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Monday, August 27, 2007
Updated: August 28, 12:10 PM ET
Role players lead Fever in series-clinching win

By Graham Hays
ESPN.com

Patience isn't as much a virtue for sports fans in Indiana as it is both a birthright and a necessary evil, as ubiquitous in following the local teams as the convenience surcharge on the game ticket or the traffic jam snarling the parking garage after the buzzer.

Colts fans waited as Peyton Manning proved he could lead a team to the playoffs, win a playoff game, win a playoff game on the road, beat the Patriots in the playoffs and finally win a Super Bowl. Pacers fans waited as Reggie Miller led the franchise out of the doldrums, out of the first round and finally all the way to the NBA Finals.

Taking their rightful place in the city's sports scene, Fever fans waited. They waited as the Fever drafted Tamika Catchings, who, after sitting a year to recover from a knee injury, instantly became one of the most complete players in the league's history. They waited as the Fever became the first team in league history to win 20 games in three consecutive seasons and the first team to do so with only three all-time postseason wins.

So in the face of eight years of disappointment, what could they do with their team down 22 points at home in an elimination game on Monday? What choice was there, down big in the second quarter against a team that had won five of the six games between the teams this season and eliminated the Fever from the playoffs two years ago?

They waited and watched, and what they saw was one small step for a franchise and one giant comeback for the WNBA record book with a 93-88 overtime win. The Fever overcame a 39-17 second-quarter deficit, topping the league's previous record for biggest playoff comeback of 21 points, set nearly four years ago to the day.

Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh was in the crowd Monday night at Conseco Fieldhouse, and if anyone could appreciate what the Fever accomplished Monday, it was Walsh. After all, he was running the show for the Pacers when Byron Scott hit a dramatic, clutch 3-pointer during a first-round sweep of Orlando in the 1994 playoffs, a shot that provided the Pacers with their first playoff series win since leaving the ABA for the NBA nearly two decades before.

Tamika Whitmore
Tamika Whitmore and other Fever players overshadowed by Anna DeForge and Tamika Catchings in this series came up huge Monday.

In an arena designed to pay homage to the state's long infatuation with the game, it was sort of fitting that both Sheri Sam and Tamika Catchings squared up for important overtime 3-pointers from about the same spot in the corner where Scott hit his shot in Orlando. Sam's 3-pointer with just more than a minute to play gave Indiana a two-point advantage, 86-84, and Catchings' shot gave the team an 89-86 lead it wouldn't relinquish.

The Fever, of course, had won a postseason series before Monday night. But that win in 2005 against New York quickly was snuffed out in the conference finals against Connecticut, the one team in the Eastern Conference that nobody but Detroit has been able to deal with for the better part of the past five seasons. It didn't really matter that the Fever emerged as a far superior team when compared to New York, Washington, Chicago or the now-defunct Charlotte franchise; they couldn't beat the two heavyweights.

That's certainly how it looked for the first quarter and a half of Game 3, with yet another early flurry from Anna DeForge quickly buried under a barrage of 3-pointers from the Sun. But down 39-17 with six and a half minutes remaining in the second quarter, the Fever began to get plays from the role players overshadowed throughout the series by DeForge and Catchings. They're the ones whose names will linger with fans long beyond what might be considered normal, inducing smiles years from now when remembered like some long-forgotten secret.

There was Tamika Whitmore -- whose 41-point performance in a losing effort against Detroit in the first round last season faded from memory after it failed to stop the Shock's march to a title -- staring and staring at a wide-open 3-pointer before finally accepting the challenge and draining it. After hitting 21 3-pointers in 34 games during the regular season, she hit nine in three playoff games against the Sun, including four in Game 3.

Or Sam, who along with Tully Bevilaqua won a title with Seattle in 2004, making amends for a costly turnover in the closing seconds of regulation by scoring five points in overtime and finishing with 14 points, seven rebounds and three assists. And Bevilaqua, overcoming a poor shooting night (1-for-7 from the field, including 1-for-6 on 3-point attempts) to stop Connecticut point guard Lindsay Whalen in her tracks on a crucial defensive possession in the final minute of regulation.

None of which is to say that the Fever somehow are destined to win a title this season or even reach the WNBA Finals for the first time. All the magic of Monday night might soon vanish against a team that doesn't grow careless enough or cold enough to squander such a commanding lead (and the Fever twice allowed the Sun to seize the early advantage, having to rally from a 17-point deficit to force overtime in Game 1). The Fever might suffer if the bench, shortened by an injury to Ebony Hoffman in Game 2, can't provide relief in the post for Catchings, Whitmore and Tammy Sutton-Brown.

For the players and coaches on the court, the grand arc of history will understandably take a backseat to the immediacy that comes with a whiff of a championship celebration that looms just five wins away. But this was a step in the bigger picture, and whether it proves to be small or large, fans in Indiana once again can sit patiently, satisfied the Fever are on their way.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.