Above the Clouds: WNBA Travel Troubles Hit Sky in Post All-Star Break Loss

By Chris Pennant (@kwandarykitten)

2019 has been a watershed year for the WNBA.

The league has increased its reach and connects with a wider base of fans seemingly each game. However, while the brighter spotlight has exposed the excitement of top-tier women’s basketball on a nightly basis, it’s also shown the unnecessary hurdles players and personnel face just to subsist.

Nowhere has this been more evident than with the Chicago Sky over the past seven days. Three of their players got an invite to All-Star Weekend, all facets of which were prominently televised on ESPN: the drafting of teams, the skills challenge and three-point shootout, and of course, the game itself, which did not disappoint. A group of Sky players even went out to Las Vegas to support their teammates instead of relaxing on their time off, and boosted Diamond DeShields to a victory in the Skills Challenge.

Even though Allie Quigley couldn’t complete a “three-peat” (all puns intended), it was a good weekend for the W and a positive for a team looking to establish sustained success, starting with the second half of their season.

Instead, the negative side of WNBA life reared its head once again: transportation problems. Chicago was scheduled to leave Monday afternoon for Hartford in preparation for their Tuesday night game against the Connecticut Sun, but according to local media, only James Wade and a couple of assistant coaches departed on time. The rest of the team was stuck at O’Hare Airport for more than 11 hours before they were able to make their way to Connecticut.

The arduous travel did the Sky no favors against the league-leading Sun, but they threw everything they could at the hosts in a furious fourth-quarter rally before coming up short in a 100-94 loss.

“We’re never going to give up,” said guard Courtney Vandersloot, who scored 22 points and dished out 11 assists for her third double-double of the season. “We’ve erased 20-point deficits, 10-point deficits. It’s kind of inside us; we know it. We’re never going to stop fighting.”

The Sun (14-6) led by as many 21 points in the second half and were up 91-71 with just over seven minutes remaining, but Courtney Vandersloot’s three-pointer with 1:18 left cut the lead to 94-90. They would get no closer, however, as Jonquel Jones (27 points, 11 rebounds) hit four free throws in the final minute to seal the game.

Quigley added 24 points for the Sky, who dropped to 3-6 on the road and 11-9 overall.

‘It’s not healthy’

Coach Wade and his players eschewed using the travel delay as an excuse for the loss, but some admitted they weren’t at their best for the game.

“It affects you a lot,” said forward Cheyenne Parker in an interview with the Sun-Times’ Madeline Kenney. “I know for myself and a couple of other players, we swell up in our legs and feet when we travel.

“Being active, having to run up and down the court, it can really play a toll. Thankfully no one got hurt tonight, but it’s definitely not something we should do. It’s not healthy.”

The ongoing travel issues are not new for the league. The Indiana Fever had to charter a bus from Atlanta to Indianapolis earlier this season after plane trouble grounded them, and the Las Vegas Aces decided to forfeit rather than play last year after enduring a 25-hour journey from Washington, D.C. back to Nevada. However, the combination of the collective-bargaining agreement expiring at year’s end, the recent ascension of inaugural league commissioner Cathy Engelbert and the ever-growing push for equity in women’s sports has pushed the issue to the forefront.

Engelbert made a point to prioritize improving the players’ travel experience at her introductory press conference in June.

“Within player experience is health and wellness, as well as obviously the travel issue,” she said. “So I am going to work tirelessly on this particular issue, whether is has to be negotiated within the CBA, or we have flexibility to look at enhancing the player experience, particularly the travel experience.”

Following the game, Wade tweeted that his players were “the best professionals in the business” for how they handled the situation. Still, the call for better travel accommodations promises to only get louder, even as the playoff race heats up.

The Race is On

The Sky’s loss dropped them into sixth place, a half-game back of Seattle and only two games ahead of eighth-place Minnesota. Still, no places are etched in stone. Only four games separate first and eighth, and two teams (New York and Indiana) have a legitimate shot at the last spot in the playoff bracket.

The WNBA playoff format, introduced in 2016, gives the top two teams a double-bye into a best-of-five semifinal, while the other six seeds play a do-or-die single elimination game. The Sky would much rather bypass that particular pitfall, but they’ll have to bear down to make up the necessary ground. Eight of their final 14 games are away from home and nine games are against teams .500 or better. Chicago is 4-8 against those teams so far.

Wade and his crew will certainly be tested over the final month-plus of the WNBA season. The coach has his group trusting and believing in themselves. Now they hope not to weather any more unforeseen plane troubles.

The Sky finish their road trip Saturday evening against the Atlanta Dream. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 pm CT.

Beast of the Week: Allie Quigley came up just short of reaching the finals of the Three-Point Contest for the third straight year, but she did not lose a step coming out of the break. The 24 points was one short of her season high, and she’s canned 21 of 45 three-pointers over the last six games (46.7%). One important note: the Sky are actually 1-3 when Quigley scores 20 or more, so look for DeShields and Vandersloot to help carry the scoring load if the Sky want to win more down the stretch.

One Last Thing: Stefanie Dolson pulled down 10 boards in the loss to the Sun, her first double-digit rebounding effort of the season. In the month of July, Dolson averaged 9.4 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.5 blocks, compared to 9.1/4.9/0.7 in May and June…Gabby Williams was held out of Tuesday’s game with an undisclosed illness, according to Sky personnel.

Until next time, keep your head above the clouds.

Stats courtesy of WNBA.com and Basketball-Reference

Chris Pennant covers professional and amateur basketball for WARR Media

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