CHICAGO -- If you walk around Wintrust Arena it won't take you long to find Chicago Sky fans sporting shirts with a not so subtle message: "Kahleah Freaking Copper." After the Sky's pivotal 86-83 win over the Connecticut Sun in Game 3 of their semifinal series on Sunday, it's easy to see why that's become a catchphrase in Chicago this season.
Copper set a new playoff career-high with 26 points, and added three rebounds, two assists and two steals as she led the Sky from start to finish. It was a performance that typified her game and her energy. And, of course, the fans' favorite slogan.
"Yeah, I think I was just aggressive from the beginning, and that's important," Copper said. "Important for me to bring the energy, to bring the toughness, to get us going on a good start."
Copper did indeed get the Sky off to a good start. On the very first play of the game, she jumped into the passing lane and picked off a pass from Brionna Jones, then went coast-to-coast to convert the layup. A few hours later, with the game hanging in the balance, Copper once again made some plays in transition to help make sure the finish was just as good.
With just under four minutes to play, and the Sky clinging to a one-point lead, Allie Quigley secured an errant pass from Jonquel Jones and sent an outlet pass in Copper's direction. Catching the ball in stride, she Euro-stepped through the lane, drew the contact from Jasmine Thomas and converted the and-one to push the Sky's lead to four.
A few seconds later, after yet another Sun turnover -- they had 16 in the game, including six in the decisive fourth quarter alone -- Copper streaked to the rim on the fastbreak and put in an easy lay-up to make it a six-point game.
The Sun called timeout and Copper ran back to the bench clapping emphatically as a joyous Sky crowd erupted. The Sky still had to survive some late drama down the stretch, but Copper's mini run put them in position to hold on.
"When Kah's like that it's hard not to jump on board with her," Courtney Vandersloot said. "It's so contagious. She's obviously a very special athlete, but when she is like that emotionally -- she's so much fun to play with and I think we just jump on board and ride her wave which is incredible and I think can take us very far."
Copper's actual basketball talent shouldn't be discounted. She's developed into a multi-faceted scorer who can knock down enough outside shots to keep defenders honest, and is so athletic she's nearly impossible to keep out of the lane. Despite never averaging double-figures before last season, she led this ultra-talented Sky team in scoring in the regular season and is doing so again in the playoffs at 18.2 points per game.
That's to say nothing of the other end of the floor, where Copper often has to take on the most difficult defensive assignments -- at least on the perimeter. In many ways, she's everything that you want from a modern wing. Through the first five games of the playoffs, it's no surprise the Sky are plus-35 with her on the floor.
But even with all of her skills on both sides of the ball, Copper's teammates and coaches came back again and again to the energy and emotion she provides.
"That's who she is, and that's who she's been for us," Sky head coach James Wade said. "Even since the bubble, like she's been our emotional leader… She's able to put us on her shoulders emotionally and feed that energy. You felt the crowd, so not only did our team follow her, but the crowd followed her as well."
The former No. 7 overall pick in the 2016 WNBA Draft, Copper played sparingly early in her career, first with the Washington Mystics and then with the Sky. Up until last season, she was probably most well-known for being part of the Elena Delle Donne trade. But after a breakout showing in the bubble last summer, Copper has carried that confidence into this season and these playoffs.
"It's not like she's come from nothing, but people don't talk about her," Wade said. "They don't understand what she means to us."
That may have been the case for much of the past few seasons, but it won't be for much longer. Not after what she did on Sunday afternoon in Game 3 to give the Sky a 2-1 series lead and put them on the brink of their first Finals appearance since 2014.
Soon, fans in Chicago won't be the only ones wearing "Kahleah Freaking Copper" shirts.