It’s not like the Indiana Fever hadn't won in a while. They’ve won two of their last three. But Sunday was their first win over a team with a winning record this season, even if the defending champion Chicago Sky were without Candace Parker.
The Fever were down 13 at halftime and faced their largest deficit of 15 after two Kahleah Copper free throws 35 seconds into the third quarter. At that point, they went on a 20-4 run to take the lead. The run featured eight points from Kelsey Mitchell and six points from NaLyssa Smith, who finished with a career-high 26 to go along with 11 rebounds. Indiana didn’t try to get it all back in one play, not attempting a single three during the stretch, while Chicago went 0-of-3. The Fever were able to win the game with just two made threes compared to the Sky’s nine.
Chicago would regain the lead by four with 1:54 to go in the third, but another Indiana run (12-3) made it 75-70 Fever 48 seconds into the fourth. The Fever held their largest lead of eight with 5:13 to play, but that's when things got nerve-racking, as they nearly let a quality win slip away.
A Copper 4-point play followed by a Copper layup cut it to 82-80 Fever and gave Copper 28 points, the game-high she would finish with. Later, an Allie Quigley three gave Chicago an 87-84 lead. The Sky wouldn't score again, but things didn't get any less nerve-racking over the final minute and 40 seconds, during which the Fever closed the game on a 5-0 run.
A K. Mitchell free throw cut it to 87-85 and then Copper missed a three at the end of the shot clock. With 39 ticks remaining, Smith threw up a heavily-contested one-handed shot from the left block and it went down over Emma Meesseman to tie the game. Smith was fouled on the play and made her free throw to make it 88-87 Fever.
The Sky then missed inside shots at 29, 18 and 15 seconds, the last of which was a Copper bunny that went in and out. Smith got the rebound and was immediately forced into a jump ball by Meesseman. Smith tipped the jump ball forward, away from her team’s basket, and Victoria Vivians was able to come up with the ball for Indiana. She was fouled and made one of two free throws with seven seconds left. Courtney Vandersloot then missed a mid-range shot from the right baseline with a second left and that was it. The Sky fell to 10-5 (they are now 11-5). Indiana improved to 5-13 and is now a half a game ahead of the last-place Minnesota Lynx and just 2.5 games out of the playoff picture.
“I am extremely proud of (my players’) resilience because they are truly a team that is ready to turn the corner,” Fever head coach Carlos Knox said after Sunday’s triumph. “I talk about how our record doesn't reflect the team that we are. I just really feel that under the circumstances, they continue to fight, they continue to push. We had a very intense conversation at halftime to say the least, and they responded.”
Knox was then asked about exactly what it was he said at halftime.
“I just wanted them to be more intentional, I wanted them to understand the game plan and I wanted them to pick their game up the way that we had prepared for this game. We prepared for this game at a high level and they were understanding from a winning standpoint what it took to beat the world champions, and that’s not an easy task. So we wanted to make sure that we were ready to play. And we spent a lot of time, my staff spent a lot of time on the scouting report. James is an excellent coach. So we wanted to make sure that we were extremely prepared. So we wanted to execute the game plan that we put together and that wasn't happening in the first half, for the most part.”
Smith was of course the heroine with her double-double, go-ahead 3-point play and jump ball tip. She is averaging 13.9 points and 8.9 rebounds on the season. The last time I ran the numbers and took everything into consideration, which was on Saturday, I had K. Mitchell, who finished with 13 points and nine assists on Sunday, as an All-Star reserve and Smith just barely missing out on the game, but Sunday’s performance could change that.
“I think it was awareness for her,” Knox said of Smith’s big game. “Her approach to this game, her approach this week. She’s just in a different mind set now. And she understands the significance of what it takes to be a professional basketball player. And now she’s turning the corner when it comes to just, again, understanding. And she will still have ups and downs, because she’s a rookie. But, just understanding what it takes to be on this level is something very, very important. And now she's kind of hitting that stride.”
Emma Cannon was third on the Fever with 11 points, while No. 6 pick Lexie Hull had a career-high 10, up from her previous career high of six. Hull also played a career-high 23:33, up from her previous career high of 13:58.
“I wanted to make sure that Lexie was kind of rewarded for some of the work and the effort that she's been doing,” Knox said. “Lexie is a very good player and she's one of the players that can bring a lot to the table, with her length, her IQ, just her ability to score the basketball. She just has to get comfortable. And I wanted to make sure that, halfway during the season now, she’s able to withstand some of the professional basketball hits. And now I think she's at a place where she can really perform.”
Hull was asked about why she was able to have a good performance.
“I think just having the opportunity, the opportunity to be out there, play a little bit more minutes and just compete. I’ve just been waiting and been watching and learning, and so to have that opportunity tonight, I was really thankful.
“I think more than anything, we just want wins. And so whatever that’s gonna take, that’s what we’re ready to do. I mean obviously we love this feeling, but we know that every game’s really hard and every game’s gonna be really competitive. So to come out next game and just be willing to fight and willing to compete, that’s all we can ask of ourselves.”
All in all, Indiana was breathing a sigh of relief after this one.
“I really wanted to make sure that I stayed relaxed and calm for my team,” Knox said of the final few minutes. “Because when they come to me, they are in a mind set of franticness, especially when you have rookies on the floor. So I wanted to make sure that I was relaxed and that they were understanding the game plan. ... So it was a very good job by them really soaking in what I was saying.”