(ATLANTA) – All year, WNBA fans have been waiting for the regular season to play itself out and the playoffs to start. The season still has a couple of weeks to go, but the Indiana Fever brought a playoff level of basketball to Atlanta on Tuesday night – and the Dream matched it with a narrow 92-90 win over the Fever after beating the Fever in Indianapolis on Sunday.
"The game was on a playoff level tonight," said Indiana Fever head coach Lin Dunn, "It was a great game for the fans. It went down to the last possession. I thought we did a really good job of pulling ahead, but we didn’t do a good job keeping that lead. We had a couple of turnovers that hurt us. And down the stretch they were ramming the ball down our throat and we weren’t doing a good job of defending them and that’s how they got back in the game."
Atlanta Dream head coach Marynell Meadors can enjoy this season’s turnaround after a 3-9 start. "Even with the tough start to the season we never let them lose their spirit. I think we have a group of very energetic basketball players that are really high strung who love to compete and win. We had a taste of this in the end of the season last year, and our goal is to get back to that and make it into playoffs again. And our reason of making it is in that locker room, it is because of our team’s togetherness."
The first quarter showed that both teams would try to match the intensity of their previous fourth quarter in Indianapolis. Indiana guard Erin Phillips played a surprisingly physical game, attacking the basket and clobbering Atlanta guard Armintie Price on one of her own drives. Defensively, the Fever depended on clogging the lane to kill any drives from Atlanta shot creators like Armintie Price or in particular, Atlanta guard Angel McCoughtry. McCoughtry was stymied – but not Price, who scored seven first-quarter points. Atlanta wasn’t afraid to take the mid-range jumper and the Dream took a 10-0 run at one point in the corner, playing great defense and making excellent passes to take a 23-19 lead at the break.
Since all of the Dream’s starters had played the first quarter, McCoughtry and Lyttle rested to start the second quarter. The Fever quickly tied the game 26-26 on good shots from center Jessica Davenport and on a drive and a free throw from guard Shavonte Zellous. Zellous was given two more tries and Indiana led 27-26 with six and a half minutes to the half. The Dream needed to bring McCoughtry and Lyttle back in to recover and Indiana lost its five point lead, with Dream guard Iziane Castro Marques drilling a three to tie the game again at 37-37. Indiana managed to recapture the lead but could never wander far from an aggressive Atlanta defense, leading 49-46 at halftime.
Indiana forward Tamika Catchings led all players with 11 points at halftime, with Atlanta’s offense almost evenly distributed among four starters. The Fever shot 50 percent, but turned the ball over 10 times in the first half.
Both teams traded shots almost as fast as their legs could keep up to start the second half. McCoughtry finally got a chance to roam free and in her typical fashion – a drive to the basket plus a follow-up free throw - put Atlanta up for the first time in the half, 62-59. With McCoughtry on her way to her twenty-first point, Atlanta might have put together a run but an injury to Dream center Erika de Souza – she stepped on Jessica Davenport’s foot - sent her hobbling to the bench with a sprained ankle and Indiana regained the lead. With Armintie Price on the bench with four personal fouls, the Fever finished the quarter 73-69 off a last-second drive by Phillips.
Phillips built up her point totals, and it looked like she’d have another career game against Atlanta – but the Dream continued to battle. After Phillips put the Fever up 77-71, Angel McCoughtry came off the bench for the first time in the fourth quarter and added the next two baskets to close to 77-75 and bring the crowd to its feet.
McCoughtry’s rest might have won the game for Atlanta as much as what was to come. Meadors asked McCoughtry at the end of the third quarter if she needed some time to rest. Normally, according to Meadors, McCoughtry would "gut it out" but this time she said, "I need a minute." When McCoughtry came off the bench she was energized.
With the next Atlanta possession, Zellous was charged with a flagrant foul and Armintie Price hit both free throws to tie the game at 77-77 with the ball in Atlanta’s hands. Price hit two more free throws – she was 6-for-7 at the line for the night - to give Atlanta a 79-77 lead. Phillips was trapped on the Fever’s next possession, and with Phillips calling the time out it looked like the Dream had regained its mojo.
"I thought the flagrant technical foul really hurt us," Dunn said. "They got free throws and then they got the ball and I really thought that was a bad call. I’m looking forward to seeing that; I thought it came out of the clear blue."
But Indiana regained the lead on back to back shots by Katie Douglas. Indiana led 85-81 and a Catchings 3-pointer gave Atlanta a five point lead. A jump shot by McCoughtry off an assist from Dream point guard Lindsey Harding tied the game at 88-88 with 1:39 to go. A Phillips drive was followed by Harding finding Castro Marques and with 1:09 left, the match was tied at 90-90.
After Catchings missed a 3-pointer, Sancho Lyttle got the chance to take the lead with 29 seconds left, coming to the line for two free throws. However, she missed both shots and Indiana had the ball back. Working the clock on their last possession, with seven seconds left, Armintie Price stole the ball from Catchings and found Lyttle, who had the fortitude to take a shot with 0.9 seconds left in the game.
"At the end of the game we did a good job of trapping the ball and this caused their pass to be on the soft side allowing Price to pick it off," Meadors said. "It was one of those games where our defense tightened up, helping us pull it out."
The shot went in, and the Dream led 92-90 with less than a second left. The Fever got the fall back to Erin Phillips, who had a decent range on her desperation heave, but couldn’t make it fall through.
"We knew it was going to be a fight to the end," Armintie Price said. "Since we just beat them at home they were out for revenge. But we just tried to keep it together. We wanted to keep it close and that is what we did. And we know we have five games left in the season and it isn’t over yet. We want to win these last five."
"At the end of the day we had too many turnovers," Dunn said. "We had 19 and they turned that into 23 points. And that probably cost us the ball game."
For Atlanta, Angel McCoughtry led all scorers with 28 points and seven rebounds. In addition to the game-winning shot, Sancho Lyttle had 11 rebounds to go with her 14 points. Armintie Price contributed 16 points and Lindsey Harding had 11 points and six assists.
Erin Phillips matched a career high in her 21 points for the Indiana Fever. Tamika Catchings scored 20 points, seven rebounds and three steals in a losing effort. The Fever turned the ball over 19 times, compared to just nine turnovers for Atlanta.
Are there any lessons Indiana can take from the loss? "We’re on the road and we have Connecticut and then Chicago, two hard games ahead for us," Catchings said. "We’ll just have to watch some video and learn from tonight’s game."
* The win against Indiana was Atlanta’s third win in three games this year. This gives Atlanta the tie-breaker against Indiana.
* This is the sixth consecutive game where Angel McCoughtry has scored twenty or more points.
* With Chicago’s 71-67 loss to New York, Indiana secures its spot in the WNBA post-season despite the loss to Atlanta.
* Erin Phillips scored 21 points tying her career high – earned in a game against Atlanta earlier this year. What makes Phillips so effective against Atlanta? "The other night, when we lost," Dunn said, "the first thing she did was go to the gym the next day and shoot for a couple of hours."
Regarding the last (non-desperation) possession by Indiana. "If I had to do it over again," Dunn said, "I’d let [Erin Phillips] be involved in that last play."