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Why the Chicago Sky’s turnaround is the real deal

(Scott Taetsch / Getty Images)

Just a couple of weeks ago, many were prepared to hit the panic button on the Chicago Sky. A popular preseason favorite, the Sky quickly found themselves toward the bottom of the league standings after a seven-game losing streak dropped them to 2-7.

On the outside, the record and injury list provided reason for alarm. But within the team, there was no panicking. For James Wade and his players, it was always about the next game.

The Sky found solace in the 2020 Connecticut Sun, who started the season 1-6 only to storm back and knock Chicago out of the playoffs. The Sun were an example that a slow start doesn’t define a team, and especially one that’s missing key players on the floor in Candace Parker, Allie Quigley and Stefanie Dolson.

“That was an example for us, like hey, we still got a lot of season left,” said Wade, Chicago’s head coach and general manager. “Let’s recommit ourselves to what we want to do, let’s get healthy, let’s not press the panic button, try not to rush people back. Let’s take our time and try to learn, just try to win the next one. We just started focusing on the next game.”

It helped that the Sky weren’t getting blown out during their losing streak. Every loss but one was by single digits and two went to overtime. Those close games undoubtedly prepared the Sky for what came next.

Chicago’s offense has been off the charts during its current seven-game win streak. With their 91-68 win over the Liberty on Thursday night, the Sky set a new franchise record for consecutive wins. In two weeks, the Sky have gone from the bottom of the WNBA standings to fourth place at 9-7.

During this most recent stretch, the Sky are averaging 90.7 points per game compared to just 76 points through the first nine games of the season. They’re also shooting 47.3 percent from the field and 37.7 percent from the 3-point line as opposed to 38.3 percent from the field and 31.5 percent from beyond the arc to start the season.

The Sky are also taking far better care of the ball with Parker and Quigley back in the mix. Chicago is averaging 23.7 assists and just 13 turnovers in its last seven games, a dramatic shift from the 17.3 turnovers they were committing per game in the early portion of the season.

“You have all these pieces that complement each other, and if you take a few of those pieces away, you’re left more empty,” Wade said. “The shooting percentages, the turnover numbers that went down are attributed to having 90 percent of our roster here.”

The Candace Parker effect

The Sky are 8-0 this season when Parker is on the floor. Parker’s elite ability to make plays and demand a defense’s attention creates opportunities on the court that otherwise wouldn’t be there. She is a true generational talent who’s capable of playing any position and she has one of the greatest minds in the game. Simply put, it’s no wonder the entire game plan changes when she is on the court.

Chicago plays through Parker and she touches the ball on nearly every possession. Parker has the size and skill set to get the ball off the glass, push it herself and initiate offense, forcing opponents to pay attention to her at all times.

A basketball great like Parker can make her teammates better and increase their confidence.

“She’s won at every level, she’s carried a team on her shoulders,” Wade said. “It makes all of our other players think that they have the potential to be great or that they are great, and it puts them on a level of comfort knowing that a player like her has their back.

“You look at players that have influenced the game and changed the game like she has, they make you have to guard them differently and change your whole game plan. She is a playmaking 5, for the most part, that handles the ball. There’s just no way you can prepare for that.”

Ruthy Hebard’s emergence

One of those players operating with a ton of confidence right now is Ruthy Herbard. The second-year forward was thrust into a bigger role earlier in the season because of the Sky’s depleted roster and delivered while playing nearly 28 minutes per game.

Hebard’s offense was crucial in Chicago’s fifth-straight win over the Sun on June 19 when she made a couple of buckets in the fourth quarter to seal the Sky’s 91-81 win. The forward finished with 13 points on 6-of-7 shooting from the floor.

A positive outcome of the early season struggles is that players like Hebard got valuable in-game experience, giving Chicago more quality depth options when the results matter even more later in the season.

“Ruthy stepped up big. I don’t know if she could do that if she didn’t play as much as she did during the earlier part of the season,” Wade said. “It helps their confidence, it helps the team’s confidence in them. Now that we have a few of our leaders back, it’s only going to make for a deeper team and makes us more versatile.”

