INDIANAPOLIS — Just when 3-point field goals ruled the game, fouls and free throws decided the outcome.
Allison Hightower’s two free throws sealed an 87-82 victory for the Washington Mystics over the Indiana Fever, but it never came easy. The Mystics never trailed after Kristi Toliver’s 3-pointer with 6:24 to play, but the never-say-die Fever tied the score at 67 and 72, and nearly erased a 7-point deficit in the game’s final minute.
Washington (17-12) moved into sole possession of fourth place in the WNBA standings and clinched a playoff berth for the fourth time in five seasons. The Mystics also delivered the final nail in deflating Indiana’s hopes at a 13th consecutive playoff appearance. Behind the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs (20 consecutive), Indiana’s 12-year playoff streak was the second-longest active playoff streak in American pro sports. The Fever (9-21) suffered their fourth straight defeat, and their 14th in 16 games.
Jeanette Pohlen-Mavunga knotted the score at 72 with her second 3-point field goal of the evening, but Toliver triggered a 10-3 run and capped it with her own three, her fifth, with 1:18 to play. The Fever chipped back with an Erlana Larkins putback followed by Pohlen-Mavunga’s third trey of the period to bring Indiana within 82-80 with 31 seconds left in regulation.
Following a timeout, Washington extended the ensuing possession with an offensive rebound which forced Indiana to foul. And after Krystal Thomas missed the second of two free throws with 9.2 ticks left, Indiana had a chance to tie with another 3-pointer.
Or, so they thought.
Instead, Toliver twice fouled Pohlen-Mavunga in the front court, sending her to the free throw stripe. Pohlen-Mavunga hit two attempts with 4.8 seconds remaining to bring Indiana within a single point. An Indiana foul on Washington’s inbounds pass sent Ivory Latta to the line for two more charity points, and when Hightower stole the Fever’s inbounds pass, she iced the game with two seconds on the clock.
Overall, Washington converted 23 of 25 free throw attempts to earn the victory. Indiana shot 5-of-6 from the foul stripe and only had two attempts through three quarters.
“The hard part was to stay focused and stay in gear against a tough team, despite being down another player,” said Indiana coach Pokey Chatman. “Washington was picked by some, at the start of the season, to win the championship. I’m not happy with the loss, but I was pleased by our effort tonight.”
Speaking of Marissa Coleman’s career-high six 3-pointers, Chatman added, “She’s a vet. Sometimes those shots haven’t been kind to her. But when you stay true to your fundamentals and principles, you get rewarded. She got rewarded tonight.”
Emma Meeseman paced the Mystics with 21 points and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt added 18 for the Mystics, who swept the Fever in four games this season. Toliver shot 5-of-7 from long distance to collect 18 points, also, and Ivory Latta scored 12 off the bench.
For Indiana, Coleman shot 6-of-7 from three-point range and Pohlen-Mavunga was 3-of-5 beyond the stripe. Together, the teams combined to hit 17-of-31 3-pointers (55 percent), with many of them dramatic.
Coleman led Indiana with 20 points in the see-saw contest, including her buzzer-beating 3-pointer with 0.1 seconds on the third-quarter clock as the Fever raced to erase Washington’s largest lead at 13.
Washington appeared to have seized control with a 14-4 run midway through the third quarter, taking advantage of 3-pointers from Latta and Toliver. The Mystics led 58-45, but Indiana scored nine of the last 11 points to end the third period – capped by Coleman’s fourth 3-pointer – to remain within striking distance at 60-54.
Indiana continued its onslaught by outscoring the Mystics 12-4 to begin the fourth period and erase its double-digit deficit. Coleman canned her fifth 3-pointer to tie her previous career high with 6:38 left in the game as Indiana regained a 66-64 lead and close its own 21-6 run.
But every time Indiana threatened, it seemed, Toliver answered with another 3-pointer. Her fourth put Washington back in the lead, and her last dagger gave the Mystics their seven-point advantage in the last two minutes.
Candice Dupree added 18 points for Indiana, and Erica Wheeler had 12. Pohlen-Mavunga used her sharp-shooting and late free throws to collect a season-high 13 points, surpassing the 12 she scored at Washington just eight days ago in her only other double-figure game since 2013. The six-year veteran also became the ninth player in club history with at least 100 career 3-pointers.
With both rosters depleted by injury, each minus three usual starters, a back-and-forth first half culminated with Washington leading 40-37 and enjoying its largest lead of the game thus far. The lead changed hands seven times during the first two quarters, with 11 ties. The largest lead by either club was Indiana’s four-point margin at 7-3.
For the Fever, with point guard Briann January out for the second time in three games, that meant reserve guard Pohlen-Mavunga playing a large share of her 27 minutes at the point, where she hadn’t played regularly since her college days at Stanford.
“I can point to a couple people specifically, like J.P. and Candice, who played out of position a lot of the game tonight. Without Bri, we used J.P. at the ‘1’ most of the night. Candice has been a ‘4’ her entire career, but slid to the ‘3’ for us tonight.”
Indiana returns to Bankers Life Fieldhouse to host the New York Liberty on Wednesday at 7:00 p.m.