NEW YORK — Tina Charles had 26 points and added a two pairs of clinching free throws Tuesday night, lifting the New York Liberty to an 81-76 win over the Indiana Fever despite a near-record 33 points from Fever guard Erica Wheeler.
Charles scored 22 points by halftime, and her free throws provided a final cushion the Fever couldn’t overcome. Fouled by Indiana’s Erlana Larkins and nursing a 72-70 advantage with 43.5 seconds to play, Charles forced the Fever to foul and stop the clock in the waning moments. Subsequent free throws by Bria Harley and Kiah Stokes pushed the lead to 77-70 with just 27 seconds to play.
But the Wheeler-led Fever weren’t done.
Wheeler, who had not scored since surpassing her previous career high with 27 points in the game’s first three quarters, hit a pair of deep 3-pointers in the final moments to keep Indiana within reach and put franchise records in jeopardy. It was 77-73 after her first heave with 20 seconds to play. After two more Charles free throws, Wheeler’s final 3-pointer made it 79-76 with 14 ticks remaining. Epiphanny Prince hit the Liberty’s eighth and ninth free throws of the final minute to provide the final margin.
Wheeler’s seven 3-pointers on 11 attempts tied a Fever record set by Katie Douglas in 2012. Wheeler’s 33 points were the most since former Fever star Shavonte Zellous scored 33 for Indiana in an overtime game in 2014, and second only to Douglas’ club record 34 in 2009 against Washington.
Zellous, now with New York, hit free throws to tie score at 74 and send the game into a possession-by-possession thriller.
The lead changed hands four times over the next four minutes. A bucket by Candice Dupree knotted the game at 70, and Prince lifted the Liberty back into the lead with a jumper at the 1:53 mark. The Liberty never trailed again and Charles’ free throws put the game out of Indiana’s and Wheeler’s reach in the final minute.
Zellous added 16 points and a game-high eight rebounds for the Liberty, who also got 13 from Hartley and 12 from Stokes off the bench. Candice Dupree was Indiana’s only other double-figure scorer, adding 14.
“I just taking what they give me on offense,” said Wheeler, whose brief-yet-circuitous career led her through a partial season with the Liberty before landing with Indiana last season. Now a full-fledged WNBA starter, the former un-drafted free agent scored in double figures for the 13th time this season while nearly willing Indiana past New York. “I read what they give me,” she continued. “I got some good looks and it felt good to hit some shots.”
“We’re playing with a chip on our shoulder because everyone has already counted us out,” said Wheeler, reflecting an Indiana philosophy similar to her own. “We’re playing hard right now. We know we can win games. We just have to close them out at the end.”
Added Fever coach Pokey Chatman: “I have to give credit to New York, but we needed to get off to a better start and take better care of the basketball. Early on, I felt good with our shots, but what I didn’t like was the 27 points we gave up in the first quarter. At the end of the day, what’s going to win basketball games is defensive energy for 40 minutes.”
And on Wheeler, she added, “In my opinion, she’s like Kyrie Irving playing the point guard position as someone who can score and distribute – and not at the expense of others. New York gave her some good looks. She read what she was given and the bucket started to look huge for her. It was like she was playing a video game out there.”
The sixth and seventh players in club history to log 30 points in a game, Wheeler and Dupree, who had 31 points in a win over league-leading Minnesota on Sunday, became the first Fever players to score 30 points in consecutive games since Katie Douglas scored 34 and 32 in consecutive games in July 2009. Each scored 20 points in a half the past two games to become the seventh and eighth players in club history with at least 20 points in a single half.
Indiana used a 12-2 run surrounding the fourth quarter break to take their first lead of the contest late in the third period. Free throws by rookie Erica McCall lifted Indiana into its first lead at 60-59. After Kiah Stokes ended the quarter to reclaim the lead, McCall hit a 10-foot jumper for a 62-61 advantage, then Briann January scored with a steal and a layup for a 64-61 lead to set up the game’s final eight minutes.
Charles scored 12 first-quarter points, including nine-in-a-row as the Liberty commanded a 27-17 lead after the opening quarter. Charles fueled a 7-2 run to open a 20-10 advantage. New York led by as many as 14 in the first half, 33-19, but four 3-pointers and 20 points from Wheeler helped spark an 11-2 second-quarter run to keep the Fever within striking distance. The Liberty took a 46-40 lead into halftime.
Still scrapping for a 13th consecutive playoff berth, the Fever lost for the 11th time in the past 13 games while New York, returning to Madison Square Garden for the first time since July 19, snapped a two-game skid of their own to keep hold on fifth place in the WNBA standings.
Indiana continues a three-game string of road games at Washington on Saturday.