Moving into first place in the Eastern Conference wasn’t easy for the Indiana Fever. Staying there might be even more difficult.
In their first meeting since the WNBA finals, the Fever visit a Phoenix Mercury team looking to win its fifth straight Sunday night.
Phoenix (14-13) defeated Indiana (17-10) in five games for its second WNBA title in three years last season. Diana Taurasi earned finals MVP honors, scoring 26 points in the championship-clinching 94-86 victory at US Airways Center.
Both teams are in position to get back to the playoffs this fall. The Mercury are in second place in the Western Conference, while the Fever come in percentage points ahead of Atlanta for first place in the East.
A five-game win streak from July 16-27 helped push Indiana into the battle for the top spot, but the Fever followed up that run by losing three in a row. They ended the slide with a 95-93 victory over the Dream on Friday to move into first.
Tamika Catchings hit two free throws with 3.5 seconds left after the Fever blew a nine-point lead in the fourth quarter.
“You looked in everybody’s faces like, ‘We’re not going to lose this game tonight,'” said Catchings, who finished with a season-high 30 points along with eight rebounds and three steals. “Every game from here on out is going to be that playoff mentality. In the East, every games has been so close and the standings are so crucial for every team.”
Indiana will continue its pursuit of the East title with three straight games versus West opponents – two of them against Phoenix. The Fever are 5-2 against the Western Conference.
Sunday’s contest begins a road-heavy stretch of schedule for Indiana, which plays five of six away from home. The Fever, winners of three of their last four road games, return home Friday to face Phoenix.
While Indiana is in a close race in the East, the Mercury have created a bit of a cushion for the second spot in the West with their four-game win streak. They are coming off a sweep of a home-and-home series with San Antonio this week, winning 103-87 at Conseco Fieldhouse on Friday.
Penny Taylor had 18 points to lead six Phoenix players in double figures and added eight assists and five rebounds. The Mercury shot 60.3 percent from the field and outscored the Silver Stars 20-9 at the free-throw line.
“We came out aggressive and collectively the team played well and it was definitely a group win,” said guard Temeka Johnson, who scored a season-high 17 points. “Overall, we know the direction we’re trying to head and we know what we need to do.”
Phoenix is the highest-scoring team in the WNBA at 97.2 points a contest – more than 10 better than anyone else – and the Mercury have been even better lately, averaging 106.9 points in the last seven contests.
The Mercury and Fever split their two regular season meetings in 2009, each winning on the road.