Former Pac-10 stars shining for Fever
While the superstars have shone for the Indiana Fever and the Phoenix Mercury, other players not named Catchings, Douglas, Pondexter or Taurasi have contributed heavily to the first three games of the 2009 WNBA Finals.
For the Fever, starting power forward Ebony Hoffman has risen completely out of her slump, bringing her game to another level. Rookie point guard Briann January has logged major minutes and played like a seasoned veteran off the bench.
While the most attention is still paid to the dynamic duos of Indiana’s Tamika Catchings and Katie Douglas and Phoenix’s Cappie Pondexter and Diana Taurasi, the other 18 players could win or lose the championship for their teams.
After a late-season slump where Hoffman averaged 8.8 ppg on 35 percent shooting in 16 games during August and September, she has stepped up her play.
“I didn’t lose any confidence,” Hoffman said. “It was a matter of having faith I could do it. I knew I had it, that I could play in this position and this big stage.”
She had a career-high 27 points and eight rebounds in Game 1 at Phoenix, on 12-for-14 shooting. Hoffman followed that performance with 16 points and five rebounds in Game 2.
The elevated play continued for Hoffman in Game 3 who gave one of the most valiant efforts of her career. She strained her shoulder in a tight fourth quarter battling for position in the post. She came out of the game and returned minutes later after a quick visit with the Fever medical staff.
With a hurt shoulder intact, Hoffman made the two most important points of her 18 with 57 seconds left.
The Fever were down one, when she made the game-deciding basket, a 19’ jumper, to put the Fever up 86-85 for good.
It is clear, “Big Dog” is now playing some of the best basketball of her career.
“I’m just worried about us winning basketball games, whatever I need to do that game for us to win, I’ll do 110%,” Hoffman said. “I would gladly trade zero points for a win that first game any day.”
The team player is in her sixth year in the league, all with Indiana. Hoffman appreciates finally getting to the WNBA Finals after being so close.
“To see that the gym is where it is with “Finals” all over the place, it’s amazing to see on our home court,” said Hoffman. “I’m relishing every moment right now. I’m trying to make sure our rookies and second-year people know that this isn’t guaranteed, being in this position is the first time for me.”
For some players, their games rise when the pressure picks up. The Finals provide that extra spotlight for Hoffman.
“Pressure busts pipes sometimes,” Hoffman said. “But with mine, it cools off and it makes me focus that much more. It makes me that much more in tune with myself, my shot and all the things I can bring to the basketball game.”
January, drafted by the Fever sixth overall from Arizona State, has provided consistent scoring and solid decision-making for the not-so-rookie. January has a 3:1 assist to turnover ratio in the finals, showcasing her quick maturity.
“She has grown from the time she’s been here in training camp to now, a great deal,” said Tamecka Dixon, a 12- year veteran who has been a part of two WNBA championship teams. “She is very coachable so it allows her to learn a lot faster than someone who would think they know it all coming into this league. But she’s done a great job of adjusting her game and being open to constructive criticism and learning.”
The rookie showcased just a little bit of that growth when she took a charge near the end of Game 2.
With 2:22 left in Game 2, Taurasi was driving down the court looking for a quick score, down nine. As Taurasi started to make her way toward the basket, January saw her opportunity; she moved over and planted her feet.
“I saw who was bringing the ball down the court,” said January, who finished with 16 points. “I saw DT on my left and I made the right decision. I got there trying to get my feet set and took it. I got the call.“
“She was trying to dunk on me,” January said laughing. ”She was trying to elevate over me.”
Indiana has also looked to the rookie in crunch time. In Game 1, down 100-102 with 48 seconds remaining in regulation, January hesitated at the top of the key, then drove down the lane for a game-tying layup.
“I like to have the ball in my hands in times like that,” said January. “It was an opportunity for me to take it to the hoop. My teammates trusted me enough to take that shot.”
The highlight of the rookie’s play in the Finals happened at the end of the third quarter in Game 3 when January scored 10 points in the last 72 seconds. The run included two free throws, two 3-pointers and a fadeaway jumper over Taurasi with 2.2 seconds remaining. She tied a career-high with 17 points including 3-for-4 from beyond the arc.
January has contributed more than just 14.7 ppg off the bench, her decision making and poise may help Indiana win a championship.