January Jumpstarts the Fever
By Brian Martin, WNBA.com

Briann January scored 10 points in the span of 76 seconds late in the third quarter.
Ron Hoskins/NBAE/Getty Images

INDIANAPOLIS, IN, October 4, 2009 -- Briann January is a rookie. She just isn't playing like one.

Throughout the season and especially in these WNBA Finals, January has provided a spark off of the Fever bench as she splits time running the point with veteran Tully Bevilaqua.

That spark turned into a fire on Sunday, as January got red hot at just the right time for the Fever.

With her team trailing by five points near the end of the third quarter, January had the biggest scoring burst of her young basketball life, as she scored 10 points in just 76 seconds to turn a five-point Indiana deficit into a three-point lead heading into the final quarter of play.

January’s run began with a wide-open three-pointer off a feed from Katie Douglas. After Diana Taurasi answered the shot with a fast-break layup, January went on to score the final seven points of the period, hitting a pair of free throws, another open three-pointer and finally a fadeaway jumper with Taurasi in her face with 2.7 seconds left.

“I honestly can say I’ve never been a part of something like that,” January said of her quick scoring explosion. “I’ve never have experienced it before, but I have to say it came at a good time.”

Not only did January give the Fever the lead, but she woke up the 18,000 fans in attendance at Conseco Fieldhouse that had been kept quiet throughout the third quarter as the Mercury kept the Fever at bay.

“I felt it; I honestly felt it in my chest they were screaming so loud,” January said of the crowd noise. “That pumps you up more than anything.”

Perhaps she has to play the humble card since she’s a rookie, but January was quick to deflect the praise about her efforts and instead focus it on her teammates.

“My teammates did a great job of finding me,” she said. “They drove, they did the hard part, I just stood there and spotted up and tried to hit the open shot for them. I’ve been putting up extra shots and trying to be confident and they want me to shoot those open shots when I get the chance.”

And with good reason. During the Finals January is averaging 14.7 points on 56 percent shooting from the field and 58 percent from three-point range, which are drastic improvements from her regular season numbers of 6.9 points, 33 percent and 29 percent, respectively. She finished with 17 points on Sunday, which matched her career high.

“You just have to be confident in the playoffs,” January said. “I’ve worked all season and my teammates have been behind me the whole season just saying ‘put up your shots’ because they trust in me and their confidence in me allows me to go out there and put them up when I get the chance.”

“Bri’s just learned so much this season and that learning period is now just paying off,” said Bevilaqua of her pupil in their mentoring relationship. “Her confidence as a rookie is unbelievable.”

Bevilaqua is the only one in the Fever locker room still willing to call January a rookie. Coach Lin Dunn said that January stopped being a rookie in her mind after the All-Star break.

“Bri has been amazing,” said Tamika Catchings. “We talked about how much she's grown from the beginning of the season, going through the regular season into the playoffs; we talked about how unbelievable she was in the Washington series and the things she did in the Detroit series, and now we're here in the Phoenix series and she is doing even more than she did before.

“It's definitely great to see her progress. She's a rookie but she definitely doesn't play like a rookie and it's exciting for us to see that.”

The greatest bode of confidence that a player can get is being on the floor during crunch time, and Dunn has repeatedly called on January to close out games for the Fever this season and playoffs.

“Bri is in during clutch situations and it’s not like the ball is in Catch’s hand or KT’s hand all the time in clutch situations; it’s in Bri’s hand,” said Bevilaqua. “That says a lot to Bri that the coaches are putting her in that position at the end of the games; that’s a compliment to her.”

The Fever players have no concerns with the ball in the hands of a 22-year-old in the closing minutes of games with a championship on the line.

“I don’t care how old she is, the girl can play,” said Ebony Hoffman. “Like LeBron playing in the NBA at 18, some people can just play.”

When the Fever drafted January with the sixth overall pick in this year’s WNBA Draft, they did so with a plan in place to make her the point guard of the future and to take the reigns from Bevilaqua.

Credit must be given to Bevilaqua, who still has a year remaining on her contract, for not only accepting the transition but embracing it. In talking about January’s efforts following Game 3, Bevilaqua lit up like a proud teacher that sees their student go on to achieve greatness.

“This year was always going to be about evolving the future of the club and evolving a potential starting point guard for the future and I’m expecting to take that secondary role next year,” said Bevilaqua. “This year it was about having her learn the ropes and giving her quality playing minutes for her to learn how to handle situations. From the beginning of the season until now, she’s playing like she’s been in the league for a couple of years.”

Another benefit that January has yielded from Bevilaqua is how opposing teams scheme against her. Throughout the playoffs Bevilaqua has struggled with her shot (32 percent from the field and 33 percent from three-point range) which has led to her being the player that team’s leave open to double team players like Catchings and Douglas.

By replacing Bevilaqua with a more capable shooter, the defense must rotate off of another player, or else they end up leaving January wide open on the outside.

“Sometimes they forget that I’ve subbed in for her and they are playing the same defense doubling off me and that’s how I get some of my open shots and I’m not too mad about that,” January said. “I try to make them pay for it and make them respect me and in turn that will open up things for everyone else.”

Spoken like a true veteran.