If all goes well, Delle Donne could be back in Chicago and ready to play in the Sky's next home game, a July 31 battle against the New York Liberty.