INDIANAPOLIS – The Indiana Fever intend to keep the current situation from dampening their hopes in the WNBA Eastern Conference Finals.
The Fever are down 1-0 in their best-of-three series against New York. They face a must-win game Sunday afternoon at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Hanging in the balance is a trip back to New York City on Tuesday night for Game 3.
Tamika Catchings, the Fever’s undisputed leader, said it best after the team’s practice at the Fieldhouse on Friday. Her words formed a challenge to which the entire roster hopes to respond.
“For us, now, we have one more game to play, one more day to live,” she said, “and what are we going to do defensively and offensively to make ourselves play at our best?”
Third-seeded Indiana has some history on its side as it heads into Game 2 against the top-seeded Liberty. The Fever franchise has made it to postseason play in a league-record 11 consecutive seasons. In those 11 playoff runs, the team has battled back five times from a first-game loss in a best-of-three series and gone on to advance.
It happened as recently as this week, when the Fever came back from a one-game deficit to Chicago to capture the conference semifinal series against the Sky.
And, even more notably, it happened in the conference semifinals and finals during Indiana’s impressive push to a WNBA championship in 2012. The Fever stormed back to win two straight games against Atlanta and Connecticut to advance to the WNBA Finals against Minnesota.
From that 2012 Indiana team, Catchings, Briann January, Shavonte Zellous, Erlana Larkins and Jeanette Pohlen all remain. The experience of having faced elimination and survived is a valuable commodity.
“I think that’s just a tribute to the players that we bring into our organization (as) just being tough-nosed and resilient when their backs are against the wall,” January said. “That’s what we have to be this time. We’re in a win-or-go-home situation again. We have to lock it up and come together as a team.”
The 2015 playoff series against Chicago provided a glimpse of the fighting Fever at their best. After losing the opener at Chicago, they returned to Indianapolis, won the rebounding battle, held the Sky to 45.8 percent shooting and captured an 89-82 victory. The Fever went back to Chicago and played a near-perfect offensive game in a deciding 100-89 triumph.
Being down a game after the Chicago series began only seemed to galvanize the Fever.
“Because we had the mindset of having players who have been there and done that, going into the second game against Chicago, it was like we were all on the same page,” Catchings said. “I feel like coming out Sunday, we’ll all be on the same page.”
Tightening up on defense looms as important for Indiana. A concerning trend started in the Fever’s close-out victory over Chicago when they gave up 57.1 percent shooting. New York opened the conference finals two days later with a 56.5 percent mark and an 84-67 victory.
“Going into Sunday’s game, hopefully we’ll play at a different level,” Catchings said. “People will be able to move quicker, faster and get into our rotations better.”
New York’s front-line combination of Tina Charles (18 points, seven rebounds, nine assists) and Kiah Stokes (21 points) took a toll on Indiana in the finals opener. Guards Epiphanny Prince and Sugar Rodgers totaled 31 points as each connected on 4-of-6 3-pointers.
“Everybody’s playing their best,” Fever Coach Stephanie White said about meeting red-hot opponents in the playoffs. “And the teams that are shotmakers this time of year are usually the teams that advance.”
The Fever faced New York on Wednesday without 6-foot-4 Lynetta Kizer, who had an injured knee. The Fever, who are unsure about Kizer’s status for Sunday’s game, remain hopeful she can return and provide the 10- to 12-foot jumpers that are her strength.
“(The Liberty) play us backed off, challenging our bigs to hit shots,” White said. “If she can be on the floor and knock down those shots, that’s important.”
Being back in the Fieldhouse could be a plus, too. The Fever were 11-6 there during the regular season.
“Our home-court environment is awesome, and it fuels us,” January said.
Added White about Indiana’s fans: “They’re that extra energy. They’re called the sixth man for a reason.”
So for now, it boils down to Sunday’s game for Indiana, which is playing in its fifth consecutive conference finals.
The playoffs theme espoused by Catchings has centered on having fun and capitalizing on the team’s underdog role. And when Catchings talks, her teammates listen.
“Tamika is the glue,” said guard Shenise Johnson, who is averaging 14 points in the playoffs after scoring in double digits in all four games. “Tamika observes and knows everybody from a personality standpoint. She knows what is needed to get you going, or how to calm you down.”
Come Sunday, that leadership ability will likely be on full display when it counts the most.
Coach White and Briann January Discuss the Series with New York and Game 2 on Sunday –