Allie Quigley, bench star?

Allie Quigley has been a steady and consistent force for the majority of her career in Chicago. It is no surprise the Sky were hurting without her veteran leadership, calming presence and scoring ability.

During the seven-game win streak, Quigley has been the Sky’s leading scorer, averaging 14.3 points per game on 49 percent shooting from the field and 49 percent from the 3-point line.

And Quigley has been doing it all while coming off the bench. Wade’s strategy to have her be a part of the rotation is not something all three-time All-Stars would embrace.

“Allie is special. It doesn’t change when we play her or where we play her from, we’re going to play for her. Our offense is going to be predicated on her,” Wade said. “It is easier for us to put her in there and run plays for her after the game has changed a little bit.”

The X-factor: Free throws

Here is a stat we don’t talk about enough: Free-throw numbers. The Sky are the best free-throw shooting team in the WNBA, finishing 87.2 percent of those shots this season. Quigley leads the way, shooting 95 percent from the line during the Sky’s seven-game win streak.

During their win streak, the Sky are getting to the line nearly twice more per game. That might not seem like a huge deal, but over the course of the season, that efficiency and consistency can help push a team over the edge. The Sky’s ability to knock down free throws will help them secure close games down the stretch.

New Washington Spirit Head Coach Jonatan Giráldez Arrivin DC

head coach Jonatan Giráldez
Jonatan Giráldez joins the NWSL from FC Barcelona Femení. (Ramsey Cardy/UEFA via Getty Images)

Five months after announcing that the Washington Spirit had hired Barcelona Femení coach Jonatan Giráldez as the team's new head coach, Giráldez has joined the club in Washington, DC.

Giráldez is coming off of a successful season with the Spanish side, having won UEFA Women's Champions League, Copa de la Reina, Supercopa, and Liga F in his final season to complete a lauded Quadruple.

While Giráldez was finishing out his tenure in Europe, Adrián González filled in as Spirit interim head coach. González has also seen success, leading the team to its third-place standing with a 9-3-1 record through 13 games.

“I’m thrilled to join the Spirit and begin this next chapter with the club,” Giráldez said in an official team statement. “To be part of the vision Michele Kang has for the Spirit and women’s soccer globally is an exciting opportunity.”

Giráldez has worked at Barcelona since 2019, initially coming on as an assistant coach before moving up to head coach in 2021. The team went 30-0-0 on the season under Giráldez during his first year as manager.

He brings along with him Andrés González and Toni Gordo, who will serve as the Spirit's Fitness Coach and Club Analyst, respectively.

US Track & Field Olympic Trials Touch Down in Oregon

Sha’Carri Richardson competes in the women’s 200-meter preliminary round during the USATF Outdoor Championships
Sha’Carri Richardson will have some competition this week as athletes vie for an Olympic berth. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

The US Olympic Track & Field Trials begin on June 21st, kicking off a 10-day quest to determine who will represent the US in Paris this summer.

The crucial meet will take place in Eugene, Oregon, where the top three finishers in each event will punch their ticket to the 2024 Olympics. As with this past week's US Swimming Trials, even the most decorated athletes must work to earn their spot — and one bad performance could undermine four years of preparation.

Reigning 100-meter World Champion Sha'Carri Richardson headlines this year's field, as the 24-year-old looks to qualify for her second Olympic Games and compete in her first. Richardson is a world champion in both the 100-meter and 200-meter sprint, but missed the Tokyo Olympics due to testing positive for THC shortly after the last US Olympic Trials.

Other standouts include 400-meter Olympic gold medal-winning hurdler Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone, who's currently the most decorated athlete in the active women's US Track & Field pool. McLaughlin-Levrone qualified to run in the 200-meter and 400-meter flat races alongside the 400-meter hurdles at the Olympic Trials, but opted to focus solely on her signature event.

