On August 7, the Atlanta Dream were hosting the Las Vegas Aces. They had won 10 of their last 11 and were well on their way to another victory. As the hottest team in the league, everything was going according to plan.
Then, early in the fourth quarter, All-Star guard Angel McCoughtry went after a loose ball, got tangled up and seemingly injured her left knee in the process.
“When she first went down, Angel thought she just hyper-extended it,” Dream first-year head coach Nicki Collen said. “So I don’t think for that night I thought it was super serious.”
Though the Dream got the 109-100 win, the uncertainty surrounding McCoughtry’s injury would steal the headlines.
Then, the nightmare scenario played out.
After evaluations and second opinions over the next 48 hours, the news broke that McCoughtry would have to miss the remainder of the 2018 season with torn ligaments in her left knee.
“You felt pretty devastated honestly,” Collen said. “We all know that we don’t replace the best player in franchise history with another player overnight. Her leadership, and ability to make plays in crucial moments of games will be missed.”
Just like that, it became time for the Dream (22-10, currently No. 2 in the standings) to re-calibrate and figure out how they’d move forward and into the postseason without their vet, who’s 22.8 points per game average in her playoff career (33 games) ranks second all-time in WNBA history.
“I look at our team and our roster has depth at her position; we have capable players to step up,” Collen said.
This is not the first time the Dream have had to deal with playing without McCoughtry, as the nine-year veteran (all with the Dream) took the 2017 season off for resting purposes. In her absence, Tiffany Hayes burst onto the scene and enjoyed a very productive season, averaging 16.3 points per game.
Notably this time around, the Dream will turn to reigning Eastern Conference Player Of The Month Hayes, Three-Point Shooting Contest selection Renee Montgomery and veteran forward Jessica Breland to step up in McCoughtry’s absence.
“We are definitely motivated,” said Hayes. “[Angel] is like our big sister, and we are collectively the little sister, but it is time that we show that we can do some stuff on our own.”
At 17.3 points per game this season, a career-high over Hayes’ seven-year career, she has been the go-to player for the Dream. Now, it becomes even more apparent.
“For Tiffany, she has been getting the opposing team’s best defender and being able to make big plays all season long with teams keying in on her,” Collen said. “You see the consistency and passion that comes with her game.”
The numbers speak for themselves, but when talking with Hayes about her productive season, which was recently rewarded with a contract extension, she was all about giving credit to her teammates.
“I think it is more about our team, collectively doing our part,” Hayes said. “My confidence is through the roof right now because when you have a stretch of great games individually it of course feels nice, but when you have those rough games and you know you have your team behind you that will pick you up, I am never worried. It’s a great feeling.”
Breland also notes that this year’s group is special for how close they all are with one another.
“Coach did a really great job putting this team together,” Breland said. “All of our personalities really click with one another. We love each other, and it shows on the court. A lot of people look at us and see us laughing and having fun, and they may say we aren’t taking it seriously. We are taking it very seriously, it just happens that we are such a tight group and that we enjoy each moment that we have together, and that shows each game.”
Winners of 14 of their last 15 games, including three in a row since McCoughtry got hurt, Atlanta is still rolling. Currently at the No. 2 seed, which would secure a double-bye and spot in the semifinals, the Dream are aware of how tight the playoff race is, and how crucial each remaining game is on the schedule.
“We make sure that we go into every game taking it seriously, not caring about records or schedules,” Breland said. “Every team is dangerous. So right now we are one of the top seeds, but we are not at all in cruise-mode. No, we are going to keep working hard and continue to grow what we have going on.”
“We want to go out there each game and play hard and have a winning mentality and do what we have been taught to do,” Hayes said.
Losing a five-time WNBA All-Star can be tough, but when the remaining squad is as tight-knit off the court and clicking on the court like the Atlanta is now, the dream of postseason success is still very much alive.
“Basketball is a sport with five players on the court,” Breland said. “It is never just a one-person show. We are for sure going to miss Angel, and there will be moments where reality will hit us in the face a bit, but we have a deep bench, we have a great coaching staff, and we have ballers.
“We are for real.”