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Fever feeling good after flexing rebounding prowess in second win

NaLyssa Smith and Queen Egbo made history in the rebounding department for the Indiana Fever.

Indiana Fever v New York Liberty
Queen Egbo
Photo by Evan Yu/NBAE via Getty Images

The Indiana Fever probably don’t want to celebrate being 2-2. They have their sights set much higher. But the questions about what it meant to secure their second win 14 games earlier than last year were inevitable after Friday night’s 92-86 overtime victory over the Liberty in Brooklyn.

And for a Fever team that has talented pieces but has struggled against 11 other teams who also have a lot of talent, the answer was that being 2-2 wasn’t meaningless.

“We need that stamp of approval, if you will, that we’re good enough,” said head coach Marianne Stanley. “Sometimes when you hit a losing stretch, people start to doubt or lose faith in their own ability. And so this goes a long way towards shoring up (our players’) confidence.”

Both of the Fever’s wins have come by six points. Their first win was at home over a Lynx team (0-3) that is missing a lot of pieces, but still had Sylvia Fowles out there and is expected to be a playoff team. The Liberty are 1-2 with an impressive win over Connecticut and a blowout loss to Chicago. So it’s hard to decipher how good the Fever’s two wins are.

Friday night, Indiana was up three with 20 seconds left in regulation and up six with 1:57 to go in overtime only to see New York tie it up both times. Sabrina Ionescu (31 points) made a deep, back-breaking three to force overtime and then a 6-0 run featuring four points from Betnijah Laney and two from Ionescu is what forced Indiana to sweat in overtime. The Fever showed their resiliency by basically winning the game three times.

So many different players played well for Indiana and it was a historic night on the boards. Let’s delve deeper into the victory:

Rebounding

The Fever outrebounded the Liberty 57-33, breaking the previous franchise record for single-game rebounds (50, set on Sept. 4, 2009). It was the Baylor rookies who led the way in the category:

“They just put in the effort to rebound,” Stanley said. “And one of the things I talk with all of our bigs about is in this league when there’s size and length and athleticism in the post, which the college kids don’t see that on a regular basis in multiple numbers like you do on the pro level, you can’t just go to the ball. You have to block out. The first couple games we were having trouble because we weren’t blocking out. And we’ve just made it a point of emphasis in all of our practices and in the last two games in particular and I think it’s sinking in.

“You know, (Liberty forward) Natasha Howard’s a pretty damn good player. And she can rebound with the best of ‘em. And you’re not gonna win a jumping battle with her under the rim. That's just not gonna happen. So you have to block out and then pursue the ball. And I think in both Queen and NaLyssa’s case, they’re starting to understand that.”

Kelsey Mitchell’s second 20-point game in a row

Kelsey Mitchell is under a lot of pressure as the best player on what has been one of the weaker teams in the league in recent years. She is as driven as any star in the league to not just perform at a high level, but perform at that high level in a way that translates to wins. After a performance that left something to be desired in a loss to the Sparks, Mitchell led the Fever to their first victory of the season with 26 points against the Lynx. She followed it up with a team-high 24 points against the Liberty, including a 3-point play that extended the lead to six in OT.

“I’m really coming into myself as far as that (closer) mentality and what’s needed to be done for my team,” K. Mitchell said. “For me it’s just those lulls, trying to fix those.”

Danielle Robinson returns in style

The Fever have their starting point guard Danielle Robinson back and she made her presence felt in her season debut. Robinson missed the first three games of the season due to overseas commitments. She was such an important puzzle piece in 2021, her first year with the Fever. She was fourth on the team in scoring and first in both assists and steals per game.

On Friday, Robinson scored eight points in overtime and they were all crucial. She made a three with Ionescu daring her to shoot to open the extra frame. Robinson is a career 17.8 percent 3-point shooter, but Stanley mentioned that she has improved recently overseas. Later, after the Liberty tied the game with their 6-0 run, Robinson put the Fever back up with a clutch mid-range make at 54 seconds remaining. After New York tied it again, she went 3-of-4 at the free throw line to give Indiana a 3-point lead with 14 seconds to go.

Robinson finished with 17 points, eight rebounds and two steals on the night.

“It’s really good to have that vet experience around, especially at that PG position,” K. Mitchell said. “Obviously you don't take anything away from our other guards, for example Henny (Destanni Henderson). But having DRob back and having her to be able to point us in the right direction as far as where we need to be, especially in crunch time situations, was very important. ... We wrapped our arms around her as far as her leadership and we gon continue to need her.”

Victoria Vivians’ first 20-point game since 2018

In her first start of the 2022 season, Victoria Vivians showed flashes of the 2018 version of herself with 20 points on 3-of-6 shooting from long range. She shot 39.9 percent from downtown with 65 makes in 2018, her rookie year, but shot 25.2 percent last year. This year she is 7-of-17 (41.2 percent) through four games.

“Tori’s had a good season over in Israel and she’s somebody that I’ve always had confidence in her ability to score the basketball,” Stanley said. “She just seemed more settled and more ready to give us what she’s capable of giving us. And I think she’s far enough away from the knee injury that really hurt her earlier in her career. She has said for the last six months or so she feels great. So I just knew it was a matter of time before she was gonna play the way she was capable of. And she didn't hesitate tonight. Maybe starting helped her.”

“Not trying to blame it on my injuries, but it’s just been a battle for me after my first year basically having injuries,” Vivians said. “I’m feeling good, back moving like I was. I’m comfortable doing what I do. ... I’m playing back like myself again.”

Vivians tore her ACL prior to the 2019 season. She failed to reach double figures in six games in 2020, only scored over 15 twice in 2021 with a season-high of 17 and had yet to reach double figures in 2022. She last scored 20 points in a game when she notched her career high of 27 on July 1, 2018.

NaLyssa Smith looking comfortable as a pro

In addition to her 17 rebounds, N. Smith had 12 points and was asserting herself and making moves on offense as if she was a seasoned vet who knew what she wanted to do out there. She has talked about not wanting to change too much from the way she played in college and on Friday night looked like the NaLyssa Smith we saw at Baylor.