- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Indiana guard Briann January had to admit afterward that the closing sequence was a blur in her mind. This much January knew: She had missed a shot that would have been the game winner, but she wasn't about to let up then.
"We want this so bad," January said. "We're going to give everything we have. That buzzer hadn't sounded. You play until that thing goes off."
Indeed, time hadn't run out on the Fever yet in this game. And because January kept hustling, time hasn't run out on Indiana's season, either.
The Fever evened the Eastern Conference finals 1-1 with Connecticut after a thrilling 78-76 victory at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Monday. The series goes back to Connecticut for the decisive Game 3 Thursday (ESPN2, 8:30 p.m. ET) to see who faces defending champion Minnesota in the WNBA Finals, which open Sunday.
This game was yet another in what has been a very entertaining WNBA postseason thus far, one where the emotions and the intensity have risen in equal measure to what's at stake. In the case of Monday's contest, the Sun were trying to close out the series in a sweep, just as Minnesota had done Sunday in the West against Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, the Fever were trying to stay alive in their attempt to make the organization's second trip to the Finals. Indiana has been one of the WNBA's most consistent franchises, having made eight consecutive trips to the postseason. But as Katie Douglas has said of herself and teammate Tamika Catchings, who both turned 33 this year, they're not getting any younger.
Every passing year without a WNBA title weighs a little heavier on the Fever's dynamic duo. Monday could have ended their latest quest for that ultimate prize. Instead, they still can fight for it.
Douglas, with 24 points, and Catchings, with 21, led the Fever in scoring. But it was the scrambling of two younger Fever players that ended up giving Indiana the winning basket.
Here's how it happened: Connecticut's Allison Hightower made a shot to tie the score 76-76 with 12.5 seconds left, and was fouled by Erlana Larkins. Then Hightower missed the free throw, and Catchings snared the rebound.
She looked up and saw January streaking toward the Fever basket, and threw a pass that Colts quarterback Andrew Luck would have admired. January caught the ball at nearly full speed and went in for the layup which rimmed out with 5.9 seconds left.
Had January for even a split second hesitated in following her miss, the game likely would have gone into overtime. Or maybe the Sun would have gained possession and somehow launched a game winner.
Instead, on an effort that all basketball coaches should clip and show to their team about playing hard right until the horn sounds, January raced after the miss. Diving toward the Connecticut bench, she was able to keep the ball from going out of bounds, and saved it to Shavonte Zellous.
It had not been a good night shooting for Zellous; she was 1-for-5 from the field at that point. But as the final seconds ticked off the clock, the ball and the game were in her hands as she launched a jumper from the left side of the foul line.
Zellous said, "It's kind of funny, because when Bri went up for the layup, I was in the act of almost cheering a little bit. But then it didn't go, and she went after it and got it to me.
"It's about not giving up. Just because you're not having a good night shooting doesn't mean the last shot you take is going to be a bad one. Sometimes, you don't even think about it, you just do what you have to."
This shot swished, and Connecticut had no time to get off an answer.
"My vantage point was, 'Oh, my God, I can't believe Bri just missed that,'" Douglas said, giving a completely honest response to her emotions in the frenetic last seconds. "Then she scrambled and made an amazing play, tipping it back in, and I was standing a few feet away from Z. I was like, 'What's she going to do?'
"It was a broken play, and probably one of the biggest shots of her career. I was really happy she had the opportunity tonight, and she stepped up and made a huge shot for us."
Zellous also made a game-winning buzzer-beater off an assist from January earlier this season: a 3-pointer that defeated the Storm 68-66 at Seattle on Aug. 23. Monday's shot had far more riding on it, of course.
"I thought we'd given ourselves a chance to win the game down the stretch," Connecticut coach Mike Thibault said. "Indiana just made a couple more plays than we did in the fourth quarter. The last play, on a missed free throw, you hope you're matched up and get back. How we weren't, I have no idea until I watch the film. We had a full defensive group in the game. Give Zellous credit, she made a great shot. It was a great playoff game."
Although Indiana got off to a slow start, the Fever came back strong and led 46-43 at halftime. At the end of the third quarter, the Sun were up 57-56.
Over the final period, the teams went back and fourth. In the last two minutes, Douglas scored on two drives. One was on the right side and the other on the left, which is her dominant hand. The latter was a three-point play for a 74-72 lead with 56.5 seconds left.
"It will be on my tombstone: 'Make Katie go right,'" joked Thibault, who coached Douglas for five seasons when she played in Connecticut. "But every coach in this league says it. She stops and starts, and stops and starts, until she can finally get over there."
Douglas complimented Thibault on things he showed her while she was with the Sun.
"Give Coach Thibault some credit: He taught me how to play the pick-and-roll," Douglas said. "Tonight I had the ball in my hands a lot up at the top, and was just trying to jab and set my man up a little bit. They're playing me so many different ways. I just learned over the years my counters to that.
"Every player wants to get back to their strong hand, so I'm gonna put my head down and try to create."
And although as a southpaw, she is more comfortable going left, she has proven she can hit big shots from the right, too, as she did Monday.
"You can go back and check that video; it was with the right hand," Douglas said, grinning, about the drive she'd made with two minutes left. "If you're going to give me my strong hand, I'm going to go with it. I graduated from Purdue, [I'm] pretty intelligent. Shout out to my Boilermakers. But if you make me go to my right hand, I'm going to finish with my right."
Douglas could be that humorous and light-hearted afterwards, of course, because the Fever had survived. They can credit staying close to the Sun on the boards -- Connecticut had a 35-30 edge -- plus taking care of the ball. Indiana had just seven turnovers, compared to 14 for the Sun, who were led by Kara Lawson's 18 points.
Also, Indiana coach Lin Dunn pushed the right buttons. Tammy Sutton-Brown didn't play at all, breaking her streak of appearing in 44 consecutive playoff games. Instead, Dunn went with reserve center Jessica Davenport off the bench for her first playoff action since Game 1 of the Fever's opening series against Atlanta. Davenport responded with six points and three rebounds in a game that was so close, every contribution mattered.
The Fever haven't ever closed out a playoff series with a win on the road, which is what they'll try to do Thursday. But at least they have the opportunity.
"In gut-check time, Katie had some big penetrations and Catch knocked down some big shots," Dunn said. "And I was real pleased that even though Bri missed that layup, she scrambled and knocked that ball back to Zellous, and she knocked down the shot.
"Now we're one game away from the Finals. We'll regroup, get some rest, head up to Connecticut, and see if we can't steal a game up there."
16dBonnie D. Ford