INDIANAPOLIS – The Indiana Fever responded to Atlanta’s physical play by pushing back and overpowering the Dream.
Katie Douglas scored 24 points and Erlana Larkins had 16 points and 20 rebounds to help the Fever beat the Dream 75-64 on Oct. 2 to advance to the Eastern Conference finals.
Tamika Catchings, recently named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year, added 16 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks and Briann January also scored 16 points for the Fever, who recovered from a Game 1 loss at home to win the best-of-three series against the two-time defending Eastern Conference champions.
“We knew they were going to be physical, but we stepped up to the challenge and were right back physical with them, and people don’t expect that from us,” Catchings said.
Lindsey Harding, who led Atlanta with 17 points, said her team did not adjust to the way the game was being called – or not called.
“We were getting contact and looking for calls,” she said. “And coach (Fred Williams) told us we have to play through that. This is the playoffs.”
Larkins was one of the main reasons the Fever handled the Dream’s aggressive style. She didn’t become a starter until two games remained in the regular season, then she took it a step further in the playoffs. Larkins averaged 14.3 points and 10.7 rebounds in the series while shooting 71 percent from the field.
“Relentless and tenacious,” Larkins said when asked why she excels on the boards. “Rebounding is about effort and hustle. You can’t coach that.”
The Fever out-rebounded the Dream 46-25 and held them to 37 percent shooting.
Angel McCoughtry, the WNBA’s scoring leader in the regular season, had 16 points – just two in the second half – and Sancho Lyttle added 10 for Atlanta.
Indiana led 54-51 at the end of the third quarter. A 3-pointer by Douglas pushed Indiana’s lead to 61-53 with 8:17 remaining and forced Atlanta to call timeout. January’s jumper less than 40 seconds later pushed the Fever’s margin to 10.
Atlanta started to make a charge, but on one play, McCoughtry and January went after the ball. January undercut McCoughtry, and McCoughtry was issued a technical foul for swatting the ball out of January’s hands after the play. Douglas made the free throw to push Indiana’s lead to 66-59. The Fever then pulled away by holding the Dream scoreless for more than 5 minutes until Harding hit a jumper to cut Indiana’s lead back to 75-61 with 58 seconds to go.
McCoughtry made just 1-of-9 shots in the second half.
“The key thing with Angel is if we get her frustrated, then she kind of loses her composure, and I think it affects the rest of her team,” Indiana coach Lin Dunn said.
McCoughtry’s 24-foot 3-pointer with 4.9 seconds left in the first half tied the score at 39 at the break. Indiana led for most of the first half, but the miscues, including 7-for-12 free-throw shooting, kept Atlanta in the game.
Indiana took a quick 45-41 lead in the second half and forced Atlanta to call timeout.
Indiana led by three points end of the third quarter, an ugly 10 minutes filled with turnovers and uncalled fouls.
Indiana pulled away by holding the Dream to 6-for-18 shooting in the fourth. The Fever avoided a repeat of last year’s conference finals when they lost to Atlanta at home in Game 3 when Catchings was limited by a foot injury.
Now, Indiana advances to play Connecticut and league MVP Tina Charles in the Eastern Conference Finals which begin Oct. 5.