An improbable victory sends the Wings to the playoffs.
DALLAS—When the clock hit zero Friday night at the College Park Center, the crowd erupted in delight, and a bit of surprise, too.
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Dallas had not only won its first game since July 19, but they locked in the last spot in the playoffs with a win over the Las Vegas Aces.
Liz Cambage bent over, grabbing her knees in tears, emotionally spent.
“We grew during the losses, as a team we learned a lot,” Cambage told reporters later, when asked about the losing streak. “The weight got heavier and heavier,” she continued, her voice trembling. “It’s made us stronger, we’re focusing on Seattle next.”
The weight is gone, and clearly, both Cambage and her team are elated her team is headed to her first WNBA playoffs, the day before her 27th birthday. She finished with 43 points and 13 rebounds—the only other player this season to score 40 points in a game this season is… Cambage, when she scored 53 and set the league’s single-game record back in July.
In the postgame, on-court celebration, she embraced Skylar Diggins-Smith, who seemed a bit caught off-guard—Diggins-Smith later found Cambage again as the Dallas crowd cheered for them, remaining in the building, and Diggins-Smith jumped into her arms as Cambage held her like a child—everyone, after all, is small compared to Cambage. Diggins-Smith finished with 23 points, 13 rebounds and three assists.
Rookie Azura Stevens then found her “big”, with their matching hair parts, and embraced Cambage. The relationship between the two has flourished because of what Cambage wished she’d had in a teammate her rookie season.
After it was over, Diggins-Smith, with a lone playoff game in her six-year WNBA career, tempered her celebration thinking of her former coach, Fred Williams, who Wings players still think about and miss after his abrupt dismissal last week.
“He brought us together, we love Coach Fred,” Diggins-Smith told High Post Hoops following the game. “He still texts me, we talk still, it’s bigger than basketball. He believed in me when nobody else did.”
The arena was littered with believers Friday night. Fans were on their feet, oil tycoons high-fiving school teachers, grown men danced, one yelling, “We’re going to playoffs baby!”
Most fans took in the postgame celebration and didn’t leave until Cambage and Diggins-Smith were done with their TV interviews. They again erupted, thanking the duo who had brought them to a playoff appearance after a long season with an unexpected downturn.
Adding to the emotional alchemy: savoring a victory they know could be the last time they see Cambage in a Wings uniform.
Cambage addressed her comments on possibly not returning, and didn’t retreat from them in the moment.
“I’m putting myself first, I’ve been through stuff,” Cambage said after the game.
Cambage was noticeably emotional throughout the game, often yelling after a Aces player picks up another foul giving her the and-1. The crowd reacted, boisterously, every time. The energy and excitement reached another level every time she touched the ball, like Staples Center when Kobe Bryant played his last game there, thousands knowing it might be the last time they see a legend.
Wings fans held onto every possession from the start—the loudest they’ve been all season. Although Vegas played with more intensity out the gate, momentum shifted in the second quarter, the sloppy turnovers perhaps due to nerves receding.
The arena’s loudest moment, before the win itself was secured, came after Cambage took the ball coast to coast, getting the bucket and a foul. That was followed by a Vegas turnover and bucket from Allisha Gray. You could barely hear yourself think.
Dallas came out shooting strong in the second half. Interim head coach Taj McWilliams-Franklin could be seen laughing on the sidelines, remaining calm throughout the contest. Players often mimicking her composure, remaining focused on not blowing the lead.
That continued after the game, even as a McWilliams-Franklin assistant called for her to be “Coach of the year!” as she spoke to reporters, McWilliams-Franklin jokingly responding, “I’ll pay you later.”
When asked how she felt about making the playoffs in her first win as a head coach, McWilliams-Franklin said, “The same way it felt last year. When I was an assistant coach, I was just as excited.”
The game was not without its setbacks. As Cambage put it, “(Tonight) It was a battle, we wanted a win. We finally got what we needed, left it all out there.” Wings players end up on the floor a number of times for a period of time throughout the contest.
During the locker room interviews, Wings trainer Allison Russell was still tending to Kayla Thornton after she was elbowed by A’ja Wilson. They walked back to the shower area as the media conducted interviews. At one point during interviews, loud groaning could be heard, presumably Thornton, from the same area.
Without question, though, the Wings had recovered, improbably, and what seemed like it might stand as a season of wasted potential instead means one WNBA playoff team will receive the unenviable task of trying to stop Liz Cambage in a single-elimination game come next week.
But first, Cambage has some business to attend to: properly marking her 27th birthday, and her first as a WNBA playoff participant. Her 3-31 season back in 2011 is ancient history.
Asked what she’s doing for her birthday on Saturday, Cambage responded with a fatigued, “Girl! I’m getting some good sleep tonight.”