Monday, October 25, 2021
Home Blog

Sky top Mercury in a thriller for their first WNBA Championship

Matt Marton/USA Today photo.
Matt Marton/USA Today photo.

Chicago – For two teams that weren’t necessarily supposed to be there, the Chicago Sky and the Phoenix Mercury put on a heck of a show Sunday in Game 4 of the WNBA Finals.

In the end, however, it was the hometown Sky with the momentous fourth-quarter push that propelled them to their first-ever WNBA Championship, 80-74. One of the team’s Chicago natives, Allie Quigley, led the way with 26 points, and the other – Candace Parker – scored 16 points and grabbed 13 rebounds.

“We did this for each other,” Quigley said. “Kind of like a breaking point probably a month ago, and I feel like we all looked at each other and we said, what are we going to play for. And Candace the first thing she said she was going to play for me. It was just so inspiring that she wanted me to win a championship so bad, and I just – it just made me want to play harder.”

“And everybody went around and said who they were playing for. In the end we all wanted to play for each other, and that’s what you saw tonight in this whole playoff experience.”

Paul Beaty/AP photo.

It was an ending that had been projected by some in preseason, when Parker signed as a free agent after being with the Los Angeles Sparks for 13 years. But a seven-game losing streak early on, and a .500 record at the end of the regular season, gave them a sixth seed in the playoffs. Phoenix, which had its own ups and downs, was seeded fifth.

Both teams pulled off upsets in the first two playoff rounds, and the Finals series proved electric, with the Sky pulling out the first win, the Mercury the second, and Chicago routing their opponents by 36 points Friday night.

Game 4 was physical and tight until the fourth quarter, when Phoenix ran out to a 14-point lead. The series looked like a guarantee to return to the desert for a fifth matchup, but then the Sky began chipping away at the lead. A Brittney Griner jumper with 4:42 to go gave the Mercury a seven-point lead, but they then hit a wall and only scored two points the rest of the way, while Chicago went on a run.

Paul Beaty/AP photo.

Courtney Vandersloot had 10 points and 15 rebounds for the Sky, while Kahleah Copper, who was named Finals MVP, scored 10 points. Brittney Griner led Phoenix with 28 points, while Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith each had 16.

Chicago coach James Wade said his team pushed through their slump by staying together and feeing off the energy of a sold out Wintrust Arena.

“I guess it was a microcosm of our season where you go down, you go down, and you keep pushing, all right,” Wade said. “Crowd was quiet but they were in it, and they were trying to give us energy, trying to give us energy, and any little thing we did they gave us more energy and gave us more energy, and we fed off of it, but we stayed together.”

It was Parker’s second title win but one of many tight Finals and playoff games in her career. As the final buzzer sounded, she ran towards the sidelines and embraced her family, including 12-year-old daughter Lailaa. Parker then hugged all of her teammates in an emotional scene.

Paul Beaty/AP photo.

“I think the heartbreaks hurt, but this one is so sweet,” Parker said. “Like to do it with this group, I love this group, I love this team, and to do it here at home, it’s just like, all of those heartbreaks, it was just supposed to be today.”

Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said it was Quigley’s scoring barrage during the Sky’s last quarter run that made the difference in the game.

“Allie made some really big shots for them, got them back into the game,” Brondello said. “We left her open, and she made them. Just had some little breakdowns at the wrong time, but we had some really good looks down the other end that we just missed. So it was just makes and misses near the end, but I think that definitely changed momentum.”

The Phoenix players declined to address reporters after the game.

Oregon State freshman class loaded

Talia von Oelhoffen shoots over the defense last season. Oregon State Athletics photo.

‘Remarkable’ is the word Oregon State coach Scott Rueck used when describing what Talia von Oelhoffen was able to accomplish in a condensed “freshman” campaign this past season.

With high school basketball not being played in Washington state this past year due to the pandemic, von Oelhoffen decided it would be beneficial for her to forgo her final semester of high school and enroll early with the Beavers, whom she had already signed with back in November, 2020.

After just two practices, von Oelhoffen, a 5-11 guard, took the court against Washington State and immediately made her presence felt by canning a 3-pointer on her first collegiate shot attempt.

