- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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INDIANAPOLIS -- In the space of 3.4 seconds rested the difference between the Indiana Fever having a chance to win a championship at home or losing the advantage of being back here in the Midwest.
It was a beautiful fall football afternoon here in the Heartland but it was also a Sunday for hoops. The Colts were over in Lucas Oil Field finishing off the visiting Seahawks around tip-off time at sold-out Conseco Fieldhouse.
About two hours, one popped-out shoulder, one questionable technical foul and numerous athletic drives to the basket later, what was left was 3.4 seconds. The Fever had a one-point lead; the Mercury had the ball.
And this WNBA Finals series once again had viewers on the edge of their seats.
An overtime contest that was the highest-scoring game in WNBA history the first night. A Fever victory in which the Mercury still pushed Indiana in the closing minutes of Game 2. Then this battle, which was a thrill ride.
"It's more nerve-wracking than coaching," said one prominent spectator who has been on the sidelines for more than 1,000 victories.
Pat Summitt and the rest of her coaching staff at the University of Tennessee made the trip from Knoxville to support the Fever's Tamika Catchings in her first WNBA Finals.
"I want this so much for her," Summitt said of Catchings, who played at Tennessee from 1997 to 2001. "She is very committed to this team, this city. She's won a national championship and Olympic gold, but this is the one thing that she still has out there to win, and I'm just pulling for her."
Now, Catchings and her Fever teammates are a victory away from taking the franchise's first title. The final 3.4 seconds Sunday went the Fever's way in an 86-85 victory, giving Indiana a 2-1 series lead heading into Wednesday's Game 4 (ESPN2, 7:30 p.m. ET) here in Indianapolis.
"That's the type of series that this is -- it's coming down to the last few seconds, last few plays," said Ebony Hoffman, who led Indiana with 18 points. "It's showing the grit and the toughness that our team has.
"And they are great players, too. Cappie [Pondexter] is an amazing player. It's like, pick your poison."
Indeed, that's what you face every time you play the Mercury, but it's even more pronounced when you're lining up for a final sequence against Phoenix. It's sort of like swimming for the shore with a circle of sharks around you. Can you reach land before one of them sinks its teeth in?
What Phoenix needed Sunday was to sink one more basket, and the Mercury had several options. Even when she's not at the top of her game, which league MVP Diana Taurasi has not been, she's still a huge threat. So is Pondexter, who led Phoenix with 23 points Sunday.
So is Penny Taylor, who had 10 points off the bench and said she was unbothered by the mouth guard she's now wearing after taking a Briann January elbow that forced her out of Game 2.
"I've never liked playing with them," Taylor said. "But I like having my teeth a lot more than I don't like wearing a mouth guard. So I'll be wearing that from now on."
The final play was drawn up for Taylor, who is shooting 71.4 percent from the field (15 of 21) in the Finals. But she never got the ball.
"The play was for Penny Taylor to get a down pick from Tangela [Smith]; Cappie takes the ball out of bounds," Phoenix coach Corey Gaines said. "Kelly Mazzante is in the corner, [Taurasi] is in the corner to draw the defense. As Penny is coming up to get the ball, she is mysteriously bumped off her line."
Of course, he really didn't think it was so mysterious what happened to Taylor; he felt she was bumped/obstructed. It was far from the only call (or non-call) the Mercury weren't happy about Sunday, although a previous call was the one that really still bugged Phoenix after the game.
That was a technical foul called on Taurasi when she bumped into Katie Douglas going back up the court after scoring a game-tying layup with 5 minutes, 10 seconds left in the contest.
"He said I elbowed her. Which [if] you watched the replay, I don't think there was an elbow thrown," Taurasi said. "She did mess up my bun, though, so she should get a technical for that."
For her part, Douglas said, "I don't know what happened; I really don't. I didn't think it was intentional, but it's whatever the refs see. I don't complain, I keep moving. The refs are always right in my book."
To which Catchings teased her teammate, saying, "Oh, yeah? OK, not always in my book. So when y'all see her complaining "
At any rate, Catchings hit the technical free throw. And considering the game was decided by one point, it was a sore spot for the Mercury.
"One point is a big thing in this game," Gaines said.
Still, the Fever had their own gripes, too, including the fact that Catchings appeared to have possession of the ball and was trying to get a timeout in the closing seconds, but a jump ball was called instead.
Phoenix won that which brings us back to the last 3.4 seconds.
When Taylor couldn't get the ball, it fell to Smith instead. Her shot was partially blocked by Hoffman, and Catchings grabbed the game-clinching rebound.
"I figured I would take a quick shot, because we didn't have much time left," said Smith in a very quiet Mercury locker room after the game. "It didn't go in, and we lost. But we had three other opportunities in the last few minutes to get a good shot, and we missed out on all three."
The Mercury also missed the chance to take a lead into the fourth quarter. Although, it was less a case of Phoenix losing the momentum and more that the rookie January grabbed it with both hands.
Phoenix had a five-point edge with just more than a minute left in the third quarter when January took off. In the last 1:16 of the period, she hit two long 3-pointers, two free throws and a fadeaway jumper. All that sent the Fever into the fourth quarter with a 70-67 lead.
"My teammates did a great job of just finding me. They did the hard part; I just stood there and spotted up and tried to hit the open shot for them," January said with charmingly inaccurate modesty.
That set up the back-and-forth fourth quarter that was the signature of this game. January finished with 17 points, Douglas had 15. And Catchings had another double-double, with 14 points and 12 rebounds. She missed a triple-double in Game 2 by one rebound. Catchings and Douglas each had seven assists Sunday.
Hoffman, who has had an outstanding Finals with 61 points in the three games, had her feet in an ice bucket and more ice taped onto her right shoulder in the Fever's locker room. Her shoulder popped out during the game, but then popped back in. She says she's double-jointed, and it has happened before.
"It's fine. It will hurt tomorrow, but one more game is what we're hoping for," said Hoffman, who hit the jumper with 57 seconds left that proved to be the game winner. "To me this is a great series; we're both playing great basketball. It's amazing for the league some people who are first-time fans are now addicted to it."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.