Motivated by disappointing playoff exits last season, the Atlanta Dream and Indiana Fever both have their sights set on a WNBA title.
While the Dream played with the mettle of a champion in winning their season opener, the Fever crumbled down the stretch in losing theirs.
In a rematch of last season’s Eastern Conference finals, Atlanta looks to build on an encouraging victory as it tries to spoil the Fever’s home opener Saturday night.
With a strong nucleus already in place in two-time defending scoring champion Angel McCoughtry, Erika de Souza and Sancho Lyttle, plus the additions of four-time All-Star Swin Cash and rookie Shoni Schimmel, the Dream are again among the favorites to win the East. New coach Michael Cooper has told his players he expects nothing less than a championship.
McCoughtry has led the Dream to the WNBA finals three times since 2010, but her team has yet to win a game in the championship round. Atlanta was swept by Minnesota in last year’s finals after sweeping the Fever in the East finals.
The Dream played with poise late in Friday’s opener against San Antonio, rallying for a 79-75 win. Schimmel tied the franchise record with 11 assists and recorded all seven of her points in the fourth quarter, while McCoughtry scored eight of her 21 in the final 2:52 to help Atlanta close with an 11-3 run.
Atlanta outscored San Antonio 48-36 in the paint, and de Souza notched team highs of 23 points and 11 rebounds.
”This is the year that we can go farther,” de Souza said. ”Cooper is always asking everybody to play inside; this helps me a lot. This is going to be the year for us.”
Indiana, winner of the 2012 championship, is driven to win another title in coach Lin Dunn’s final season. It also could be the final year for 2012 WNBA MVP Tamika Catchings.
The 14-year veteran sat out Friday’s opener in Chicago with a sore back, and is expected to miss a week or two, according to Dunn.
It appeared the Fever would be just fine without their top returning scorer, leading the Sky 30-12 late in the first quarter, but Dunn’s team managed just 25 points after halftime in its 74-71 loss. Indiana shot 3 of 16 in the fourth quarter and was outscored 7-0 over the game’s final 1:32.
"We weren’t poised enough at the end of the game," Shavonte Zellous told the Fever’s official website. "We played so well in the first half, but at the end, we made mistakes. We didn’t execute."
The loss overshadowed a solid debut by rookie Natasha Howard. The fifth pick of the draft totaled 16 points, 10 rebounds, six blocked shots and three steals.
"I love her," Dunn said. "I thought she played really well … for a rookie. I wish we’d gotten the ball to her more."