Indianapolis, IN — The one-and-done showdown between Phoenix and Indiana proved to be its own version of survival of the fittest – and the Mercury prevailed, 89-78, in a game that completed the career of Tamika Catchings, one of the greatest to ever play basketball.
“How I feel? I’m going to miss my teammates. You know wins and losses they happen and it sucks to be on the losing end but more than anything just the good times that we had and the fun that we’ve had, through the highs and lows just being able to always know that I could look to my left and my right and my teammates will be there.”
The new WNBA playoff format in the first round meant the Fever had to defend its home court in Indianapolis, but Phoenix, behind Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner, who had 20 and 18 points, respectively, ended Indiana’s season.
Catchings, who retired after 15 years in the WNBA, finished her career with a double-double of 13 points and 10 rebounds. The Fever finished 17-18, while the Mercury are now 17-18.
Indiana got two quick points from Erica Wheeler in the first quarter, but Phoenix went on an 11-3 run. Indiana’s Marissa Coleman answered for Indiana, and the first quarter ended in an 18-18 tie.
The game got interesting in the second quarter as both teams played tug-of-war with the lead – exactly what would be expected with a season-ending game on the line.
Catchings had to take a seat in the first quarter after picking up two quick fouls, but redeemed herself in the second quarter with a pair of free throws to put her in front, 28-27, with 4:52 left before the break. Catchings did not want her season to be over and give Indiana its biggest lead of the game, 32-27, with 3:32 left in the first half.
The Fever, however, struggled to shut down the Mercury’s offense but managed to close out the first half with a three-point lead, 38-35.
Indiana was led in the first half by Catchings, Coleman and Erlana Larkins with eight, seven and six points, respectively while Phoenix was led by Penny Taylor and Griner, both with eight points.
Indiana, plagued by fouls and turnovers in the third quarter, struggled to keep its head above water, and the Mercury outscored the Fever by a margin of 10-6 to take back the lead, 45-44.
Both teams racked up fouls as the playoff game became a physical battle. Indiana became frustrated after missing five straight shots, but Briann January went straight to the rim for a layup to put her team back in the lead.
A 6-1 run by Indiana forced Phoenix to take a timeout and regroup, which is exactly what the Mercury needed.
With three minutes left in the third quarter, Phoenix went on a 9-2 run to pull ahead of Indiana, 57-54.
A three-point shot by Wheeler knotted the score for the fourth time, but Phoenix’s Lindsey Harding responded with a buzzer-beating two-pointer to take the 59-57 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
The fourth quarter got testy at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, and the Fever fouls piled up and put Phoenix on the line, allowing the Mercury to take its biggest lead of the night, 69-59.
With 7:39 left in the fourth quarter, there was a lot of game left to play. But Indiana seemed to be slow dancing in a burning room, as John Mayer would say.
The Fever fought to keep its season alive, but Phoenix took control of the game late and didn’t surrender its lead, matching every Indiana rally to advance to the next round of the WNBA playoffs.
The Fever players knelt on the court during the national anthem, which has been done by athletes across the country to bring awareness to the escalating numbers of black men shot by police, including two this week in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Charlotte, North Carolina.
Catchings was embraced by players from both teams after the game, with January wrapping up Catchings while both were in tears.
Phoenix will play round two of the playoffs, also single-game elimination, at New York on Saturday, Sept. 24, at 7p.m. ET on NBA TV and ESPN 3.
Mercury Head Coach Sandy Brondello said that she’s happy with the result and the way Brittney Griner stepped up this evening.
“We knew it was going to be very hard coming to Indiana, playing on their home court,” Brondello said. “Obviously it’s a team that puts a lot of pressure on you defensively, very fast at the other end of the floor. I thought our first 20 minutes we were very tentative and took us out of a lot. Once we got back to the game plan we had in place at the start of the game, playing much better defense, team defense and helping each other, we got going a little bit.
“And obviously Brittney (Griner) helped us. They didn’t really bring a trap, so she was big for us. We just had a little bit of poise down the stretch with that lead. We’re happy with the result and happy to keep moving forward.”
Catchings reflected on the final game of her career, emphasizing the fact that its not all about the wins and losses, but more so about the memories and friends she made along the way.
“I knew it was coming from the sense of the end. But definitely not wanting it to end this way,” Catchings said. “It’s disappointing obviously, clearly. It’s just I feel like we’ve been through so much this year, being able to just bring it all together and have the opportunity to prove ourselves once last time. Every single game, taking one game at a time.
The bond Catchings refers to can be seen in Mercury’s DeWanna Bonner’s post game interview as she talks about what it was like to compete against Catchings in her final game, as well as Penny Taylor.
“Two great players for the league. Two great people. Catch is just the ultimate competitor and I think her team played one hell of a game for her. They put it all out there on the line. She’s just a great player. It sucks that we had to kind of end her career.
“But to play her in her last game was an honor. I’m glad I got to see her before she goes on to do better things. We’re going to kind of keep this thing going for Penny.”