Skylar Diggins’ strong play helped the perennial cellar-dwelling Tulsa Shock rise to the top of the Western Conference while masking the absences of two other top players.
Tulsa hasn’t been nearly the same since losing Diggins for the season, and it now looks to avoid a winless four-game road trip when it faces the Atlanta Dream on Tuesday night.
The Shock haven’t won more than 12 games since relocating from Detroit for the 2010 season, but Diggins averaged 17.8 points during Tulsa’s surprising 8-1 start to this campaign. That run was particularly impressive with All-Star Glory Johnson out for the season while pregnant and Odyssey Sims having played in just three games before injuring her knee.
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Diggins, though, suffered a torn ACL with 44 seconds remaining in a 93-89 win over Seattle on June 28 after netting 31 points. The Shock have dropped all three games since Diggins went down, and there’s no timetable for Sims’ return.
Riquna Williams took Diggins’ spot in the starting lineup and scored 22 points in Friday’s 98-95 loss to Los Angeles. She finished with only seven in a 31-point loss to Phoenix the previous night, though.
Coach Fred Williams is searching for others to step up in the wake of the injuries as the Shock prepare for an Atlanta team with which he’s quite familiar.
Williams coached the Dream (5-6) to the 2013 WNBA Finals but didn’t have his contract renewed before taking the job with Tulsa. Michael Cooper took over for Atlanta, which has the league’s second-leading scorer in Angel McCoughtry at 20.7 points per game.
McCoughtry scored 23 in Sunday’s 72-64 win over Seattle, the Dream’s first victory by more than three points this season. They have won back-to-back games after dropping four of their previous five.
Atlanta also got a spark from the returns of Tiffany Hayes and Aneika Henry after they both missed five games playing for Azerbaijan in Europe. Hayes scored 12 points, but Cooper was most impressed with his club’s defensive effort after an eight-day layoff.
Sancho Lyttle played well down low while finishing with eight points and a season-high 15 rebounds.
"I think that if (Lyttle) continues this stride that she’s going in, at the end of the year she has to be highly favored as Defensive Player of the Year," Cooper told the team’s official website. "She’s always taking on the other best big as far as offensive goal. She does it without missing a beat. Her defense has been a staple and that’s what’s going to take us where we want to get to, and that’s a championship."
With Hayes and Henry back, the Dream dealt guard Samantha Logic to San Antonio for a second-round pick. Atlanta selected Logic with the No. 10 pick in this year’s draft, but Cooper couldn’t get her consistent minutes.
The Dream won both meetings with Tulsa last season, as McCoughtry scored 21 points in an 85-75 win July 31 before Atlanta overcame 24 from Diggins and 23 from Sims in a 92-76 victory Aug. 15.