- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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INDIANAPOLIS -- In the time it took for Katie Douglas' swollen eye to fully return to looking normal -- about a month -- her Indiana Fever took charge of their season.
This wasn't something you could have seen coming back on June 9. That night against Seattle, Yolanda Griffith was knocked out for the season and Douglas was knocked nearly into next week.
But Indiana won that game and every one it has played since. With its 78-74 victory against Atlanta on Sunday, Indiana extended its franchise-best winning streak to eight. At 8-2, the Fever have the best record in the WNBA.
Douglas, in her second season of playing for the team in her home state, is loving being back in Conseco Fieldhouse, where she had many great moments while at Purdue.
"Last year, we were inconsistent -- we had ups and a lot of downs," Douglas said, although the Fever did make the franchise's fifth appearance in the playoffs. "I definitely wanted to be a part of this franchise; I felt like they had some great pieces.
"Us having played together last year is really helping us as far as our chemistry. I can't say enough about everybody. Everyone is playing their role really well."
Especially Douglas. Coach Lin Dunn thinks she might be playing at as high a level as she has in her pro career. Douglas is averaging a team-best 16.9 points per game. Dunn, of course, has known Douglas since she was a grade-schooler coming to Purdue's summer camps while Dunn was still coach there.
"What's happened this year is we're seeing the best of Katie because she isn't worn out," Dunn said. "She was on a team in Russia [over the winter] where she didn't play a lot of minutes. Then she came back and had two or three weeks of rest. And she's healthy."
Speaking of good health, franchise pillar Tamika Catchings (14.6 ppg) is pretty close to that. With the way she plays, it's nearly impossible for Catchings to avoid a lot of bruises, aches and pains -- and she does indeed have those. But overall, she's not dealing with anything major.
"For the most part, nothing's bothered me too much or kept me out," said Catchings, who rehabbed a torn Achilles tendon suffered in 2007 in time to return last year to play in the WNBA and for the U.S. Olympic team.
There is more going well for the Fever than Douglas and Catchings, though. Forward Ebony Hoffman, who won the WNBA's Most Improved Player award last season, has sustained her success into this year. Tammy Sutton-Brown (her 22 points led the Fever on Sunday) is combining with Hoffman to keep the Fever strong inside -- despite the loss of Griffith, who suffered an Achilles injury in that June 9 game. Hoffman is averaging 11.2 points, while Sutton-Brown averages 10.4 points and a team-best 7.4 rebounds.
While the Fever lamented the loss of Griffith, who signed with the team as a free agent in February, Indiana still is benefiting from her presence.
"Oh, my gosh, Yo has not left the building," Hoffman said, laughing. "She's basically the third assistant; that's her new title. She sends advice even when we're on the road; we get e-mails from her. She knows what she's talking about."
And while the Fever don't have Griffith on the court, they do have another veteran who's in her 11th WNBA season -- one who, like Douglas, is playing about as well as she has in her pro career. That's point guard Tully Bevilaqua. In her fifth year with the Fever, Bevilaqua is averaging 7.5 points and 2.4 assists. Plus, the Fever have gotten what they've needed from the bench, including from top draft pick Briann January (4.7 ppg, 2.6 apg).
Now, we'll readily acknowledge that even with an eight-game winning streak, it's not all sunshine for Indiana. The most serious issue: Fever co-owner Mel Simon said back in March that the franchise needed significant improvement in attendance and sponsorship this season, or his commitment would end.
The Fever did get a sponsorship deal from Kroger last week, but that by itself does not guarantee security for the franchise. In the end, all the Indiana players can do is win games (and continue all the community-service work they do, which is considerable).
"We have to have a great year here, there's no doubt," Catchings said. "But instead of going out and worrying about it every day, putting more pressure on ourselves, we just have to come out and do what we're good at. We play basketball."
The other "cloud" for Indiana is the schedule. The Fever have nine of their first 13 games at home, so there has to be some recognition of how that might have impacted the streak thus far. The time to pay the piper in terms of travel comes in August and September, when the Fever play 10 of their 16 games on the road, including the final three.
Dunn thinks that there is enough experience on this team to deal with that and anything else it might face. What she saw back in that third game of the season showed her that.
"We don't get overwhelmed by things," Dunn said. "I thought we really rallied when Yo went down. And then, of course, Katie got that huge black eye and still returned to the game."
Yes, back to that yucky-looking injury. Let's reset the situation: Indiana had lost its first two games, the opener in double overtime. Then, against the Storm, Griffith was hurt in the first quarter and left in a wheelchair. In the third quarter, Douglas and Seattle's Janell Burse collided, with the left side of Douglas' face taking the worst of it.
On the bench, trying to gather herself, Douglas looked as if she'd just left a boxing ring. Yet she not only came back into the game but also scored five of her 20 points in the fourth quarter, leading Indiana to a 73-66 victory.
"Unless I'm immobile, I'm going to get out there," Douglas said. "After that collision, I took a couple of minutes to absorb it. And it hurt, but I wanted to show my teammates that no matter what happens in a game, you keep fighting back."
Dunn even referenced the Zodiac to explain Douglas' attitude.
"She has always been such a tough gamer," Dunn said. "It doesn't surprise me that her birth sign is Taurus -- because she is a bull.
"It was a real gut-check situation then, physically tough and emotionally tough. When Katie came back in that game, it was like, 'OK, we're going to be warriors.' And it's been that way ever since."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
12dBonnie D. Ford