800-meter specialist Athing Mu will also be a huge draw this week, as the Olympic gold medalist looks to shake off a lingering hamstring injury while pursuing her second Summer Games. Gold medal-winning pole vaulter Katie Moon will also attempt to qualify for her second-straight Olympic Games.

Ole Miss star McKenzie Long could be Richardson's greatest competition in the 100-meter and 200-meter events, as well as Richardson's Worlds teammate Gabby Thomas in the 200-meter. In field events, watch for Oregon senior Jaida Ross going head-to-head with reigning world champion Chase Jackson in the shot put, as both push for their first Olympic team berth.

Regardless of why you tune in, the US Olympic Trials are a perpetually thrilling and sometimes brutal qualification process. If you're able to make your way to the head of the pack, a shot at Olympic glory might just be waiting at the finish line.

Fans can catch live coverage throughout the Trials via NBC, USA, and Peacock.

Top Teams Square Off in NWSL Weekend Slate

NWSL Orlando Pride forward Barbra Banda
Orlando Pride, led by forward Barbra Banda, will take on Utah in this weekend's NWSL action. (Nicholas Faulkner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

As the NWSL season continues, a few top-performing clubs will have a chance to boost their standings this weekend.

First-place Kansas City will travel to Providence Park to take on fifth-place Portland, as the Current look to keep their unbeaten streak intact. And in New Jersey, third-place Washington will take on fourth-place Gotham FC, with both teams attempting to extend multi-game unbeaten streaks.

A six-point gap has opened between the fifth and sixth spot on the NWSL table — with just six points also separating the league's top five. Kansas City, Orlando, Washington, Gotham, and Portland have recently proven themselves to be a cut above the rest of the competition. With eight postseason spots up for grabs and half the season behind us, a pattern is forming that indicates the playoff race could come down to spots six through eight on the NWSL table.

Of those top five teams, only Orlando faces an opponent in the bottom half of the league this weekend: The Pride will take on 14th-place Utah, who nonetheless are coming off a win — just their second of the season — over Bay FC last weekend.

But despite Kansas City and Orlando having yet to lose a game, Gotham might be the squad coming into the weekend with the most momentum.

Clutch goals from Rose Lavelle and rookie Maycee Bell gave the Bats a 2-0 midweek win over San Diego on Wednesday, in a rematch of the 2024 Challenge Cup. Gotham's unbeaten streak dates all the way back to April, as rising availability and sharpened form have honed this year's superteam into a contender.

Bottom line? As the NWSL season passes the halfway mark, some matches might begin to feel more like playoff previews than mere regular season battles.

Chelsea Gray Returns From Injury in Aces Win Over Seattle

las vegas aces chelsea gray and kelsey plum celebrate a win over the seattle storm
Gray has been sidelined with a foot injury since the 2023 WNBA Finals. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Chelsea Gray made her return to the basketball court on Wednesday, helping the Aces to a 94-83 win over the Seattle Storm. 

The lauded point guard missed the first 12 games of the season, having been injured in last year’s WNBA Finals. The left foot injury caused her to miss Game 4 of the championship series, and she’s continued to rehab it through the beginning of the 2024 season. 

Her return on Wednesday was capitalized by the fact that she needed just 20 seconds to make an impact and record her first assist. While she finished with just one point, she had seven assists, four rebounds, and two blocks to go alongside it in 15:30 minutes. Gray's contributions on the night brought her career assist record up to 1,500.

"I probably went through every emotion leading up to today," Gray said after the game. "I was a little anxious all day. It's been a long time since I've been out on that court. But the fans were amazing from the time I came out to warm up to the time I checked in the game. It was a rush and a feeling I missed a lot."

It’s been a roller coaster of a season so far for Las Vegas, who have lost five of their last seven games. Gray, who averaged 15.3 points, 7.3 assists, and 4.0 rebounds in 2023, has proven herself a much-needed addition to the team’s lineup.

"Felt like my heart," Aces coach Becky Hammon said when asked how she felt hearing the crowd erupt for Gray's return. "She's the leader of our team. I thought she did a wonderful job too."

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