ATLANTA -- "Nothing comes easy."Those were the first words out of Atlanta Dream head coach Fred Williams' mouth on Wednesday night after he saw his team clinch its fifth consecutive playoff spot.
The Dream did it by beating the defending WNBA champion Indiana Fever 89-80 in overtime."Indiana is a tough team with those outside shooters that they have, and we needed that extra burst, especially from our bench players," Williams said, shaking his head and smiling after seeing his team blow an eight-point lead in the fourth quarter but rally to pull away in the extra period.Even though Atlanta has been in the playoffs every year since 2009, this was the first time the team locked up the postseason at home.
"To do this in front of our fans -- man that was special," Williams said. "They have certainly been our sixth man all year."On paper this was one of the few games in the last two months that the Dream was supposed to win. Plagued by injuries and spurts of bad shooting, Atlanta came into the night 5-12 since July 1. But with two of their key players, Armintie Harrington and Tiffany Hayes, back in the lineup and the Fever's starting point guard, Briann January, out with the stomach flu, and starting shooting guard, Katie Douglas, out for the season with a bulging lumbar disc, the Dream had the edge.Atlanta led for most of the night, stretching the margin to 10 points at various times during the second half, but never pulling away. That was due to the fact that Indiana hit nine three-pointers and shot 40.9 percent from outside the line, three full percentage points better than they shot from the floor.
No shot was bigger for the Fever than the one hit by Erin Phillips with 8:23 in the fourth to give Indiana its first lead. Phillips, daughter of Australian Rules footballer Greg Phillips and a member of the 2008 Australian national team that won silver at the Beijing Olympic Games, started at point guard in place of January and would have been the Fever's MVP if she hadn't taken a finger to the eye with just over six minutes remaining in regulation.
Layshia Clarendon took over at point and promptly gave up a steal to Herrington who went in for an uncontested layup.
"Armintie's steal was the key to us getting the win," said Angel McCoughtry, who led all scorers with 30 points. "That was the turning point in the game."The final three minutes of regulation were some of the most exciting and well-played of the season for both teams. The Dream went up by a point on a Le'Coe Willingham three-pointer with 1:40 remaining, but the Fever retook the lead when Jasmine Thomas threw a bad pass that was stolen by Tamika Catchings.Back and forth it went. Thomas tied the game with a free-throw, and the Dream got the final shot with less than a second remaining. McCoughtry hoisted a long jumper at the buzzer that looked good until it rattled off the rim.
"I wish I'd made the shot at the buzzer," McCoughtry said. "But, hey, Michael Jordan missed a lot before he made a lot, right?"In the overtime Williams turned the game over to his stalwarts, McCoughtry and Erika DeSouza, who finished the night with 17 points and 15 rebounds.
"(Angel) talked about it during one of the time-outs," Williams said. "She said, 'I'm going to step it up,' and she did. She really stepped it up defensively. She's a gambler, and she's going to go for the steals."With the Dream leading by four with 1:21 left in overtime, McCoughtry stole the ball on two consecutive possessions. She scored both times.
That put the game effectively out of reach."To step up and make some critical plays and get back in the game is huge, especially when you've had some players who hadn't been playing for us the last few games," Williams said. "It's an awesome feeling, especially given the injuries that we had."