'Underestimated' and shorthanded Fever earn signature win over Storm

Five players reach double figures as Indiana proves it can match up with anybody in the WNBA

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PALMETTO, FL - AUGUST 20: Kelsey Mitchell #0 of the Indiana Fever shoots the ball against the Seattle Storm on August 20, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. Copyright 2020 NBAE (Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images)

Battling a Seattle Storm team that’s 11-1 and leads the league in numerous statistical categories — offensive rating, defensive rating, assist to turnover ratio, among others — presents numerous challenges for opposing teams. Learning that Sue Bird was a late scratch approximately 90 minutes before tip-off would presumably relieve one of those challenges, but not the Indiana Fever.

“[Coach Marianne Stanley] didn’t want Sue Bird to sit, she wanted the whole team,” said Kennedy Burke. “It was kind of like a slap in the face, I guess.”

Whether it was because of Bird’s absence or not, the Fever staved off a late push to stun the 11-2 Storm, 90-84, ending a two-game losing skid in emphatic fashion to improve to 5-7 on the season. A consistent theme in the Fever’s postgame Zoom conversations was the topic of disrespect, that the Storm removing Bird indicated an expectation of a win.

The Fever were having none of that.

“I think we got underestimated today,” said Stanley. “It’s why we play sports. If the game was decided beforehand, why would we play? If you play with a big heart and you play for other people around you and give it your all, good things usually happen.

“I know nobody in this damn building except us expected us to win. Shame on everybody, we just spanked you and taught you a lesson. Yeah I’m pissed, because I got a good team.”

Indiana entered Thursday’s contest with just eight available players after it was announced that Tiffany Mitchell — the team’s second-leading scorer who had started every game this season — would miss at least two games with a wrist injury. Mitchell joined the extensive list of unavailable Fever players alongside Victoria Vivians, Erica Wheeler, Stephanie Mavunga and the recently signed Alisia Jenkins.

The lack of depth had manifested itself in the Fever’s two proceeding losses, as the team allowed extended runs in both games to place themselves in deep, insurmountable holes. Indiana was outscored by 16 in the second quarter of Saturday’s loss to the Sparks, and allowed the Connecticut Sun to score 18 unanswered fourth quarter points on Tuesday.

What followed was arguably the most fluid and balanced offensive performance the Fever have put forth so far this season. Five players reached double-figure scoring and the team combined to shoot 12-for-24 from three-point range. They out rebounded the third-best rebounding team in the league 46-30.

“Nobody in our locker room was feeling like we’re here for anything other than playing basketball and winning basketball games,” said Stanley. “In spite of our shortcomings, we played really, really hard, we played together as a team and beat a very good basketball team.”

Stanley opted to start second-year forward Kennedy Burke in place of Mitchell, a decision that Burke says was made during a lengthy film session on Wednesday. Burke scored the last six points for the Fever to stave off any chance of a Storm comeback and turned in a career-high 23 points overall.

“I know what I can do. We only had eight players, so when you come in the game you have to be ready and every single person showed that,” said Burke. “It was just so much fun… even though there were some lows, we kept our heads up high and the results showed. I’m just so happy.”

Natalie Achonwa was one of the double-figure contributors against Seattle, scoring a season-high 14 points in 16 minutes off the bench. Achonwa echoed the sentiment of feeling disrespected, but was proud of her team for not laying down to or getting intimidated by their opponent’s record.

“I think they underestimated us, and I’m really glad that we were able to push through that and focus on playing Fever basketball and what we do well,” said Achonwa. “That’s all we had was eight, but that’s all we needed.”

Achonwa’s been with the Fever through highs and lows for the franchise, such as reaching the WNBA Finals in 2015 and, conversely, enduring an abysmal 28-74 stretch from 2017-2019. She feels that despite the slow start to the season, a performance like the Fever put forth on Thursday is what makes the future of the team so exciting — the potential of players in just their first, second and third seasons.

“We’ve always had the pieces, we’ve just been young, we’re still young and we’re still growing,” Achonwa said. “The experience that we’re gaining, in both the wins and the losses, is why we’ve been slowly able to piece it together.

Whether the Storm removing Bird in last-minute fashion was a due genuine injury concern or not, the Fever emphatically turned the tides on what, thus far, has been a disappointing season that began with high expectations.

Will Indiana’s success on Thursday propel the team to greater fortunes in the second half of the season? We’ll learn as much over the next three games, as the team is in the midst of a grueling stretch of their schedule during which they play the Storm, as well as the 9-4 Chicago Sky, twice each.

“Definitely don’t count us out, because that grit and that fight will always be there,” added Achonwa. “Sleep on us and you can ask Seattle what happened.”

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