By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 20, 2009
INDIANAPOLIS, Sept. 19 -- As Indiana Fever star Tamika Catchings toed the free throw line with 2.6 seconds remaining in regulation of Game 2 of the WNBA Eastern Conference Semifinals, there was absolutely nothing the Washington Mystics could do to preserve their precarious lead.
Catchings sunk one free throw then another to the roar of a racous Conseco Fieldhouse crowd to tie the score and force overtime. The Mystics had played desperately to extend their season for 40 minutes, but in the time it took Indiana's all-star to sink two free throws none of it mattered. In overtime, the Fever once again showed their veteran savvy against the Mystics, showing the patience necessary to capture an 81-74 win and a series victory to end Washington's season.
"I almost would have rather lost by 50 than lose by a few," point guard Lindsey Harding said. "It's hard. We worked so hard to get to the playoffs and we were excited to be here but it's even harder when you know you were so close to beating a team and they end up coming in on top."
In the franchise's five playoff appearances, the Mystics have advanced past the first round only once. In three of the other four postseason trips, they have been swept by their opponent.
The backbreaker for Washington (16-20) was that Indiana, one of the best free throw shooting teams in the WNBA entered the contest with an 82 percent success rate, went to the line 38 times in Game 2 and recorded 32 points.
"I'm proud of our team," Mystics Coach Julie Plank said. "I've been proud of them all year. I thought we outplayed them in every facet of the game. . . . There was a lot of discrepancy at the free throw line and that's hard to overcome."
The Mystics finished with a better field goal percentage than the Fever and kept Indiana's stars largely under wraps until late in the game, but it was all for naught. Indiana has won six consecutive games against Washington this season.
"Once again we had a typical game that we have against the Washington Mystics," Fever Coach Lin Dunn said. "It's just a war. They're very good, very talented and I thought we were very fortunate to tie it and get to overtime. Once we got into overtime we had a little more poise down the stretch."
Veteran point guard Tully Bevilaqua was superb in the extra session for Indiana, making a three-pointer to break the initial tie and then cutting through the Mystics defense for three additional points.
At the end though it was Catchings, the player who has tormented Washington throughout the season, who stood sinking two more free throws as time expired. Catchings finished with game highs in points (24) and rebounds (16) and added five assists.
The Mystics' undoing came before the extra session, though, as they experienced the worst-timed shooting cold spell of the season in the fourth quarter. They had entered the final 10 minutes of regulation with a 55-49 lead but went nearly five minutes without a field goal.
Only the 2009 WNBA most improved player of the year Crystal Langhorne, who finished with a team-high 15 points, scored a field goal in the fourth quarter. It seemed only a matter of time before the top-seeded Fever would find a way to overwhelm Washington yet again.
In the first four minutes, Indiana raced out to a 12-4 lead and multiple Fever players sliced uncontested toward the basket.
The wakeup call came when Washington's sparkplug, Matee Ajavon, was inserted into the game. With her stutter-step speed Ajavon created space for driving layups.
Spurred by Ajavon's energy, the Mystics got their fast-pace transition game going and worked their way back into the contest. By the end of the first quarter they trailed by only two points.
When the Fever put rookie point guard Briann January into the game during the second quarter, Washington didn't make the mistake of watching her like they did in Game 1. They prevented January from driving to the basket and continued to smother the rest of the Fever's efforts, holding Indiana to just 12 points in the frame.
Washington's all-star guard Alana Beard was also at her best beginning with a spurt late in the first half. Beard played less than 10 minutes in the first half but she went on a seven-point run, including an impressive driving layup that drew a foul to give the Mystics a 37-30 lead at halftime.
"I don't think there's any disappointment in this season by any means," Beard said. "I thought we grew as a team. This is our first year together as a group. Obviously, we had a goal to make the playoffs. We didn't want to stop in the first round. . . . We were motivated by that. This is hard but I'm not disappointed in this season by any means."