She went on to average 11.3 points and 3.8 rebounds per game, helping her team make a strong push down the stretch that led to an NCAA tournament berth when it looked like there was little hope of that accomplishment, following a five-game losing streak in an Oregon State season disrupted multiple times by COVID-19 protocols.

And she received honorable mention to the all-Pac-12 freshman team.

“There are certain things that no matter what we do as teachers and coaches you cannot replicate – playing against (former Stanford standout) Kiana Williams, playing against (Cardinal standout) Anna Wilson, playing against South Carolina’s guard – there’s … just no way to replicate it,” Rueck said at the Pac-12’s media day this past week in San Francisco.

Von Oelhoffen certainly was thrown to the wolves, as Rueck likes to say. It was a learning experience to say the least, but one that has von Oelhoffen a step or two ahead of most freshman.

“I think playing at this level is definitely something that you can’t really, you don’t really know until you experience it,” she said at media day. “So having that experience going into my freshman year is a blessing. And I feel like, I don’t know, I just learned a lot of lessons from it, and it’s really going to help me going into my freshman year already having that experience.”

Maybe the most important aspect of playing last season – she didn’t lose any eligibility, as the NCAA granted every player an extra year of eligibility due to the pandemic – was the opportunity to play with and learn from the Beavers’ unquestioned leader last season, senior guard Aleah Goodman.

“Just to be able to play behind Aleah Goodman and just learn from her and just the leadership that she showed on the team and just her skill at the point guard position, just being able to watch that up close and get to go against it in practice every day made me a lot better as a player,” von Oelhoffen said. “So having that going into this year, it was super special.”

While there were plenty of positive moments, not everything was a bed of roses, as would be expected. But being able to endure those tough moments will only help von Oelhoffen in her progression as a leader and key contributor the next four seasons.

“I thought Talia did a fantastic job taking those lessons last year, which were a lot of positives but also some tough ones, and being honest with (herself) and saying OK, this is where I need to go in my game and then applying those lessons,” Rueck said.

“She’s in the best shape of her life. Now she’s understood where she needs to go, so that was a massive advantage for her going into this year. And she’s handling those things really well and is better prepared for it. So what a great example she was for all of us on how to handle adversity and then flourish with it, and now grow from it.”

Despite already playing half a season, von Oelhoffen is still a freshman in eligibility and is part of a three-payer class that has the potential to play major roles over the course of their careers at Oregon State.

Greta Kampschroeder. Oregon State Athletics photo.

In addition to von Oelhoffen, fellow guards Greta Kampschroeder and AJ Marotte will likely be called upon this season to fill the void of losing Goodman, who chose to forgo her additional year and was drafted by the Connecticut Sun in the third round of the WNBA draft, and standout freshman Sasha Goforth, who decided to transfer back home to Arkansas.

“They’re three dynamic players that you could make an argument that those are three people that could easily be four-year starters in their college career,” Rueck said. “They have athleticism, they have strength and they have skill and … character through the roof. They’re amazing teammates.”

While von Oelhoffen has a similar game to former Beaver All-American Jamie (Weisner) Scott, Rueck said the 6-0 Kampschroeder, a McDonald’s All-American, has a little Mikayla Pivec and a little Kat Tudor to her game.

She scored 1,735 points and grabbed 853 rebounds in her high school career and averaged 17 points and 10 rebounds her senior season at Naperville North in Illinois.

“For those of you who’ve been watching us, those are big compliments and, not to put pressure on her, but that’s the best way to describe her,” Rueck said. “She’s a catch-and-shoot-first player that has the ability to take you off the dribble, mix it up, fight for every rebound, just like Mik used to. I mean that’s an impactful person.”

AJ Marotte. Oregon State Athletics photo.

Marotte, a former Washington recruit that decided to de-commit when the Huskies made a coaching change, was a four-time Texas 6A all-state selection and finished her career with 1,860 points and 1,132 rebounds.

Rueck said the 6-1 Marotte has the same level of athleticism Goforth displayed last season.

“But she’s filling that void, and that’s a great defender, a rebounder, unbelievable mid-range pullup and then knocks down open threes as well,” he said.