COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Tamika Catchings said the Indiana Fever had a simple mantra as they walked off the court trailing after three quarters in their playoff opener: "Pick It Up."
From their offensive pace to their defensive intensity, the top-seeded Fever did exactly that as they opened the fourth quarter with a 17-3 run on the way to an 88-79 victory over the Washington Mystics on Thursday night in their Eastern Conference first-round series.
"We have 10 more minutes, it's all or nothing," said Catchings, who had 26 points and 12 rebounds, in recapping the talk before the fourth quarter. "Everybody came out and right off the bat we got like four layups in a row. Our tempo went up and we have to keep feeding off of that."
Katie Douglas added 19 points and Briann January was a spark off the bench with 16 -- all in the second half -- for the Fever, who entered the fourth quarter down 58-56.
Indiana came into the playoffs having lost seven of its last 10 games, but the Fever turned up the defensive pressure late and improved to 5-0 against the Mystics this season and 17-4 in their last 21 meetings.
"I think everybody came out real focused tonight," Catchings said. "As a team, one of the things we talked about coming into the locker room right before the game was coming out having fun, playing together, sticking together no matter what."
Game 2 of the best-of-3 series is Saturday at Indiana.
Trailing by 12 points midway through the fourth quarter, the Mystics rallied behind two 3-pointers from Marissa Coleman and a three-point play by Chasity Melvin to pull within 79-76.
On the Fever's next possession, Catchings converted a three-point play after being fouled while hitting a running floater. January, the sixth pick in the 2009 WNBA draft, was perfect on eight free throws, including four in the final 42 seconds to seal the win.
"In the second half we started taking better care of the basketball, made some defensive adjustments, made some adjustments with our substitution pattern," Fever coach Lin Dunn said. "I also thought a key to the game was we needed a third scorer and I thought that was what got out of Briann January,"
The Mystics second-half collapse has been an unwanted but common theme this season against the Fever, who have outscored Washington 134-91 in the final quarter of their five meetings.
"This isn't the only game we have done this," said Lindsey Harding, who scored 11 points. "We have to be physically and mentally strong to fight in the fourth quarter because it's almost as if [Indiana is] playing hard, but then they turn it on another level."
Crystal Langhorne led Washington with 18 points and 10 rebounds. Coleman finished with 16 points and Matee Ajavon had 10 for the Mystics, who are making their first playoff appearance since 2006.
"We are not going down easy," said Alana Beard, the Mystics' leading scorer who was held to nine points after missing four of the previous six games with an ankle injury. "It's all about pride right now. No way, no how you are going to let a team beat you six times in a row."
The game was played in front of a sparse but energetic crowd at the University of Maryland's Comcast Center, hours after President Obama spoke about the ongoing health care debate at a campaign-style rally in front of about 15,000 students. The game was moved from the Verizon Center, where the Mystics play their home games, due to a scheduling conflict.
It was a homecoming game for Langhorne, who was named the 2009 WNBA Most Improved Player earlier Thursday, and Coleman, both members of Maryland's 2005-06 NCAA championship team.
"We knew this game was really important and me and Marissa are just used to this gym," said Langhorne, who had 13 points in the first half. "We played well."
Tammy Sutton-Brown added 12 points for the Fever, who are making their fifth consecutive playoff appearance.