In a packed College Park Center on Wednesday night, white “rally towels” rhythmically waving in unison, the Cinderella story for the Dallas Wings appeared to be coming to fruition.
They were hosting their first playoff game since 2009, after winning their first playoff game four days earlier on the road against the Connecticut Sun, 89-79, in Game 2 of the best-of-three first-round series.
Game 3 was a battle from the first whistle. With the game tied at halftime, the sixth-seeded Wings were 20 minutes from reaching the WNBA semifinals for the first time in franchise history.
Among the more than 5,000 fans in the building were Dallas Mavericks CEO Cynt Marshall, WNBA champions Natasha Cloud (Washington Mystics) and Karima Christmas-Kelly (Tulsa Shock), Baylor women’s basketball coach Nicki Collen, NaLyssa Smith of the Indiana Fever and Ja Morant of the Memphis Grizzlies.
But the fairytale ending didn’t materialize. The Sun punched their ticket to their fourth straight semifinals with a 73-58 victory.
It was yet again a tale of two teams and a tale of two halves, as the Wings outperformed their opponent in one game, only to look like a different team in the next. It didn’t help that Isabelle Harrison, one of the team’s most consistent players went down in the first half with an ankle injury and did not return. Her rebounding and defense were missed.
And although she valiantly returned to the court for the first time since Aug. 6 after missing seven games due to abdominal surgery, Arike Ogunbowale was held scoreless in six minutes of playing time. Marina Mabrey led the Wings in scoring with 20 points and Veronica Burton chipped in 10, but no other player was in double figures on a night the Wings shot 20-of-55 from the field.
That didn’t stop coach Vickie Johnson from seeing the positives and a bright future.
“I am proud of this team,” she said. “At the end of the day we fought. We gave 110 percent of effort and energy. It just didn’t go our way. We had too many turnovers, took some quick shots, and weren’t able to get back into transition. But I am proud of this team. Could we have played better? Of course we could have. They played hard.”
There are plenty of positives to take away from a season in which the Wings moved the needle in the right direction. They avoided a losing season for the first time in seven years — one year before moving from Tulsa — by going 18-18. In addition, Sunday’s Game 2 dominating win at Connecticut was their first playoff victory since 2009, when the franchise was in Detroit.
If they want to advance in the playoffs next season, the Wings most likely need to add more players who have a defensive presence and can rebound—like Teaira McCowan, the team’s leading rebounder, who in the last week of the regular season was named the league’s Player of the Week and Player of the Month. They also still need a veteran presence in the locker room and on the court.
Another area that needs to be addressed: identifying a true point guard. Those duties were split this year among Mabrey, Allisha Gray, Ty Harris, and rookie Veronica Burton.
That said, the Wings have a solid roster with some good core pieces to build around. Ogunbowale just signed a long-term extension. Gray signed an extension a year ago, and her stock rose tremendously this season as she showed skills on both ends of the court. Harris and Satou Sabally continued to make huge contributions, and veteran Kayla Thornton had the best season of her career. Burton has enormous potential, and she played so well in her first year that she started games at the end of the regular season and in the playoffs.
There will be decisions to make on three players. Harrison becomes an unrestricted free agent, while Mabrey and McCowan will be restricted free agents.
Arguably the biggest question mark involves Charli Collier, the first pick in the 2021 WNBA draft. She averaged only 4.6 minutes per game during the regular season while playing in only 17 games and never saw the floor in the playoff series. The Wings also must decide what to do with Awak Kuier, the second pick in the 2021 draft, and Jasmine Dickey, a 2022 third-round selection who also saw limited action.
After nearly knocking out the No. 3 seed, what did the Wings learn about themselves this season?
“They are very good when they play together and are carrying out the offensive and defensive gameplan,” Johnson said. “When Arike went out, I told them to believe in themselves, play together, play with energy and effort, and that’s what they did.
“They really believed that they could win. I just felt like they had something to prove in a sense and they carried that type of attitude. We are still good and still can win. It was more of a focus, more of a determination to get the job done.”
Wings president and CEO Greg Bibb praised the efforts of the players and believes even better days are ahead.
“It’s a hard place to win in the WNBA,” Bibb said. “Every team is very good, and the line between winning and losing is razor thin. It’s about health, it’s about momentum, it’s about matchups, but you see it building and I am pleased with the progress we made. I am happy that the organization and our fans are starting to get a little bit of a return on their investment they’ve made over the last couple of years.”
The work the team has put in over the past few years, particularly in the draft, is starting to show, Bibb said. “It’s been a long road, and this rebuild was from the ground up,” he added. “If you pull back the covers, it’s not all about the draft. It takes draft, trades, development of players … a lot of moving parts.”
Added Johnson, “Last year was important for us to get to the playoffs. This year, even though we wanted to go further, to get that first win in the playoffs and get that experience was key.”
“And now next year will be an opportunity to advance to the semifinals, take the next step forward as a team, offensively and defensively and continue to build our confidence, trust, sisterhood — all the things that come with a winning team.”
The next challenge for the Wings: take what they learned this season and go places they’ve never been.