The highly-anticipated WNBA showdown between the Atlanta Dream and the Tulsa Shock on Saturday, featuring rookie Skylar Diggins, may not have been an end-to-end highlight clip, but the newcomer’s debut proved she’s up to meeting the challenges of the big league.
Diggins, the third overall pick in the 2013 draft out of Notre Dame, contributed 15 points in almost 34 minutes of play while adding three rebounds, three assists and two steals as a starter for the Shock. But it was second-year guard Tiffany Hayes, a product of UConn, and her team-high 21 points, that helped propelled the Dream past Tulsa, 98-81, in the season opener at Philips Arena.
Hayes was just two points shy of her career high and led four other Atlanta players in double figures. Sancho Lyttle had a double-double 18 points, and 10 rebounds, while teammates Angel McCoughtry (16), Armintie [Price] Herrington 13 and Ericka de Souza (10) also finished with double digits.
Tulsa’s Riquna Williams had a game-high 22 points.
“You can’t teach experience,” Diggins said following the game. “It’s good for me to be out there on the court. We’re still learning each other…It’s just a matter of learning the system, learning my teammates, and just doing my job.”
And even though Atlanta rookie Alex Bentley, a Penn State standout drafted by Atlanta first in the second round and 13th overall, had just five points, her presence on the court as a reserve was significant. In fact, it was Bentley’s buzzer-beating layup to end the first quarter that gave the Dream a 29-16 lead and the momentum going into the second period.
“She [Bentley] really set the tone for us the second quarter,” Atlanta Coach Fred Williams said. “Her and Diggins played against each other a lot so they kind of knew each other. For her generating the offense and getting the ball to where we needed to have it, I thought Alex did a great job.”
Williams also had a similar impression of Diggins’ debut: “For her first game…she did a very good job. I think she’s a player that’s always going to get better. Just like with Alex, Diggins is going to be a fine athlete…a lot of rookies don’t get a lot of starts.”
And with just four minutes expired in the second quarter, Atlanta’s lead had swelled to 16, 34-18, after a 21-6 run. However, the Shock managed to cut the deficit down to one, 43-42, with 1:39 left in the half.
But with Tulsa over the foul limit, Herrington hit both ends of a one-and-one and Bentley added a free throw to put Atlanta back up by six. Diggins then closed out the half with a 10-foot jumper to have the Dream take a 48-44 lead into intermission.
In the first half, Atlanta shot 50 percent from the floor on 17-of-34 shooting, while the Shock settled for 40 percent, hitting 14-of-34. The Dream led 26-20 on points in the paint, but Tulsa was able to keep pace with points off the fast break.
That is, until the second half.
The Dream opened the second half with an 8-0 run and kept the Shocks at bay defensively by putting together a 27-16 quarter. Hitting just 3-of-9 field goals during the span, Tulsa’s only recourse came from the free throw line, knocking down 10-of-12 shots. By the end of the quarter, the Dream had regained a 15-point lead, 75-60.
Atlanta forced the Shock into 22 turnovers, collecting 25 points off the miscues. The Dream also out-rebounded their opponents 41-31. They took their biggest lead – a 19-point margin – with just over two minutes left to play.
Atlanta will travel to face the Indiana Fever next on Friday, May 31.