This should have been one of the biggest games of the WNBA season. The Atlanta Dream trailed the Chicago Sky by three-and-a-half games in the Eastern Division going into the night, and since they were the only two teams in the East with winning records, it was supposed to be the first battle in a campaign for home-court advantage in the playoffs.
Instead, the game turned into a one-woman show as the Sky’s Elena Della Donne, the league’s most popular rookie and one of its brightest marketing stars, dominated the Dream on both ends of the court.
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The final score Saturday night was 67-56 as the Sky won their fifth straight game and handed the Dream only their second home loss the season.
It was as lopsided as the final score indicated. Most of that was due to Delle Donne, who led all scorers with 25 points along with eight rebounds and two blocked shots.
When the 6-foot-5 forward wasn’t scoring, she was drawing double teams and opening space for her teammates, diving for loose balls, making bullet passes, or bringing the ball down the floor with the grace and skill of a point guard.
“It depends from game to game what I’m going to play,” Delle Donne said afterward. “I was getting a lot more openings as a guard, especially in transition, so we made that switch in the game. We do that a lot.”
She scored 17 of her points in the first half — more than half the Sky’s total — to open up a nine-point lead. In fact, the Dream’s only lead was 2-0. After that it was all Delle Donne. She played the most minutes (36), and was two-for-two from three-point range, the tallest player to put up a three and the only one to shoot 100-percent from outside the line.
The Dream made a late run, pulling to within four points in the fourth quarter, primarily on the strength and leadership of Angel McCoughtry, who finished the night with 20 points and three assists. But she was 0-3 from three-point range while the team shot 3-11 from outside the line. That allowed the Sky to play tough in the paint and use their size to shut the Dream offense down. Atlanta shot only 28.6 percent from the floor.
“That’s a pretty long team to shoot over with (Sylvia) Fowles, Delle Donne and (Swin) Cash out there,” Dream Head Coach Fred Williams said afterward. “We got some good shots, but couldn’t put them down. I thought getting 70 attempts on them that we would be able to get more than we did.”
Both teams looked tired. The Dream played a night game in Washington on Friday while the Sky beat the New York Liberty at home less than 24 hours before this game, which made Delle Donne’s performance stand out even more. While other players had their hands on their thighs or walked down the court, she was setting hard picks, breaking for open looks and going after every rebound, keeping the ball alive on plays where everyone else seemed to have given up.
“Having to play a back-to-back, and coming in here (and winning) after flying in this morning was really great for us,” Della Donne said. “There was a little bit of a lull off and on throughout the first half, but you just have to get your body used to it. The great thing was that everybody stepped up at one point or another during the game.”
No one stepped up more than the girl who has become the face of the WNBA. She was the first rookie in league history to be the leading vote-getter on the All Star ballot, and her picture has adorned billboards and print ads all over the country.
She wears eye-liner during the game — something most players don’t do, but something she understands is an important part of selling women’s basketball. Her off-court appearances attract more fans than any other player in the league, and she is the most interviewed player after every Sky game.
Delle Donne has yet to commit to playing overseas in the off-season. She is heir to one of the largest and most successful real estate companies in Delaware, so she might not be as motivated as other WNBA stars to winter in places like Turkey.
In Chicago, she has become the face of the franchise and boosted attendance to over 7,000 fans per game, another first for the Sky.
Still, Delle Donne recoils at the “leader” label, even though she was clearly the player all of her teammates looked to in Atlanta.
“There is no way that I’m the leader of this team,” she said with a smile that belied her words. “I’m a puzzle piece that goes well with this team, but Swin Cash is our leader. When things are going down, we look to her.”
That could well be true. But it wasn’t the case at Philips Arena. And it probably won’t be the case as the Sky march toward their first division title.