NEW YORK — For the third time in seven years, the Indiana Fever are Eastern Conference champions.
What seemed improbable two days ago became a reality on Tuesday night. After rallying from an 18-point deficit on Sunday afternoon at Bankers Life Fieldhouse to stave off elimination, the Fever put their feet on the throttle in a decisive Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday.
The Fever led by as many as 18 points and held off a late charge from the New York Liberty for a 66-51 victory. With the win, the Fever advance to the WNBA Finals for the third time in franchise history. They will meet the Western conference champions, the Minnesota Lynx, in a rematch of the 2012 Finals that saw Indiana capture its first-ever WNBA title.
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Marissa Coleman led a balanced effort offensively, as she hit 5-of-7 3-pointers to finish with 15 points. Tamika Catchings finished with 14 points on 5-of-11 shooting. Erlana Larkins had 12 points, eight rebounds, four assists, and three steals. Briann January finished with eight points, eight assists, and six steals.
And don’t forget the magical touch of first-year head coach Stephanie White, the first ever WNBA rookie coach to win a conference championship.
“All season long, we’ve talked about a balanced effort,” Catchings said in the victorious postgame locker room. “We’ve talked about making sure that it’s balance scoring and balanced defense…That’s what it takes to win — all 12 (players).”
The Fever defense was outstanding, forcing the Liberty into 21 turnovers on the night.
“As a team, we had to buckle down and have tough-nose defense,” January said. “We tried to be there for each other, having each other’s back, having hands up.”
The victory was sweet for all members of the Fever, but especially for veterans Coleman and Shenise Johnson, the team’s premier acquisitions the past two offseasons.
“It’s been quite a journey for me in this league,” Coleman said. “And ever since I’ve gotten to Indiana, I’ve been enjoying basketball again. I’m having fun, I’m with a great group of people, a great coaching staff. It means a lot.”
PHOTO GALLERY: Fever 66, Liberty 51 (Game 3) »
Two days after holding New York to just 20 points in the second half of a come-from-behind Game 2 victory, the Fever defense continued to stifle the Liberty in the first two quarters on Tuesday night. Indiana forced New York into 13 turnovers in the first half, while limiting the hosts to just 9-of-34 shooting (26.5 percent).
The Fever reeled off 10 straight points over a 3:25 stretch in the second quarter to take a nine-point lead and wound up stretching the margin to 11 heading into halftime. The Liberty, meanwhile, went scoreless for nearly five minutes in the middle of the second quarter and had just four points in the final 7:10 of the half.
Thanks to the sharpshooting of Coleman, who drained three 3-pointers over a 1:52 stretch, Indiana extended its lead to 18 points with 5:22 to play in the third quarter.
But the Liberty still had some fight in them, closing the period with a 12-3 run to cut the margin in half. Indiana headed into the fourth quarter with a 49-40 lead.
Liberty guard Candice Wiggins scored the first five points of the fourth quarter to make it a four-point game, but the Fever answered with a 10-0 run of their own and New York never seriously threatened the rest of the way.
Wiggins led New York with 15 points, while Tina Charles added 13 points and 10 rebounds.
The 2015 WNBA Finals will open in Minnesota on Sunday, Oct. 4. Game 2 is Tuesday and the best-of-five series shifts to Indiana for Game 3 on Friday, Oct. 9.
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