Does Down Under = Over and Out???
NEW YORK _ Call the opening act of the 2005 WNBA playoffs, the night of the Australians.
Aussie Tully Bevilaqua zipped a three-pointer with virtually zero time on the shot clock and 1 minute, 33 seconds left to play Tuesday night that put the Indiana Fever out of harm’s way with a seven-point lead and eventual 63-51 victory over the New York Liberty.
The win gave gave the Fever a 1-0 lead in the best-of-three Eastern semifinals series. The Madison Square Garden triumph was also the first road win in Indiana's short playoff history that also includes a home triumph over New York in the semifinal opener in 2002.
Coach Brian Winters was his usual low-key self afterwards when the question of Bevilaqua’s shot came forth at the postgame press conference.
“She’s a very, very good player,” Winters said of the 33-year-old point guard who switched from the WNBA champion Seattle Storm in the offseason as a free agent.
“She’s a smart, veteran player. She’s very tough, mentally, and physically. And she has the ability to make big plays. She’s done that all year for us,” he added.
“Tully’s hit big threes in four or five games all year. Obviously, that one was a bigger one because it was in a playoff game.”
Indiana s]Star sportswriter David Woods, who has covered the Fever for several years, was a little more emphatic after watching the team slide out of playoff contention at the end of the several seasons and also get waxed by New York in two straight games after Indiana took the opener at home in 2002.
“That may have been the biggest shot in the history of the franchise,” Woods observered.
The victory sends Indiana back to the Midwest needing one more win to advance, with two opportunities to get it against the Liberty, beginning Thursday night.
Meanwhile, soon after Bevilaqua did her thing with 14 points overall to compliment Fever all-star Tamika Catching’s game-high 19 points and 12 rebounds, Seattle’s Lauren Jackson got the Storm through its road challenge by the Houston Comets with 19 points and 13 rebounds in a 75-67 victory.
Jackson, a candidate for a second WNBA most valuable player award had entered the contest with back problems that caused her to leave Saturday night's game against Phoenix.
“If she had a bad back, I don't want to see her healthy,” Houston coach Van Chancellor said afterwards of Jackson, who was on the Australian squad, Chancellor’s U.S. team beat for the Olympic gold medal in Athens, Greece, a year ago.
“With a bad back, she had 19 points and was just dominating on the boards, just dominating,” Chancellor added. “That was about as dominating as I've seen Lauren (Jackson) play...on the boards, rebounding, defense and scoring.”
Betty Lennox added 18 points, and all-star guard Sue Bird added 12 points.
Michelle Snow led Houston with 21 points, and Sheryl Swoopes added 15.
The Storm head back to the Northwest needing one win with two chances to get it to advance. The two teams split their regular season series, with each getting two wins at home.
Back in New York, the Liberty has had playoff games, such as Tuesday night’s, occur in similar situations in the past in home openers.
A year ago, the Liberty fell in the conference finals to the eventual Eastern champion Connecticut Sun, 61-51.
In 2000, in the best-of-three WNBA championship series, New York fell to Houston at home, 59-52, and then lost the next game in Texas, 79-73.
“I expected us to win this game at home,” Vickie Johnson, the sole orginal Liberty still with the team, said after the loss to the Fever. “Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out that way.
“Now, we have to do it the hard way. We have to go to Indiana and focus on Thursday night. We have to get that win and hopefully force a game three.”
Johnson was the sole Liberty player in double figures with 17 points.
New York built a nine-point lead at 25-16 with 5 minutes, 12 seconds left in the first half before Indiana rallied and tied the game, 27-27, in the closing seconds of the period.
Indiana went on to bolt from intermission and methodically build a 10-point lead before New York threatened down the stretch.
“We had some mental lapses, offensively, and defensively,” New York coach Pat Coyle said. “We made crucial mistakes at times when we couldn’t afford it.”
Indiana, which has had a history of gaffs late in the season, might have finally figured out how to get things done after gaining such additions as Bevilaqua and rookie Tan White to join catchings and veteran center Natalie Williams, the former UCLA star who will retire after the Fever finish the playoffs.
“One of the things we have to take away from this game, is we can’t be too excited,” Catchings said. “That’s what happened the first time we were in the playoffs and won a game.
”We definitely have a huge opportunity. I think with the addition of Tully and getting Jurgita (Stremikyte) back, and signing Tan, they’ve definitely helped us become a better team.”
Bevilaqua had her moments a year ago, helping the Storm to their first WNBA title after Seattle had finished second to overall-favorite Los Angeles in the regular season.
“The East is just as competitive as the West,” said Bevilaqua, who also played for the former Cleveland Rockers. “The rivalry between Indiana and New York is just like Seattle and L.A.
“It’s great. I love it. This is what you play for.”
The Aussie still has memories of her time with Seattle.
“It’s kind of weird, because they’re on the other side (the West),” Bevilaqua said. “I’m texting (texas messaging) them wishing them well and they’re texting me, saying good look as well.
“But I have no regrets leaving their and moving to Indiana and I’m just enjoying my basketball at the moment.”
Williams, who plans to coach high school in her native Salt Lake City, praised her teammate and the work the Indiana staff did in the offseason to improve the Fever.
“That was our plan,” Williams said. “The people we brought in this year gives us a nice mix between the veterans and the rookies. Hopefully, we’re peaking at the right time.
“Tully’s shot was awesome. She’s the Tazmanian Devil. We love having her as our point guard. She’s an amazing person. She works extremely hard and it’s great to play with her on the floor.”
If Bevilaqua and Jackson continue their performances, they may re-unite again – against each other to play for the WNBA title.
The drama continues with two more opening semifinal games Wednesday night.
Detroit, the only team to dominate Connecticut all year, opens at home against the Sun in the East before Sacramento meets Los Angeles later in the evening.
On Tuesday, new coach Los Angeles coach Joe Bryant, who only needed six games to get the playoffs after Henry Bibby departed, indicated that Nikki Teasley, who has been injured much of the season, might see some action off the bench.
Los Angeles will have a revenge motivation after Sacramento gave them a first-ever early ejection from last year’s playoffs and won three of the four games this season.