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Three WNBA teams battling for eighth seed on final day of regular season

Coverage of the WNBA continues on Sunday with three live games on the final day of the regular season. Join us from 6pm on Sky Sports Mix for Atlanta Dream vs Connecticut Sun, Minnesota Lynx vs Washington Mystics and Los Angeles Sparks vs Dallas Wings to wrap things up before the playoffs

Natasha Howard #6 of the New York Liberty and Nneka Ogwumike #30 of the Los Angeles Sparks fight for position
Image: Natasha Howard #6 of the New York Liberty and Nneka Ogwumike #30 of the Los Angeles Sparks fight for position

On Sunday the curtain closes on the regular season but with three teams still with a chance of taking the eighth and last spot in the WNBA playoffs.

It was going so well.

The New York Liberty came out strong to start the season like being freed from years of being locked in the purgatory of irrelevance since Bill Laimbeer left in 2017. A couple of rising stars and some great veterans meant the youngsters would be able to learn quickly and compete.

They started this season 5-1 and were without Natasha Howard for the first four games - three of which were wins, though admittedly two came against the woeful Indiana Fever. But bigger scalps came in games five and six against the Chicago Sky and the Dallas Wings, when the center was right at the heart of the action.

Howard played for the Seattle Storm in previous seasons and had a career year in 2019 with Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird out injured. She averaged 18 points, eight rebounds, two assists, two steals and nearly two blocks while the team managed an 18-16 record without their two best players, so the world knows what she is capable of.

Fellow former Storm champion Sami Whitcomb joined her to add to the team’s winning mentality.

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Sabrina Ionescu hit the dramatic game-winning three with less than one second to go as the New York Liberty edged out the Indiana Fever

Sabrina Ionescu has shown her ability as a WNBA-ready point guard with averages of 11.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game, but Betnijah Laney has a real New York state of mind, becoming the scoring leader on a scrappy team with lots of heart. Some of the first-year players are showing up, with Michaela Onyenwere looking like a favourite to pick up Rookie of the Year honours and if there was an award for best bench cheerleader, DiDi Richards would be winning it.

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But during the Wings game early in the season, it was revealed Howard had sprained her MCL and would not return until August. During that period, the Liberty went 5-11 and while she returned to help lead New York to a big win over the Seattle Storm, they lost eight straight and could not shake the funk until meeting the Washington Mystics earlier this week.

The Liberty have finished their regular season and as things stand remain outside of the playoff race, but they are not dead yet. The only hope they have is the team holds a winning record over the LA Sparks and Mystics for the season, giving them the tie-breaker against both teams.

That means everyone in New York will be tuning in as the Mystics face the Minnesota Lynx free to stream on Sky Sports YouTube and when the LA Sparks take on the Wings live on Sky Sports Mix and Action straight after. If LA and Washington lose, New York will be back in the playoffs after four long years.

It was expected the Washington Mystics would be slow to start this season.

They were without Elena Delle Donne and Emma Meesseman with hopes the former MVP and Finals MVP would return at some point. Despite the latter leaving the door open to the possibility of returning to the WNBA after the Olympics, it proved to be waffle from the Belgian. While Delle Donne made a comeback in recent weeks, it lasted just three games before retreating due to a bad back that had not healed enough since her last tour of duty in 2019.

For this reason, much of the season has been on the shoulders of another former MVP in Tina Charles. The multiple-time All-Star has done exactly what she did during her last years with the New York Liberty: ball out.

But in her first year with the Mystics, her new franchise has done much the same as her previous team: surround her with a lack of depth.

It’s not necessarily her fault, or the team’s - Delle Donne and Meesseman being out does not help - and throughout all the adversity, they had Mike Thibault in the coaching seat finding ways to win in difficult situations. He gets more out of less as much as any other coach in the league and has seen every situation possible: from making multiple Finals runs with the Connecticut Sun earlier in his career to ultimately winning it all with the Mystics after consecutive Finals appearances in 2018 and 2019.

The difficulty they have is that Thibault has contracted Covid-19 and will not be with the team or able to identify mismatches and opportunities then to make in-game adjustments. They will face one of the best teams in the league - the Minnesota Lynx - but the man with the plan will not be there.

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As for the Sparks, being in rebuild mode is difficult for any team. LA saw Chelsea Gray, Riquana Williams, Sydney Wiese and the great Candace Parker leave at the end of last season so as they pivot towards a younger group led by point guard Te’a Cooper, Nia Coffey, Arella Guirantes and the still-young Brittney Sykes, there will be teething issues.

The plan was Nneka Ogwumike, Chiney Ogwumike, Kristi Toliver and veteran newcomers to the team Erica Wheeler and Amanda Zahui B might offer leadership and help ease the Sparks’ transition from one era to another. The plan was to remain relevant.

It did not go to plan.

Going into the last game of the season - tipping off on Sky Sports Mix and Arena at 10pm this Sunday - the Ogwumikes have compiled 24 games between them, Toliver has only managed 19 this year and while Zahui B has been present, the others have definitely been missed.

Some of the younger players had built up momentum and the Sparks were 6-7 to start the year. But while they dealt with injuries and Covid-19 protocols, the team brought in GB Basketball stars Karlie Samuelson and Kristine Anigwe on short-term contracts.

A six-game losing streak was followed by four wins and another six losses, so consistency has been an issue. That being said LA has come down the stretch with some fight, registering a win against the reigning champion Seattle Storm in dominant fashion.

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Highlights of the regular-season game between the Seattle Storm and the LA Sparks in the WNBA

None of the three teams that might finish as the eighth seed are expected to do any damage in the postseason.

The first four seeds in the playoffs will automatically advance past the first round having earned a bye. This means the fifth-seeded Phoenix Mercury will face whichever victim secures the last spot. Brittney Griner is having an MVP-calibre year, Diana Taurasi is hungry to compete for another championship as she approaches the age of 40 and Skylar Diggins-Smith is having the best season of her career.

But clawing their way into the playoffs only to be kicked out after a single-elimination game will be worth something to some of these franchises: LA is rebuilding and needs to see that things are on the up, if we never see Elena Delle Donne or Emma Meesseman in the WNBA ever again Washington needs something to hang its hat on, and New York need to know the team’s slow return to relevance is working.

If the Mystics and Sparks lose, the Liberty are in. If one of them loses the other will be in. If they both win, Washington will advance as they beat LA 2-1 across the regular season. So set your timer to watch all three WNBA games on Sky Sports back to back this Sunday, because it might not mean much in the short-term, but this could be the catalyst each team needs to become a contender in the coming years.

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