CHICAGO — If the Indiana Fever want to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals for the fifth straight season, they will have to come from behind. The third-seeded Fever fell to the second-seeded Chicago Sky in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals on Thursday night at the UIC Pavilion, 77-72.
The Sky, the defending Eastern Conference champions, lead the best-of-three series 1-0 and have now won all five meetings against Indiana this season and seven straight dating back to last year’s playoffs.
Chicago had swept the regular season series with the Fever, winning all four games by an average margin of 19.7 points, but Indiana put together a much stronger fight on Thursday.
Tamika Catchings, the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer in postseason play, had a team-high 21 points in a game that wasn’t decided until the final minutes. The Fever led with as late as 3:14 to play, but went cold down the stretch, managing just one point in their final five possessions.
PHOTO GALLERY: Fever 72, Sky 77 (Game 1) »
Chicago was just a little bit better on the evening, led by the dynamic duo of Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley, who combined for 39 points and 11 assists while committing just one turnover. Quigley had 20 points and six assists off the bench, while Vandersloot added 19 and five.
Elena Delle Donne, the WNBA’s Most Valuable Player for the 2015 season, played a supporting role on Thursday night. Delle Donne had a double-double (14 points and 11 rebounds), though she made just 5-of-15 shots.
The Sky outrebounded Indiana 43-36 overall and 13-10 on the offensive glass. Chicago took advantage of their offensive rebounds, finishing with 22 second-chance points.
“At the end of the day it comes down to details and we can’t afford to give up 22 second-chance points,” Fever coach Stephanie White said after the game.
Marissa Coleman added 16 points for Indiana in the loss, while Shenise Johnson had 11.
The Fever got off to a solid start on Thursday, thanks in large part to Catchings, who scored nine points in the first 7:49. The two teams traded leads in the early going, but Chicago closed the period strong, running off an 11-2 spurt to take a nine-point lead into the second.
The Fever defense kept Delle Donne in check in the first half, holding the MVP to just two points on 1-of-4 shooting, but her teammates picked up the slack.
Point guard Vandersloot, the recipient of a WNBA Peak Performer award prior to the game for leading the league in assists during the regular season, ignited the Sky offense with 12 points and four assists in the first 20 minutes. Her backcourt partner Quigley, named the WNBA’s Sixth Woman of the Year for the second consecutive season earlier in the day, added 10 points in the half.
Chicago held a comfortable lead for most of the second quarter, but Indiana closed the half with a 14-6 run to make it a 36-35 game heading into halftime.
The Sky widened the margin once again early in the third quarter as Delle Donne found her rhythm. The 6-5 forward scored seven points during a 9-2 Chicago run to open the half.
But the Fever rallied once again. Coleman had 5 points and an assist in a 7-2 run at the end of the quarter, then drained a 3-pointer with 8:08 to play in the fourth, giving Indiana its first lead since the first period at 56-54.
The visitors stretched their lead to four before Chicago reeled off eight unanswered points, including a pair of 3-pointers from Vandersloot and Quigley.
Chicago led until Erlana Larkins’ layup tied the game at 66 with 3:44 to play, setting off a wild back-and-forth sequence.
Chicago retook the lead on a jumper by Jessica Breland, but Catchings answered with a 3-pointer on the other end. Delle Donne drained a triple of her own from the right corner to put the Sky back in front, only to have Catchings draw a foul on the next possession and sink both free throws to tie the game at 71 with 2:29 to play.
Delle Donne hit two foul shots of her own on the next possession to give the Sky the lead for good with 2:15 to play.
The Fever will look to stave off elimination in Game 2, back in Indiana at Bankers Life Fieldhouse at 7:00 PM ET on Saturday night.