ATLANTA — As the buzzer sounded and the Sky began celebrating a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals, Angel McCoughtry walked back to the Dream bench with her hands on her hips. She stared up at the Philips Arena ceiling, toward where a digital billboard ready "Run with the Dream."
That run came to a stunning end as top-seeded Atlanta led by as many as 20 points but had no answer for the late flurry of Elena Delle Donne, who scored 34 points as Chicago won 81-80 in Game 3 Monday to win the series 2-1.
"We had them on the ropes for three quarters of the game, but sometimes great players can will you a win," said Dream coach Michael Cooper.
For three quarters, the Dream looked poised for a return to the East finals and a rematch with the Fever, whom Atlanta swept 2-0 a year ago.
The Dream raced to a 30-17 lead after a quarter behind 10 points and five rebounds from Sancho Lyttle. She was one of four players with at least five points and after 10 minutes, McCoughtry was third in scoring behind Lyttle and Tiffany Hayes (six) with five points.
Needing a 39-point performance from McCoughtry to keep their season alive in Game 2, it was a strong sign of the Dream returning to the balance that had been their goal throughout the regular season.
It continued as the Dream built a 44-24 ledge off a Erika de Souza layup midway through the second quarter and included an emphatic shot from their star.
McCoughtry drove to the left of the lane and was bumped Chicago’s Tamera Young. The Dream forward took exception to it and walked toward Young, jawing at her and drew a technical foul. After Delle Donne hit the ensuing free throw to give the Sky a 5-0 run, McCoughtry supplied an answer of her own.
Lyttle drove and kicked the ball back out to McCoughtry, who was all alone near the top of the key. She drained a 23-foot three-pointer, thumping her chest as she pulled back on to defense.
The Dream were in control, leading 54-41 at halftime and were up by 19 twice in the third quarter.
But then Delle Donne took over.
"We put the ball in her hands in a comfortable place and she made really big plays," said Chicago coach Pokey Chatman.
After scoring just two points in the first quarter, the 6-foot-5 forward delivered 13 points and an assist during a 17-2 run, capped by a 22-foot three-pointer to pull even at 74-74 with 3:32 to play as the Dream missed five straight shots.
Atlanta responded with a De Souza basket and McCoughtry swiping the ball from Delle Donne for a layup and a 78-74 edge with 2:14 to play. While Sylvia Flowers hit a jumper and a free throw to cut the lead to 78-77, the Dream seemed to have the necessary answer with Shoni Schimmel hitting an off-balance shot int the lane with 29 seconds to play to go up 80-77.
It would be the last points of the Dream’s season as Delle Donne hit twice from within eight feet including the decisive shot with 8.2 seconds left as the Sky went ahead 81-80, their first lead since Epiphanny Prince made it 2-0.
McCoughtry had a chance at the game-winner as she drove through two defenders on the right side, but the shot bounced off the rims multiple times before the horn sounded.
"We got away from what we were doing well," Cooper said. "Execution of the offense got kind of went out the window a little bit … when that happens it kind of rolls over to other areas and our defense got away from us."
All five Atlanta starters finished in double-digit scoring, led by 18 points from De Souza, while McCoughtry had 17 and Lyttle added 14 points and 13 rebounds.
While Atlanta’s season ended in the opening round, Cooper believes this ending was simply a bump in the road.
"We’ll come back bigger and stronger next year," Cooper said. "Our goal is to win a championship and we will get that championship."