The end of the 2019 Chicago Sky season felt unjust compared to how its regular season went.
Las Vegas Aces forward Dearica Hamby’s steal and near-half-court jumper to eliminate Chicago from the postseason was beyond a knife in the back.
It was like I was an unsuspecting field mouse foraging for food at night and suddenly, an owl swooped down in absolute silence to swiftly end my existence.
The four seconds that transpired as Sky point guard Courtney Vandersloot desperately attempted to get the ball across midcourt… as Hamby intercepted the pass mid-air then once again left her feet… as the ball flew toward the Chicago goal like a guided missile…
It was the most painful such span of time in a basketball game for me yet to date. It still feels impossible for many reasons.
I became a Sky fan when the WNBA announced the franchise prior to the 2006 season. It was the closest club to me geographically, and I didn’t have a favorite WNBA team at the time. I fell in love with Chicago after it drafted Elena Delle Donne in 2013. Pairing her with Swin Cash and Syliva Fowles, the team reached the Finals the following year and made a run of four consecutive playoff appearances.
The following two seasons were harder to swallow. Trading away Delle Donne helped the team acquire a good number of assets, but the descent to the bottom of the standings still stung.
Last season seemed to be the reward for that sacrifice.
Up to that point, the campaign had been a storybook one for the Sky. General manager/head coach James Wade’s second season saw the team reach the 20-win mark and earn a home playoff game.
Diamond DeShields solidified herself as an All-Star. Vandersloot broke her own single-season assists record along the way. Her wife, Allie Quigley, led the league in 3-point field goals attempts made, shooting almost 45 percent from downtown on the season. Stefanie Dolson became one of the league’s most efficient scorers, giving the team an interior presence.
The Sky led the league in “clutch wins,” nabbing 14 of their 20 victories in such fashion.
Chicago proved that crunch time was theirs once again during their playoff opener, coming out of halftime with a 12-0 run to establish themselves against the Phoenix Mercury. DeShields scored 25 points in her first playoff game, the fifth-highest total ever in such a debut.
The Sky posted their biggest margin of victory ever in a playoff game 105-75—though let’s admit that was at least partially because Phoenix was without Diana Taurasi for the entire game and Brittney Griner for almost three quarters.
It was the first time since 2016 that the Mercury lost a playoff elimination game and was also the fourth-most lopsided WNBA playoff game ever. Fortunately for Chicago fans, Quigley seemed unhampered by her collision with Griner and was a full-go for the next single-elimination game against Las Vegas.
Up to the last 11-plus seconds, that game seems like a historical footnote now. It’s like the minutes before a car crash, erased from memory by a far more impactful slew of seconds.
After the ball departed the bottom of the net, the utter shock set in. The greatest theatrical depiction of the emotion of that moment (I can think of) is the scene from Braveheart when William Wallace realizes Robert the Bruce has betrayed him. It was utter despair and disbelief.
My stream of consciousness read something like this:
Did Hamby step out of bounds before she got the shot off?
Should the officials go back and add time to the clock?
This can’t be real…
Nobody steals passes from the first half of Vanderquigz. Nobody!
Much less in such a crucial moment.
Such a thing defies the laws of science and parameters of reason!
The fact that Hamby not only had the audacity to intercept a Vandersloot pass at that moment by some supernatural device but also to attempt that shot and make such a shot attempt was the ultimate injury added to insult.
There was enough time left at that point for the Aces to run some semblance of a play. They were only down by two at the time… They didn’t need a 3-point basket at home!
The smart play would have been to pull the ball down and get it into the hands of one of the team’s facilitators like guard Kayla McBride to force overtime at worst.
Regardless of the impossibility, it was reality. Looking at the time left on the clock made the inevitable sink in: The season was over in the most improbable way possible. A ball out of the hands of the league’s best passer failed to connect with its target. The league’s best team at pulling out close wins failed to do so when the season was on the line.
“I can’t believe that shot” @dearicamarie
— WNBA (@WNBA) September 15, 2019
Of course, it’s possible that a Las Vegas player might have made a 3-point basket on an ensuing possession anyway and the final score would have been the same. Additionally, the Aces might have relied on their stalwart defense and bested the Sky in an overtime session.
All that would have been easier to swallow than what actually transpired.
In the history of sports, it was one of those unforgettable moments. I’m sure, for Las Vegas fans, it was pure elation.
For me, however, it was the most painful four seconds of basketball ever.
Derek Helling is a TBW staff writer and freelance journalist who resides in Kansas City, Mo. He is a 2013 graduate of the University of Iowa and covers the intersections of sports with business and the law.