As the public address announcer at Barclays Center called the names of the Chicago Sky starters, the deafening boos of the white-knuckled Liberty fans filling the stands drowned out his voice.
Boos are typical for any team playing in an opposing arena but uncommon for one like the Sky, who tied for the league’s best record in the regular season and, on this night, were in the decisive game of a playoff series against a team that sneaked into the playoffs as the seventh seed. Home-court advantage in big moments is supposed to be the reward for having a better record. Not this time.
The W.N.B.A. switched playoff formats this season, replacing a single-elimination opening round with best-of-three series that put the lower seed at home in Game 3. Sky Coach James Wade has said that he is “not a fan of it at all.”
Still, the raucous environment didn’t seem to bother the No. 2-seeded Sky on Tuesday. With the boos raining down, the starters went through their special handshake routines with guard Kahleah Copper, then propelled Chicago to a 90-72 victory over the Liberty in Game 3 to win their first-round series. The Sky advanced to the semifinals, where they will play the winner of Wednesday night’s matchup between the Connecticut Sun and the Dallas Wings.
Chicago won its first-ever championship last season and, with a win this year, would be the first W.N.B.A. team to repeat since the Los Angeles Sparks in 2002.
On Tuesday, Copper and guard Allie Quigley led the Sky with 15 points apiece, and forward Candace Parker added a near triple-double with 14 points, 13 rebounds and 8 assists. Betnijah Laney led the Liberty with 15 points.
Quigley said the crowd energy played a role in the game and that she wished the Sky could have hosted the first and final games, instead of the first two. “I do remember the crowd at one point and just all the towels flying, and I’m like, ‘All right, we’ve got to figure it out,’” Quigley said with a laugh.
Sabrina Ionescu, the Liberty’s All-Star guard, didn’t have much of an impact in the first three quarters, with just 9 points. But even with her low-scoring output, the Liberty were only down 10 points after the third quarter. When the final period began, Ionescu attacked the basket and scored 2 points while drawing a foul. She missed the free throw, but collected the rebound a few steps behind the 3-point line and launched the ball, scoring again.
The 3-pointer sent the crowd into a frenzy. The Sky called a timeout, and fans swung Liberty towels in the air and roared. After Wade addressed the team, Parker huddled with her teammates and spoke emphatically before the group returned to the floor.
Parker missed a 3-pointer out of the timeout, and the Liberty got the rebound. Laney hit a layup to cut the Sky lead to 3, reigniting the crowd. But the run ended there. The Sky scored 16 unanswered points, which effectively ended the game.
The Sky fell apart in Game 1, losing after the Liberty went on a 13-0 run in the fourth quarter. But Chicago has played like a different team since.
“I think we saw a version of ourselves that we fell in love with,” Copper said, “and that we want to grow on, and there’s just no going back.”
The Sky set a W.N.B.A. playoff record for the largest margin of victory with a 38-point win against the Liberty in Game 2.
“We done set the tone, so anything under that is just unacceptable,” Copper said. “We know how we want to play, and we know what we’re capable of. And that’s what we’re going to do.”
Despite the 18-point margin of victory in Game 3, the win didn’t come easily, even from the start. The Liberty responded to most of the Sky’s scores early, keeping the game tight for much of the first quarter.
Copper, who willed the Sky to their Game 2 victory, helped Chicago stay ahead in the first quarter with a steal and 6 points that included a tough layup over the outstretched arms of multiple Liberty defenders. Sky guards Courtney Vandersloot and Quigley helped extend the lead with 21 of the Sky’s 54 points in the first half. Vandersloot also had four assists in the first half.
Liberty Coach Sandy Brondello said “the more experienced team won tonight.” But she was proud of how her team bounced back from the 38-point loss in Game 2 and is looking forward to improving next season, she said.
“Even when we were losing, we thought we were getting better,” Brondello said. She added: “I think with a few extra players, we can be more aggressive, and that will help us moving forward.”
Liberty forward Natasha Howard, who had 14 points and 11 rebounds, said she was impressed with how the team remained focused despite losing games and dealing with the many “ups and downs” of the 2022 season. Laney, who missed most of the season with a knee injury, echoed Howard.
“I think we grew a lot individually and as a team,” Laney said, “and that’s what it’s going to take. It’s going to take a team to come out and get to the goal we want.”