Sky owner: Return to Pavilion strange, weird, surreal

For Michael Alter, walking into the UIC Pavilion on Thursday afternoon was like meeting with an old friend.

Let me clarify, though: this is the kind of friend you have a history with but you haven't seen in a long time. And you haven't necessarily minded.

Alter, the owner of the Chicago Sky, has somewhat of a love / hate relationship with the Pavilion, which will host Game 3 of the WNBA Finals at 7 p.m. today between the Sky and the Phoenix Mercury. The Mercury leads the best-of-five Finals 2-0.

"It actually looks really nice in here," said Alter before watching the Sky practice. "They've done a really nice job of setting everything up."

Because of a scheduling conflict, the Sky's home - Allstate Arena - is unavailable and the Finals were moved to UIC, the team's home from 2006-09.

On one hand, UIC holds a special place in Sky history. It's where the franchise was born and played its first four seasons. But there also was heartache and frustration at the Pavilion as the expansion team struggled, going 47-89 and missing the playoffs.

"I was just thinking about how I haven't been in this place since we left," Alter said. "And now I'll be coming here for a Sky game in the WNBA Finals. It's very strange and weird and surreal."

Those are perfect adjectives to describe the Sky's season.

Of all the years for the Sky to break through and contend for a championship, it experienced one of the most strenuous and adverse regular seasons in franchise history.

Injury and illness wreaked havoc on the Sky, with every starter missing multiple games. Leading scorer Elena Delle Donne and point guard Courtney Vandersloot missed half the season.

"Around the all-star break, I said that we would learn a lot about our coaches and players and their character in the second half of the season. Would they be able to bounce back and overcome all the adversity?" Alter said. "Without question, the answers to those questions have all been positive. The way this team has come together has been amazing."

The Sky's resiliency is much like Alter's over the last decade. There were many times, when barely 2,000 fans were scattered around the Pavilion and losses were piling up, that he could have shut it down.

But Alter has believed in the league, the product and its message. He has been committed to staying the course.

"Any time you start something new, you're going to have thoughts (about cutting your losses)," Alter said. "But you keep working. That's why this (Finals run) is so validating and gratifying to see. It's so nice for everyone who has been here from the beginning. It's so nice for the players and coaches, to see them getting the attention they deserve.

"Now we've just got to keep it going. I don't want this to be a one-time thing."

Early birds:

Sky fans are advised to arrive early for Game 3 of the WNBA Finals. The game is scheduled for an earlier-than-normal starting time (7 p.m.) and Friday rush-hour traffic will certainly be a factor. Plus, there is considerable construction around UIC Pavilion.

The Sky expects a full house. Very few tickets remain for walk-up purchase.

"Capacity is going to be around 6,500 and we should hit that," Sky president Adam Fox said. "It's going to be crowded and a great atmosphere."

Griner game-time decision:

Although she's one of the most physically imposing players in the league, Phoenix center Brittney Griner isn't immune to getting roughed up herself.

Griner chipped a tooth during Game 2 when she got hit in the mouth by an inadvertent elbow from the Sky's Sasha Goodlett. She also suffered an eye injury when she got tangled with Sylvia Fowles.

Griner underwent an outpatient procedure Thursday to correct a retinal issue and will be a game-time decision for Game 3.

Going at Griner:

With a fearlessness honed on the playgrounds of New York City, Sky guard Epiphanny Prince, a Brooklyn native, made a concerted effort to drive the lane in Game 2.

A few times, she was greeted swiftly by the 6-foot-8 Griner. Prince managed to flip a few baskets over Griner, the defensive player of the year.

Griner has 24 blocks in seven playoff games (4 in Game 2).

"(Sylvia Fowles) told me that's there's nothing to be embarrassed about if (Griner) blocks my shot. She's got like a foot on me," the 5-9 Prince laughed. "Syl told me to keep going at her."

Battle of the bigs:

Griner has shown in the Finals why she was voted the league's best defensive player. While racking up blocked shots, she's also keeping Sylvia Fowles in check.

Fowles had just 4 points on 2-of-11 shooting in Game 2. And although she scored 19 points in Game 1, about half came long after the outcome had been decided.

"It's not often that you see Syl get her shot blocked over and over," Sky coach Pokey Chatman said. "That's not a knock on Syl, it's a compliment to Brittney Griner. It's strength versus strength between those two. They're both really strong. The difference is, Griner has more length - a lot more.

"Syl rushed things early in Game 2 and I think she got frustrated. She was anxious to do well. We just want her to relax (in Game 3) and be one of the best post players in the world, like we know she is."

• Patricia Babcock McGraw has covered the Sky since its inaugural season in 2006. She is also a sideline reporter for Sky television games. She can be reached at Follow Patricia on Twitter: @babcockmcgraw

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