By Cliff Brunt
INDIANAPOLIS — The Indiana Fever made it their mission to get Tamika Catchings a WNBA championship.
Catchings had won three Olympic gold medals and an NCAA championship at Tennessee in 1998, but never one in the WNBA.
She scored 25 points to help the Indiana Fever win their first WNBA title with an 87-78 victory over the Minnesota Lynx on Sunday night.
While Catchings was impressive, Erin Phillips and Erlana Larkins played the best basketball of their careers in the Finals to help their leader complete the circle.
“Everybody talks about the missing piece in Tamika Catchings’ career, and our players took that personally,” Indiana coach Lin Dunn said. “I really believe that was an incentive.”
Even Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve, public enemy No. 1 in Indiana for her outbursts and interactions with the fans, felt Catchings deserved to win a title.
“There’s not anybody that cannot be happy for Tamika Catchings to finally get a championship,” Reeve said. “We were trying to keep her from getting it, but it didn’t happen, and now that she’s got it, she’s easy to be happy.”
Catchings, who was the MVP of the Finals, averaged 22.3 points in the series, which the Fever won 3-1 over the defending WNBA champions. She had been in a position to clinch at home before.
The Fever led Phoenix 2-1 in the best-of-five WNBA Finals in 2009, but the Mercury beat the Fever 90-77, took the series back to Phoenix and won the title at home in Game 5.
This time, Catchings took it home with Pat Summitt, her coach at Tennessee, looking on in the crowd.
The two shared a long hug after the victory. She shed a lot of tears in the postgame celebration.
“When you come into this league, your goal and dream is to win a WNBA championship,” said Catchings. “Twelve years later . it’s so sweet right now.”
Phillips had 18 points and eight rebounds, while Shavonte Zellous and Briann January each had 15 points.
The Fever won even though No. 2 scorer Katie Douglas missed most of the series with a severely sprained left ankle.
Douglas checked in for the first time in the series with 3.2 seconds left in Game 4 to a loud ovation. Minnesota was trying to become the first team to repeat since Los Angeles in 2001 and 2002.
“It was hard being the hunted, as we all know,” Reeve said. “There’s a reason this hasn’t been done in over 10 years. I really felt like if there was a team that could do it, it was our team.”
Indiana held Minnesota below 40 percent shooting in all three wins.
“They played good defense,” Minnesota guard Lindsay Whalen said. “They contested shots and they made it tough for us to get in the lane a little bit. I think that was the theme of the whole series. They were just tough, and give them credit for the way they played.”
Indiana led 63-58 at the end of the third quarter.
Minnesota cut Indiana’s lead to 70-67 on a jumper by Maya Moore, but Phillips scored on a drive past Moore, got a defensive rebound, then found Zellous for a 3-pointer from the left corner to give the Fever a 75-67 lead with 4:58 remaining.
Indiana led by at least five points the rest of the way.
A 3-pointer by January gave Indiana an 80-72 lead with 1:18 to play.
Reeve was called for a technical with 57.6 seconds remaining, Catchings made the free throw and the Fever took an 81-74 lead. Zellous made two more free throws with 27.2 seconds to play, and Fever fans began celebrating. Seimone Augustus, Minnesota’s leading scorer in the playoffs, was held to eight points on 3-for-21 shooting.
She shot 6-for-30 in the final two games of the series after the Fever switched January over to guard her.
Catchings said January, who was on the WNBA first-team all-defense squad, did her job.
“I think she set the tone,” Catchings said. “All (Augustus’) baskets were hard. She used up all her energy in the first quarter.”
Whalen scored 22 points and Moore added 16 points for the Lynx, who were vying to become the first team to win consecutive titles since Los Angeles in 2001 and 2002.
Moore picked up her third foul with 6:13 left in the second quarter. Reeve, who was fined for her jacket-tossing tantrum in Game 2, became animated again while disagreeing with the call.
As the crowd erupted, Reeve waved hello and made the motion for a technical foul.
This time, Reeve’s antics didn’t help much as in Game 2, when her team pulled away from a tight contest for a convincing win.
Minnesota tied the game three times in the second quarter, but the Fever closed with a 7-2 run, including a 3-pointer by Phillips, to take a 47-42 lead at halftime. Whalen scored 14 points in the first half to keep the Lynx in the game, often scoring on uncontested drives. Minnesota hung tough, despite Augustus shooting 2 for 13 in the first half. It was right there for the Fever.
“Coming into halftime, we said we have 20 minutes and we’re not trying to go back to Minnesota to close this thing out,” Zellous said.
Indiana started the second half on a 9-4 run, including two buckets by Catchings, to take a 56-46 lead.
Minnesota came right back. A driving layup by Moore cut Indiana’s lead to 56-54 and forced the Fever to call timeout.
Minnesota tied the game on another drive by Moore, but the Fever responded with a 3-pointer by Catchings and a basket by Jessica Davenport to push the lead back to five by the end of the quarter.
Indiana then closed the deal at home in front of a sellout crowd.
“They made some huge runs at us and gave it everything at us, and I’m just relieved more than anything because we deserve this,” Phillips said. “We’ve been through so much as a team, we’ve lost in crucial times and we’ve stuck together. I’m just so proud right now.”