INDIANAPOLIS (AP)—The Indiana Fever responded to Atlanta’s physical play by pushing back and overpowering the Dream.
Tamika Catchings 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-3 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. I think I have a lot of effort and a lot of hustle, and I just go out there and do what I do best, which is rebound.”
Indiana will visit Connecticut in the opener of the East finals on Friday night.
The Fever outrebounded the Dream 46-25 and held them to 37 percent shooting.
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 issue 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 pulled away by holding the Dream scoreless for more than 5 minutes until Harding hit a jumper to cut Indiana’s lead 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.
Catchings said the Fever didn’t want to waste an opportunity on their home court.
“When they tied it at halftime, we came in here and it was like, `Look. We’re not going to let this go. We’ve got 20 minutes to play Fever basketball.”’
Indiana took a quick 45-41 lead in the second half and forced Atlanta to call timeout.
Catchings hit a 3-pointer and a jumper out of the timeout to make it 50-43.
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. Douglas said the Fever can beat the Sun if they don’t rely too much on her shooting and Catchings’ overall scoring.
“I think Tamika and I definitely realized we can’t win it by ourselves and we need each person. I think as long as we stay balanced, we will be a hard team to beat.”