Tamika Catchings, Stephanie White combine to lead Fever to WNBA Finals

NEW YORK -- To say the least, Tamika Catchings isn't one to see limitations. But when this season started, even she didn't think her Indiana Fever were a team likely to get to the 2015 WNBA Finals.

"Honestly, no," Catchings said. "I thought we had a lot going against us. New coach, new system, some new players, trying to get everybody adjusted. It was a struggle at first, and it was like, 'When is all of this stuff going to connect?'"

The answer to that question was evident at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday with the visitors' locker room full of smiles and anticipation for what's next, while the hosts were left feeling miserable that this series got away from them.

Six days after the Fever "laid an egg" as Catchings termed their 84-67 Game 1 loss in the East finals against New York, Indiana came back into this famous arena in Manhattan and scrambled all the Liberty's hopes for that organization's first WNBA title.

A chance to pursue that will have to wait for another year for New York, thanks to Indiana's 66-51 Game 3 victory. The Fever are headed back to the WNBA Finals for the third time in the last seven years, and the championship series will be a repeat of the 2012 event, as the Fever again face Minnesota. Indiana won that matchup 3-1.

If you're the Liberty or their fans, you'll still be wondering all the rest of this week -- and probably longer -- how this happened. New York was a quarter away from a sweep on Sunday, taking an 11-point lead into the final period at Indiana.

Then, the Fever players -- with backs firmly against the wall -- wrested control of the series. Indiana's comeback Sunday was an amazing thing to watch, and now will loom even larger in WNBA lore because that victory was consolidated by another one Tuesday on the Liberty's turf.

"Nobody dropped their heads, nobody laid down," Catchings said. "Even when we were down 18 in the second game, we all looked at each other and said, 'We can do this.' That's the story."

At the forefront of this tale are the rookie head coach and the consummate veteran player, who are just two years apart in age. Catchings was a freshman for Tennessee when the Lady Vols won the 1998 NCAA title. Stephanie White was a senior for Purdue when the Boilermakers took the '99 championship.

When Catchings was drafted by Indiana in 2001 -- because a torn ACL cut short her senior season, she didn't play in the WNBA until 2002 -- White was a player with the Fever. White was later an Indiana assistant for four years under Lin Dunn, who retired after last season.

Suffice to say, Catchings and White know each other extremely well, and they both saw the same things in watching this year's Fever team evolve.

"We started this season with a lot of unknowns," White said. "One of the things that actually helped is with the injuries we had, our bench got some quality time. They were able to feel what it was like to make some clutch plays."

Catchings and White both began to believe in late July that the Fever were going to be more special than they'd earlier anticipated. On July 28, their first contest after the All-Star Game, the Fever edged Connecticut by two points. That started a stretch in which Indiana won nine of 10 games, including three in a row on the West Coast.

"We went on the road trip and were able to prove who we were and what we are capable of doing," Catchings said. "At one point, I was thinking, 'You know, we are really good.'"

Yet it wasn't quite that easy. Because then the Fever lost five of their last eight to end the regular season, getting the No. 3 seed. They lost their first playoff game at No. 2 seed Chicago 77-72 in the East semifinals.

Indiana rallied for two victories over the Sky, winning the series on the road. That was a process the Fever repeated against New York.

"One of the strongest things about this team is we're not going to give up," said Marissa Coleman, who had 15 points Tuesday, making 5 of 7 from behind the arc. "We're going to be together. We knew we played terrible that first game, but the good thing was we were sure we could play better.

"Credit our coaching staff; they had us prepared for each of these games. We didn't execute the first game, but we have since then."

White picked two coaches older than her with significant experience to be her assistants: Gail Goestenkors and Gary Kloppenburg. Fever players repeatedly reference the coaching brain trust as a major part of what helped Indiana flip the switch in this series.

And, in her next-to-last year in the WNBA -- she'll retire after the 2016 season -- Catchings is practically part of the coaching staff.

"I feel like I'm an extension of her," Catchings said of White. "I'll say something in the huddle, and then she'll come in and say almost exactly the same thing. It's almost freaky. She's just so smart, and because she played, she's willing to listen to her players."

And vice versa: Catchings credited White's decision to move her further out from the basket for the second and third games as being a critical factor in the Fever's victories. It forced the Liberty's Tina Charles to have to move around a lot more to defend Catchings. And while Charles still had a very good series, she was held to a below her average 13 points in Game 3.

The Liberty shot just 33. 3 percent Tuesday, and reserve guard Candice Wiggins was their leading scorer with 15 points. All of which shows you how far out of their comfort zone the Liberty were forced by Indiana.

Now the Fever will be the so-called underdog facing West top seed Minnesota, which is in the WNBA Finals for the fourth time in the last five years and seeks its third title. But not as much as an underdog as the Fever were in 2012, when they lost then-starter Katie Douglas to an ankle injury in the East finals but still came together to win it all.

Douglas has retired, but players such as Erlana Larkins (12 points, eight rebounds Tuesday) and Briann January (eight points, eight assists, six steals) have channeled their positive memories from 2012 onto what they're doing now.

"I think it helps a lot," Larkins said of that 2012 experience. "And it's also going to trickle down to the ones who are new to the Finals. But Minnesota's been there a lot, too, so it's a great matchup."

It's not necessarily the WNBA Finals meeting everyone expected, with so much attention surrounding New York. But it's the matchup that the Fever made happen through sheer tenacity.

After last week's loss to the Liberty, Catchings saw New York coach Bill Laimbeer in the hallway when she was leaving the interview room as he was arriving.

"I told Bill after that press conference, 'This won't happen again. We won't get beat like that,'" Catchings said. "We might get beat, but we're not going to get blown out again. It was just the confidence we had as a team. I'm just so proud of everybody."

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