Fever finally topple Detroit to win the East

It Ends in Indy

They overcame an abrupt change in power, a good summer stretch in dead last and injuries to seemingly irreplaceable players. On Saturday night at Conseco Fieldhouse, the Detroit Shock could not overcome the Indiana Fever, falling, 72-67, in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals.

All that the Shock have been accustomed to during their three-year conference reign belonged to Indiana Saturday. The Fever had the defense, the rebounding, the home crowd, and a significant advantage at the free-throw line, especially in the fourth quarter.

The Fever, who had lost to Detroit in the playoffs three straight years, also showed a will to win they seldom exhibited when facing elimination on the road. Neither team led by more than five after halftime; the fourth quarter alone featured four ties and three lead changes.

“We all know the history of this game,” said All-WNBA Fever forward Tamika Catchings, who shot just 1-for-6 but went 8-for-8 on free throws. She finished with 10 points after a team-high 22 in Game 2. “Last night was a battle. Tonight was the war.”

The Shock – who had won 10 of 11 elimination games dating back to the 2006 championship run – had the tables turned on them this weekend. Indiana, the East’s No. 1 seed, lost Game 1 at Detroit but took the next two games on their home court, just as the Shock had done as the No. 1 seed three times in 2007 and 2008.

“They fought all year for the best record to get home-court advantage and they won, so they did what they were supposed to do,” said Shock captain Cheryl Ford, who had Game 3’s only double-double with 12 points and 11 rebounds.

A raucous, sellout crowd packed the upper decks of Consceo Fieldhouse and towered over the court Saturday, as fans clamored to see Indiana clinch the first Finals berth in team history, which the Shock paid no mind.

“I’m used to playing in front of big crowds, I know we as a team are used to playing in front of big crowds,” said Alexis Hornbuckle. “It actually motivates us when we think the world is against you.” There other obstacles in Game 3, however, that Hornbuckle and her teammates would readily admit.

Turnovers and Fouling

In too many ways, Game 3 resembled Game 2 for Detroit, most notably how they committed a team playoff-worst 24 turnovers for the second straight night. Missed defensive assignments at key times also led to Indiana shooting nearly twice as many free throws, 31-16.

“The defense -- our defense, our defense, our defense -- our help-side defense was very poor, and I think that hurt us again tonight,” said Ford, who called the Shock locker room “very quiet, because we knew we could have done better. We knew we had every opportunity in the game last night to win and the game tonight to win, and we know we beat ourselves.”

Shock coach Rick Mahorn, who guided the Shock through the sudden resignation of his friend Bill Laimbeer three games into the season, called turnovers and fouls his team’s undoing Saturday.

“We had 25 personal fouls to their 15 and when you’re not playing defense with your feet and you’re playing with your hands, you’ve got to make sure you’re playing defense with your feet and getting our body there and not foul.”

The Shock led entering the fourth quarter, 50-49, but were victimized repeatedly by fouls. The Fever scored 17 of their 23 fourth-quarter points at the free-throw line. With the game tied at 62 with 3:45 to play, five Detroit fouls were called to one on Indiana the rest of the game.

“Not fun,” Hornbuckle said of Indiana’s 17-of-19 parade to the free-throw line. “You never want to blame the game on the referees because they’re not the ones turning the ball over, they’re not the ones getting beat on defense or missing that box-out assignment or missing that rebound but it’s very frustrating."

Hornbuckle, who went scoreless in Game 2, was the one positive change for Detroit Saturday. She shot 7-for-10 and finished with 15 points, five rebounds, four assists and three steals. She fouled out in the last minute.

“As a player, you’re going all out, it’s Game 3 of the playoffs to get to the Finals – you don’t want the sixth, seventh and eigth man on the court to alter the game,” she said. “But we can’t blame it on them. We had to play the game.”

A short Shock bench

“We” was a pretty exclusive bunch. Mahorn went only seven deep in Game 3, and his usually dynamic bench combo, Shavonte Zellous and Kara Braxton, were too ordinary to compensate. Braxton came up big at the free-throw line, where she made five of six in the second half, but had six turnovers with her nine points.

After becoming Detroit’s postseason darling following 23 points in Game 1, Zellous crashed hard in Indianapolis. The All-Rookie team member had her worst game in more than month Saturday, making just one of seven shots with no assists and three second-half turnovers.

“Zellous and Nolan killed us in Game 1,” Catchings said. “Tonight we made some adjustments on the baseline to have our post step out against Nolan and help slow her down.”

With starter Nikki Teasley in foul trouble – she picked up five in just nine minutes – five Shock players saw 30 or more minutes, led by Nolan, who played all 80 minutes in Indiana. She scored a team-high 16 in Game 3, and exits the 2009 postseason with the second-highest scoring average (21.6 ppg).

“I don’t think it was fatigue, per se, because our players are used to playing those kind of minutes and when you’re trying to get to the WNBA Finals, everybody’s out there is playing hard,” Mahorn said. “At that time, nobody’s tired, nobody’s fatigued.”

The Shock nearly pulled off something no other team would care to attempt, reaching the WNBA Finals after losing two of their top six players, and arguably the best in their respective roles. 2007 Sixth Woman of the Year Plenette Pierson was lost five minutes into the season and 2008 Finals MVP Katie Smith bowed out just when the Shock reached the “must-win” stage of their season to reach the playoffs. Other teams might have folded. In Detroit's case, it strengthened their resolve to finally win back-to-back titles.

“The more adversity we had to face, the stronger we got down the stretch. I think we overcame a lot and we did get stronger as a team,” Ford said. “We started gelling together, starting to put things together, but we just fell short.”

The Shock indeed found something to build in 2009. But the construction will have to wait.