By Tom Rietmann
INDIANAPOLIS -- With 3.2 seconds left, 15,213 red-clad fans stood in unison, danced in the aisles and produced ear-splitting cheers.
On the Indiana Fever bench, players gleefully hugged, high-fived and waved to the crowd.
Let the celebration begin.
The Fever reigns as 2012 WNBA champions.
In a Finals series that stirred emotions all around central Indiana, the Fever put a hammerlock on the league title Sunday night with an 87-78 victory over the Minnesota Lynx at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Indiana eliminated the 2011 champs by winning three of the first four games in the best-of-five WNBA Finals.
Tamika Catchings, who was league MVP in 2011, won the Finals MVP award Sunday night. She stuffed the box score as usual, collecting 25 points, eight assists and four rebounds. Mostly, she was just delighted about adding the one honor that had eluded her highly decorated career -- a WNBA team title.
When asked her thoughts immediately after the game, Catchings grinned.
“Pinch me. Pinch me,” said Catchings, whose former coach at Tennessee, Pat Summit, was on hand to watch.
“You are running down the court, and you look around and see the fans. Just to have them here and share the moment, to have the guys from the Pacers (George Hill, Lance Stephenson and Paul George among them) who stood by us all season long, and to have my family ... it was just awesome.”
As confetti and streamers fell at the Fieldhouse, Fever players and coaches celebrated the victory. Herb Simon, owner of the Fever and the Pacers, joined them on the stage.
“All of Indiana is so proud of this team,” Simon told the crowd
In a touching moment, Simon related to the fans that the Fever's close-out victory came on what would have been his brother's 86th birthday. Mel Simon, who co-owned the Fever and Pacers, died in September of 2009.
“I dedicate this to my brother,” Herb Simon said about the Fever's title, which is the first for an Indianapolis professional basketball team since the Pacers won their last ABA title in 1973.
Kelly Krauskopf, the Fever's chief operating officer and general manager, hugged every player, every coach she could find. Krauskopf built the Fever team, starting from scratch in 2000.
She drafted Catchings. She traded for Katie Douglas. She brought in veteran center Tammy Sutton-Brown. Those three 30-something veterans helped to keep the Fever focused and together in 2012 as a number of players went down with injuries, including Douglas, who missed all but the final 3.2 seconds of the Finals series with a badly sprained ankle.
“To look at the heart that this team has,” Krauskopf said, “is just a testament to the kind of players and the kind of people they are.”
Guard Erin Phillips, who picked up much of the scoring load after Douglas was injured, was two rebounds shy of a double-double Sunday night with 18 points and eight rebounds. Former Pacers great Reggie Miller inspired her. Miller sent a tweet to Phillips in the afternoon wishing her luck and saying he'd be watching.
“I almost dropped the phone,” said Phillips. “Reggie's my absolute hero.”
Perhaps the biggest factor in Indiana's victory was a 13-3 first-quarter run. The Fever steamrolled the Lynx to take an 18-9 lead only 5 ½ minutes into the game. It gave Indiana a cushion to absorb Minnesota's various runs in what became a tight contest through much of the second half.
“The early lead was huge,” said Fever guard Briann January. “We had to come in with the mentality that we trailed in the series and had to make that first punch. We were playing the reigning WNBA champions. We knew we would get their best.”
January's defense on Minnesota star Seimone Augustus proved crucial. Augustus, on the
all-WNBA First Team, went 3-of-21 from the field and totaled just eight points.
“All-WNBA Defensive Team right here,” Catchings said, looking at January. “(January) really, I think, just set the tone straight from the beginning.”
Erlana Larkins topped the Fever with 13 rebounds as Indiana outrebounded Minnesota by a 39-35 count. Coach Lin Dunn challenged her Fever team at midseason to get better as a rebounding club. Larkins, more than anyone else, made it happen.
Twice in the Minnesota series, Larkins grabbed 15 boards -- one shy of the Finals record.
“You know, I've coached for 42 years and probably the best coaching adjustment I ever have made was when I inserted Erlana Larkins in the starting lineup in the Atlanta series,” Dunn said about the Eastern Conference semifinals. “Putting her in the lineup, telling her how important she was and what we needed her to do was huge. And we would not be here today if we hadn't done that.”
Indiana shot 37.3 percent (25-of-67) from the field, but its tough-minded defense held Minnesota in check with a 42.7 percent mark (32-of-75). Indiana also forced 12 turnovers that led to 15 points for the home team.
“We probably don't have as much talent top to bottom as they do,” Dunn said about the Lynx. “So we had to win the old-fashioned way with great defense, with rebounding, with toughness.”
For Dunn, in her fifth year as the Fever's head coach and ninth with the team, the WNBA title served as crowning glory for a strong college and pro coaching career. The Fever came close in 2009, losing to Phoenix in the Finals. Also, there were Big Ten titles and an appearance in the Final Four during Dunn's years at Purdue.
“To take this team to the Finals and finish it off with a trophy is really big,” she said.
At the end of Sunday night's game, Dunn inserted Douglas into the lineup so she could soak up the crowd's appreciation. Douglas suited up for the first time in the Finals but wasn't expected to play on her bad ankle.
Dunn said she put in Douglas “so the crowd could acknowledge her and the contributions she's made. We really haven't had a chance to talk about what just happened other than to hug and say thank you. That will come later.”