The Chicago Sky are headed to the playoffs for the first time in their eight years in the WNBA.
Sylvia Fowles scored 14 points to lead Chicago to an 82-64 win over the New York Liberty on Friday night, clinching the Sky's first playoff berth in team history. The Sky (19-8) have won four straight and six of seven, locking up their first winning record with a victory Tuesday at Washington.
The playoff berth will be especially sweet for Fowles, who has been with the Sky since 2008 and already has won the most games of her career.
"It feels good. Just thinking about from the first training camp, into the first preseason game just knowing what you have around you," said Fowles, the league's leading rebounder who had seven boards in 21 minutes. "All these good players we're surrounded by just make it all so much better to be on this team and have this opportunity with this group of young women."
Sky coach Pokey Chatman knows Fowles well from their time together at LSU, and recognized what Friday's win meant to the center.
"I'm excited for her because she hasn't experienced this, and I have a personal connection just from the length of our relationship that goes way back," Chatman said. "So I'm happy for Sylvia, but also everybody and this franchise."
Chicago led 38-33 at halftime and outscored New York 29-12 in the third quarter to take control of the game before resting its starters the entire fourth quarter. The Sky play Saturday at Atlanta.
Elena Delle Donne and Swin Cash scored 11 apiece and Courtney Vandersloot added 10 for the Sky, who swept the five-game season series from the Liberty.
Chicago leads the Eastern Conference by 3½ games over Atlanta, which lost 74-64 to Washington.
"Playoffs is the first step. Now we've put ourselves in the position where we could have the best record in the East, best overall record," Cash said. "I'd be lying to you if I didn't say (the best record) wasn't on the radar, but for us it's really about taking every game at a time."
As Cash noted, if the Sky win every game they can control their playoff destiny. New York, meanwhile, is struggling to just reach the playoffs.
Plenette Pierson led New York (10-16) with a season-high 25. The Liberty have lost three straight to fall two games behind Washington and Indiana for the final playoff spot in the East. They hope to make up ground in their three games before the end of the month.
"We've got a big stretch of games coming up right here, there's a lot of games that we can win, and we have to win them," New York coach Bill Laimbeer said. "If we don't, we're going to be in trouble."
Cappie Pondexter, New York's leading scorer, was back in the lineup after missing the Liberty's 88-57 loss Sunday to Minnesota with a bruised left heel. She didn't score until hitting a free throw with 39.3 seconds left in the first half and finished with a season-low three points on 1-for-8 shooting.
Pondexter, a Chicago native, said she "felt pretty good" moving on the injury, which has kept her out of practice for two weeks.
"It's tough, especially the way I play," Pondexter said. "But, you know, it happens I guess. You deal with these kind of things. It's just a matter of getting back healthy."
Chicago has other things to worry about. With a win Saturday against Atlanta, the Sky can take a big step toward securing home-court advantage in the East, and keep pace with Minnesota (19-7), the leader in the West.
"We just want to keep going for the best record and just take one game at a time," Fowles said.
Chatman is focusing on the "one-game at a time" part. Especially given that the Sky have a 5:30 a.m. flight to Atlanta to face the Dream.
"No, that's what you guys can do," Chatman said. "I'm going to set my sights on how to stop (Dream star) Angel McCoughtry."