NEW YORK (AP) — Tamika Catchings has made a habit of playing her best with the most at stake in her final postseason run.
She scored 14 points and made key defensive plays to help Indiana beat the New York Liberty 66-51 on Tuesday night in the decisive Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals, advancing the Fever to the WNBA championship.
They will face the Lynx in the finals that begin Sunday in Minnesota.
“This is awesome,” Catchings said. “If you had asked me before the season if I’d be sitting right here, we’re going to try, I don’t know. To be sitting here means a lot for the organization, for my team.”
Catchings, who announced she’s retiring at the end of next season, has willed her team to victories. The Fever won the final two games in the opening round against Chicago, then, against New York, the Fever swept the final two contests, rallying from an 18-point deficit in the second quarter in Game 2 to force Tuesday’s game.
“Nobody thought we’d win the first series,” Catchings said. “No one thought we’d win this round. No one thinks we’ll win the finals. We’re not done yet.”
Indiana is back in the finals for the first time since 2012 _ the only season the Fever won the championship.
“It’s special to be back there,” said Fever coach Stephanie White, who is the first rookie WNBA coach to lead a team to the finals.
The Fever improved to 8-2 in elimination games in the past four seasons and Catchings is a huge reason why. She averaged 21.2 points and 8.8 rebounds in the first nine of those games.
“Just watching her play, you know you want to do what you can to help her win,” said Marissa Coleman, who scored 15 points _ hitting five 3-pointers. “She always makes the play when we need it most.”
Catchings and Indiana looked ready to cruise to the finals, building an 18-point lead in the third quarter. Coleman hit three 3-pointers in the third quarter to help the Fever build their huge lead after Indiana held a 33-22 halftime advantage.
New York wasn’t done. Epiphanny Prince, who was scoreless in the first half, hit a 3-pointer to start a 12-3 run to close the period and bring New York within nine heading to the fourth. The Liberty hit three 3s during that spurt, capped by Candice Wiggins’ shot that made it 49-40 with 28 seconds left in the quarter and brought the loud crowd to its feet.
As he’s done at so many Knicks games, Spike Lee was leading the charge from the sideline, trying to spur the Liberty to a monumental rally. The Liberty kept it going to start the fourth as Wiggins scored the first five points of the period to get New York within 49-45.
But Catchings made two free throws that started a 10-0 run and restored the double-digit lead, essentially sealing the victory for the Fever.
“We came close, just couldn’t make the plays when we needed to,” said Tina Charles, who finished with 13 points and 10 rebounds to lead New York.
New York was trying to make its first appearance in the WNBA Finals since 2002. The Liberty have been to the championship four times and lost each one.
Tina Charles finished with 13 points and 10 rebounds to lead New York, which had the best record in franchise history and was the top seed in the Eastern Conference before falling short in the playoffs. Wiggins led New York with 15 points.
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