Fever 82, Dream 74
Tamika Catchings finished her special day the right way.
After being announced as the league's most valuable player earlier Thursday, she had 12 points and 13 rebounds to help the Indiana Fever defeat the Atlanta Dream 82-74 in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Catchings sealed the win with one of her signature late-game gems. She stole the ball from Atlanta's Angel McCoughtry, then drove more than half the length of the court, spun through contact and made a behind-the-head layup off the backboard that gave the Fever a 74-66 lead.
''I was just trying to drive the basket and get to the line,'' Catchings said. ''I was going in there with the intention of attacking Sancho (Lyttle) and get to the line.''
It was the kind of play that has earned Catchings a rare level of respect from her peers.
''She's just a hustle player, she just outworks everybody,'' Tangela Smith, who led Indiana with 25 points, said. ''We needed that stop at that time. That's what Catch does.''
McCoughtry, second in the league in scoring during the regular season, was held to 11 points - about 10.5 below her average. She played just 17 minutes and was in foul trouble throughout. Atlanta had swept the regular-season series with the Fever 4-0, and McCoughtry averaged nearly 24 points in those games.
McCoughtry had words for the officials as the game ended, and Atlanta coach Marynell Meadors wasn't happy with them, either.
''She had a lot of fouls called on her,'' Meadors said. ''I don't think she ever had a chance to get into her game, which really hurt us. So take it for whatever you want to take it. I just don't she had any chance out there tonight.''
Lindsey Harding scored 17 points for Atlanta, but she shot 1 for 5 from the field in the final 10 minutes with Indiana's Shavonte Zellous guarding her.
Lyttle scored 14 points, Armintie Price had 13 and Erika DeSouza had eight points and 13 rebounds for the Dream.
Game 2 of the best-of-three series is Sunday in Atlanta.
Catchings' late-game heroics were possible, in part, because of Smith's performance. She made 5 of 7 3-pointers and had nine rebounds and four blocks. She didn't score more than 16 points in any regular-season game this year.
''I was just doing it tonight,'' Smith said. ''It just seemed like everything was going in, except my first two missed layups. My teammates kept finding me and giving me the ball, and I was fortunate to knock down shots.''
It was the kind of game the Fever envisioned when they signed the 34-year-old Smith before the season.
''That's why we brought Tan here, because she can spread the floor and knock down threes, and she did exactly what we expected her to do,'' Dunn said. ''She has the green light. If she's open, we want her to shoot.''
Indiana balanced Smith's outside shooting with an aggressive approach. The Fever made 23 of 27 free throws while Atlanta made just 9 of 17.
''I thought the 27 free throws and us attacking the paint was really big for us,'' Indiana coach Lin Dunn said. ''We had a few too many turnovers, but I think we were able to overcome those just because of staying close in the rebounding and the free throws.''
The score was tied at 57 at the end of the third quarter.
A 3-pointer by Smith gave Indiana a 63-59 lead with 7:17 remaining.
McCoughtry was called for a charge with 5:35 left, her fifth foul of the game and the third time Catchings drew a charge from her. Moments after McCoughtry went to the bench, Smith made another 3 to put the Fever ahead 68-62 midway through the fourth quarter.
Later, Catchings drove and drew McCoughtry's sixth foul.
''I thought we did a really good job of defending her,'' Dunn said. ''When we put Catch on her in the second half, she just kind of lost her poise and composure a little bit, and that's okay with us.''
The Fever expect McCoughtry to be focused in Game 2.
''Now we go back to their place and play, and for us, we have to put this game behind us already and look at what she's going to do and what kind of mentality she's going to come out with,'' Catchings said. ''I feel like Angel is going to be a lot more aggressive.''
Atlanta remained confident.
''We've had our backs to the wall many, many times this season,'' Meadors said. ''We've faced adversity many times, and we've managed to jump over the hurdles, and this is one in front of us. We will come back strong on Sunday afternoon.''