Catchings ignites Fever comeback against Liberty to force Game 3

ByMechelle Voepel ESPN logo
Monday, November 2, 2015

INDIANAPOLIS -- Indiana's Shenise Johnson said that for much of the first half Sunday, the Fever -- with their season on the line -- played sluggishly.

"We were kinda zombie-like," Johnson said.

After the game, though, the zombie stares were in New York's locker room. Because rather than celebrating their first trip to the WNBA Finals since 2002 -- which it looked for much of Sunday afternoon like New York would do -- the Liberty are headed back home for a deciding Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals.

New York's Swin Cash sat with her headphones on, one leg bouncing furiously, the look on her face a mix of irritation and anger. Teammate Kiah Stokes sat nearby with a case of the rookie blues, disappointed in her scoreless effort Sunday after 21 points in a Game 1 Liberty win Wednesday.

"They took some things away from us," New York's Tanisha Wright said of the Fever after Indiana's 70-64 victory. "And we didn't adjust to that."

The ultimate thing Indiana took away was what appeared to be a great chance at an East finals sweep for the Liberty. New York led by as much as 18 in the first half and was up 15 at the break. The Liberty were ahead by 11 after the third quarter. The East finish line for the Liberty, the team with the best regular-season record in the WNBA, was just 10 tantalizing minutes away.

Now, it's at least 40 minutes away for both teams, although no one would be surprised if this series' last game went to overtime. But the fact there will be one more game will gnaw at the Liberty on their flight back home.

They looked as if they didn't quite know what had hit them in the second game. They were zapped by the power of the Tamika Catchings and an incredible fourth quarter by the Fever.

"When she takes it up another level, it makes everybody else do that," Indiana's Shavonte Zellous said of Catchings, who led the Fever with 25 points and seven rebounds. "You saw, especially in the second half, the will she had: attacking the basket, her aggressiveness defensively, her rebounding. When we see our leader doing that, it trickles down to all of us. Each of us wants to do it for her and give it all we have."

Catchings has announced she will retire after the 2016 WNBA season. So while these playoffs don't have quite the poignancy for the Fever and their fans that will be omnipresent if Indiana is in the postseason next year, there is still the feeling of watching the sunset of a spectacular career. With Sunday's game, Catchings kept the sun up at least a little longer for Indiana.

Catchings, who said after the Game 1 loss in New York the Fever had "laid an egg," was frustrated at halftime Sunday by what she considered six consecutive quarters of subpar basketball.

So she took off her shoes in the locker room as she tried to symbolically push the reset button on the day. She thought about her team and what it needed. And then, maybe a bit like ruby slippers, the shoes went back on -- "God, the energy that I got!" she later exclaimed -- and carried Catchings to one of the more emotionally satisfying victories she has had in the WNBA.

And that's saying something because there have been quite a few. Such as a comeback from 22 points down in Game 3 of the 2007 East semifinals against Connecticut. And the 2012 East finals Game 2 triumph over Connecticut, which Zellous won on a buzzer-beater.

Like Sunday, both of those victories came in Indianapolis, and the latter was a pivotal win on the Fever's road to the 2012 WNBA championship.

This victory Sunday stands out because, from an outsider's point of view, the Fever looked as if they were done at halftime. But they didn't think they were finished.

"I went out and just played the way I know how to play," Catchings said. "The last two quarters, we had fun."

Suffice to say, the Liberty did not enjoy the second half -- in which they were held to just 20 points -- but especially loathed the fourth quarter. Zellous had rattled in a 3-pointer at the buzzer of the third quarter, and that gave the Fever just a little extra push into the final stanza.

And then came the huge shots, such as Marissa Coleman's two 3-pointers and one from Johnson. Catchings making 4-of-6 from the field and both free-throw attempts. Catchings drawing a charge with 3 minutes, 46 seconds left in a tie game. Then Briann January drawing a charge with 9.8 seconds left and the Fever clinging to a three-point lead.

Catchings and January were announced as members of the WNBA's all-defensive first team earlier Sunday, and both those plays were examples of why. New York coach Bill Laimbeer, who had been griping during the game about the Fever flopping, in his view, was particularly upset about the charge January drew on Wright. Laimbeer accentuated his verbal displeasure with a kick at the press row table and picked up a technical. The already loud Bankers Life Fieldhouse crowd roared with approval at that. And the Fever closed it out.

"They started taking us off the dribble, attacking the basket, and we didn't," Laimbeer said. "We settled for jump shots. They picked up the pressure, tried to deny as much as possible. They just played harder in the second half. That was the bottom line. We didn't get it done."

Now, the Liberty hope some Madison Square Garden magic on Tuesday will help them finish what the Fever wouldn't let them do Sunday. The No. 3 seed Fever, who knocked off No. 2 seed Chicago in the first round, now will try to do the same to the top-seeded Liberty. Whichever team wins will get a WNBA Finals matchup with Minnesota, which swept defending champion Phoenix on Sunday.

"Me, growing up watching Tamika, she's very resilient," said Tina Charles, who led New York with 25 points and 10 rebounds. "I knew she was going to turn it up to take over the game, and [for] the rest of the guys, it was going to be a snowball effect. And that's exactly what they did."

Related Video