Commentary

Fever buckle down, stave off Sky

This time, Chicago fourth-quarter rally falls short

Updated: August 31, 2014, 12:40 AM ET
By Michelle Smith | espnW.com

Courtney Vandersloot, Shavonte ZellousRon Hoskins/NBAE/Getty ImagesShavonte Zellous, left, attacked the Sky defense and scored 18 points for the Fever.

INDIANAPOLIS -- The run was coming. Of course it was.

The Indiana Fever took a 60-48 lead into the fourth quarter and they knew.

The Chicago Sky, the team that came back from 20 points down in Atlanta, the group that wiped out a 17-point deficit with just over eight minutes remaining to stun the Dream at home in the first round, they were coming.

"Oh yeah, absolutely," said Fever guard Briann January.

"We played close attention to what they did in Atlanta," Shavonte Zellous said.

But it's what Indiana did with that information that counted.

Instead of buckling when Chicago went on a 12-1 run to close to gap to 63-62 with less than seven minutes to go, the Fever buckled down and hung on for a 77-70 win in Game 1 of the WNBA Eastern Conference finals.

Zellous hit a huge 3-pointer with 5:58 to go to put the Fever up 66-62. Then on the other end, she flew into the frame to block a shot in the paint by Sylvia Fowles, pushing the deflection to Erlana Larkins to hold possession.

[+] EnlargeElena Delle Donne
Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty ImagesIndiana's Tamika Catchings, right, scored only 10 points but her defense kept Chicago star Elena Delle Donne at bay.

And Zellous, who had her WNBA coming out party in the 2012 playoffs, wasn't done. She hit another big trey with 1:11 to go to put the Fever up 69-63.

The best game she's had in the postseason so far, coming off a quiet opening series against Washington (shooting 8-of-24 from the floor in two games), came after a conversation with associate head coach Stephanie White, who boiled the message down to this: Be aggressive.

"She told to attack the basket, to be a playmaker," Zellous said.

"She's a very dangerous weapon," White said of the five-year pro. "She is multi-faceted and she was playing one-dimensional. I told her to be aggressive, to take advantage ownership on both ends. And she stepped up tonight."

Zellous was but one in a cast for the Fever who came through as star Tamika Catchings struggled offensively while doing the bulk of the defensive work on Chicago's Elena Delle Donne.

Catchings did her job against Delle Donne, who scored just two points in the final quarter and six in the second half.

Perhaps it took a toll offensively. Catchings was 2-of-12 from the floor, but finished with 10 points.

"Catch can't carry us every night, on both ends of the floor," Indiana coach Lin Dunn said. "It's a team game."

And the Fever came up with a team effort. In addition to Zellous' 18 points, January finished with 19 points, five rebounds and three assists, setting the tempo-pushing tone for Indiana throughout the game, but particularly in the first half.

Rookie Maggie Lucas came off the bench to score eight huge points, including a pair of 3-pointers -- two of Indiana's nine for the game.

And Larkins, the veteran post, played the entire fourth quarter with five fouls but stayed in the game and pulled down five fourth-quarter rebounds.

"I was so proud of her," January said. "A couple of years ago, that would not have happened. But she's a veteran. I think that's where our experience came in."

January said she thought experience was a big factor on Saturday.

"Everybody that has been there, won a championship with us, knows what it takes to win in the playoffs," January said. "It takes everything you have."

Experience may count for even more in the next game, when the Sky stand at the precipice of elimination and the Fever have an opportunity to grasp another trip to the Finals.

And while Indiana deserves credit for poise during the deciding stretch of the game, Chicago put itself in a position, again, where it had to mount a comeback, spending three quarters unable to get a good foothold on momentum in a tough road environment, something that a championship-caliber team has to do at some point.

In reality, Chicago didn't lose this game because it didn't have enough playoff experience. The Sky lost because they turned the ball over 14 times, leading to 23 Indiana points. They lost because they couldn't get Delle Donne the ball enough down the stretch, and because shooting guard Epiphanny Prince went far too long before she made an offensive contribution, going 2-of-7 from the floor, both field goals in the fourth quarter.

And they lost despite the effort of center Fowles, who finished with 20 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks.

"It's easy to look at the stat sheet and see a glaring area that we need to correct to give ourselves a fighting chance," said Chicago coach Pokey Chatman. "It's the turnovers. ... I told the team in the locker room, I like their fight. I like their adjustments. We'll have an opportunity to have some success."

At least one more opportunity.

Everyone in the Indiana locker room knows that closing out this series in Chicago, going back to the WNBA Finals for the second time in three years, is going to take even more than what Indiana gave on Saturday night.

"They are going to be even tougher," January said. "We have to make our adjustments and come prepared. It's going to take everything we have to close it out in Chicago."

Michelle Smith

Contributor, espnW.com

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