- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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ATLANTA -- Tiffany Hayes didn't fret about where she was drafted in 2012. Yes, her falling out of the first round seemed a mistake, considering her UConn pedigree and the fact that the draft that year wasn't exactly packed with pro-ready talent.
Hayes was the second selection of the second round (No. 14 overall) and it appeared to be a great pick for Atlanta at the time. It has since proven to be steal for the Dream. Hayes scored a game-high 23 points Thursday -- tying her career high -- as Atlanta beat Indiana, 84-79, in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Was it really just a week ago that Atlanta stunk up Philips Arena, shooting a franchise-low 26.7 percent from the field in its loss to Washington? Indeed it was, but the Dream certainly have made up for that with their three victories since. They've gone from looking rather lifeless -- down 1-0 in the East semifinals and headed to Washington -- to being a victory away from a third appearance in the WNBA Finals.
What turned things around for the Dream?
"Mostly hustle plays," Hayes said. "We got a lot of those in the last two games against Washington and a lot tonight, too. Hustle plays and heart."
And smart strategy by coach Fred Williams helped, too. After watching the Fever pick apart Chicago in the first round, Williams opted to maximize the Dream's athletic quickness and go with a smaller lineup much of the time against Indiana.
That kept the Fever from penetrating as well as they did against the Sky, and it helped the Dream dictate the pace. Which, of course, they always want to be fast, fast and faster.
That said, Indiana actually didn't do badly with that -- this was still a winnable game for the Fever -- but it was exactly how the Dream wanted things to play out.
Overall, it was an entertaining contest that showcased just how good playoff basketball can be. Indiana coach Lin Dunn gave the Dream an "A," and her Fever a "B" in terms of execution. Williams didn't hand out grades, but he was very happy with the Dream's effort.
The Fever did a pretty good job on Dream star Angel McCoughtry, who had 18 points. But Hayes and Armintie Herrington (16 points, five assists, four steals, seven rebounds) really stepped forward to give the Dream just too many scoring threats for Indiana to stop.
It was Herrington's second-best scoring effort all season; she had 18 points against Los Angeles in July. It was all the more impressive since Herrington has been dealing with a shoulder injury, and she turned her ankle Thursday night, too.
"She kind of grimaced and looked at me and said, 'Coach, you better not take me out,'" Williams said of Herrington. "She's that type of player. She's someone a lot of teams forget about on the weak side. With her going to the boards and driving the lane early, it kind of opened up the floor for us."
Atlanta finished the game shooting 53.3 percent from the field, not the kind of number you are used to seeing an Indiana opponent put up. But the Fever shot 48.3 percent themselves, led by Tamika Catchings' 21 points.
Indiana also got 15 points each from Karima Christmas, Erlana Larkins and Shavonte Zellous. But the number in the box score that Dunn was unhappy about was turnovers: 16.
Those giveaways were one of the biggest reasons why Indiana didn't win this game. Admittedly, it wasn't played in a style the Fever prefer, but they could have overcome that if they'd taken better care with the ball.
"We put ourselves in good position to win on the road, but we didn't finish the job," Dunn said. "We didn't defend the dribble-penetration. They put their heads down -- Hayes, Armintie, Angel -- and just drove it right at us.
"We could have gotten a few more box-outs that would have taken away a couple of putbacks. And we had two or three too many turnovers. We know we can hit a few more shots, and defend a little better and not turn the ball over. We expected a battle; give them credit. We'll go back to Indiana and see what happens."
As for Hayes, she's never worried about the whole draft thing. On draft day in 2012, her college coach, Geno Auriemma, said that while he thought she should have been a first-rounder, it actually was a good thing for her to go to the Dream. He thought she would fit in well with Atlanta's style of play, and that has been the case.
"I mean, negative stuff is supposed to motivate you, I guess," she said with a shrug. "But I'm just focused on what my team needs me to do and what the coaches want."
And Hayes is also just happy to be back on the court this season. She missed seven games from July 9-Aug. 10 after surgery to repair a torn meniscus in her left knee. Then she came back for six games, but missed four more from Aug. 24-Sept. 2 after re-aggravating the injury.
"I was their biggest fan cheering for them," Hayes said of her two recovery periods. "But in the back of my mind, I was thinking, 'I wish I was out there, helping them.' They were telling me every day in practice, 'Tiff, we need you.' That built my confidence while I was out, making me work even harder to get back.
"With this injury … I know I'm supposed to be 'careful,' but it's my mentality to go hard and be aggressive. That's my instinct; I can't just change that. When I'm out there, I'm playing to win."
12dBonnie D. Ford