Tamika Catchings scored 14 points and made key defensive plays to lead Indiana to a 66-51 victory over the New York Liberty on Tuesday night in the decisive Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals, advancing the Fever to the WNBA Finals for the first time in three years.
They will face the Lynx in the championship round that begins Sunday in Minnesota. The Fever also faced the Lynx when they captured their only WNBA championship in 2012.
Tuesday's victory helped Fever Head Coach Stephanie White make history. She became the first-ever head coach with zero prior head coaching experience to make the WNBA Finals in her first season.
"It's special to be back there," White said.
Catchings, who announced she's retiring at the end of next season, has willed her team to victories. For the fourth time this postseason, Indiana has staved off elimination. 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 contest.
"This is awesome," Catchings said. "To be sitting here means a lot for the organization, for my team."
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.
"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."
Marissa Coleman also came up big for the Fever, scoring 15 points on five 3-pointers.
"Just watching her play, you know you want to do what you can to help her win," Coleman said of Catchings. "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.
The Fever made the Eastern Conference Finals the previous two seasons under former coach Lynn Dun, who led the team to its previous WNBA Finals appearances in 2009 and 2012.