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Kahleah Copper, Sky’s ’emotional leader,’ takes them to the brink of WNBA Finals

Chicago Sky guard and 2021 WNBA Finals MVP Kahleah Copper is an unrestricted free agent. (Randy Belice/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Sky faced their biggest deficit of the game with 8:06 remaining in the fourth quarter Sunday. After Kaila Charles’ jumper extended the Sun’s lead to seven in Game 3 of a WNBA semifinal series tied at one, the Sky needed an answer for Connecticut’s offensive momentum.

Kahleah Copper lamented her lack of energy after Chicago’s loss in Game 2. The Sky’s “emotional leader,” as coach James Wade referred to her after the game, took that feeling into Sunday’s game, leading the Sky’s 86-83 comeback win over the Sun with nine points in the fourth quarter.

“Kah’s energy was infectious,” Wade said. “She was really good everywhere — defensively, offensively, when we needed big plays. Her and [Allie] Quigley made them and it kept us in the game.”

Copper led all scorers with 26 points, tying her season-high, on an efficient 9-for-14 shooting from the field and 3-for-6 from 3-point range. None of those points were more important than in the middle of the fourth quarter, when it looked like the No. 1 Sun might pull away behind DeWanna Bonner’s slick shooting and the latest act in Alyssa Thomas’ comeback tour.

Copper started chipping away at the Sun’s lead with just under seven minutes left in the game.

She hit a long jumper and drove the lane for a layup to pull the Sky within three. After Azurá Stevens gave Chicago a one-point lead with a layup at the 4:10 mark, Copper delivered the dagger, putting Connecticut in a hole it wouldn’t escape.

The 6-foot-1 forward went hard to the basket, beating Jasmine Thomas one-on-one and drawing the foul on the basket to energize her teammates and the crowd at Wintrust Arena. With Copper’s three-point play, the Sky took a 78-74 lead.

“She was the recipient of some of our schemes, but she took advantage of it and had a great night and was really a spark for them,” Sun coach Curt Miller said of Copper. “You see why throughout the regular season she was their leading scorer.”

Copper has been with the Sky since 2017, playing under Wade since he took over as head coach in 2019. It wasn’t until last year during the WNBA’s bubble season that Copper became a full-time starter and her potential was finally on full display. The Rutgers product averaged 14.9 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in 2020, up from her previous season-high averages of 7.1 points and 3.1 rebounds.

Copper, 27, carried that momentum into this season, serving as one of Chicago’s many threats next to Quigley, Courtney Vandersloot and Candace Parker.

“When Kah is like that, it’s hard not to just jump on board with her. It’s so contagious,” Vandersloot said. “She’s obviously a very special athlete, but when she is like that emotionally, she’s so much fun to play with.”

“I love the and-ones, but I think it’s just the little stuff that she does that people don’t notice, like getting through screens really quick, getting that huge defensive rebound where [Briann] January had to foul her,” Parker said. “It’s been really fun and new for me to jump on that energy.”

With the Sky now one win away from the WNBA Finals, Copper is taking her role especially seriously. She and the Sky not only feel like they’re playing their best basketball right now — they also look around the room after a win like Sunday’s and believe they have all the right pieces to win the first championship in franchise history.

“Sloot said something in the locker room just a couple seconds ago about her enjoying my and-one more than me,” said Copper, seated next to Parker and Vandersloot during the postgame press conference. “That is the ultimate leadership. The piece that we need in order to win a championship is celebrating others.

“I’m just trying to do whatever I can out there, just be that person for us.”

Hannah Withiam is the Managing Editor at Just Women’s Sports. She previously served as an editor at The Athletic and a reporter at the New York Post. Follow her on Twitter @HannahWithiam.