It was Friday, May 24th. Or, if you asked a basketball fan, opening night for the 2019 WNBA season. The setting was the Westchester County Center, located about 45 minutes north of New York City.
Seven seconds remained in the fourth quarter of the season opener between the Indiana Fever and New York Liberty, the two worst teams in the WNBA last year. The Fever had the ball, down by one, 80-79. And this is what happened:
Career-high 22 points for @TiffMitch25. ✅
Rookie @Teaira_15 calls GAME in her @WNBA debut. ✅#Fever off to a 1-0 start. ✅
Highlights, recap, photos and more from #FeverWin in New York ➡️ https://t.co/XeaveAzRX1
#Fever20 #AllForLove pic.twitter.com/LW3HLHG1S1
— Indiana Fever ⛹️♀️🏀 (@IndianaFever) May 25, 2019
Not a bad way to start off your season with a buzzer-beating layup to earn your first win of the year and a heck of a way for rookie Teaira McCowan to start her WNBA career.
The Fever didn’t have many happy moments last season, as Indiana finished 6-28 with the worst record in the WNBA. It was the first time in the franchise’s 19-year history that the team finished with the worst record in the league and the first time that Indiana missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons since 2003 and 2004.
The Fever hail from and play the majority of their games in a state that lives and breathes both men’s and women’s basketball. Some of the greatest men’s and women’s basketball teams at the college and professional levels have come from Indiana, not to mention some of the game’s most iconic players.Basketball is in the blood of residents of the Hoosier State, and they know the sport as well as anyone.
Up until 2017, they had been treated to one of the best teams in the WNBA. From 2005-2016, the Fever went to the playoffs for 12 straight years, including three trips to the WNBA Finals highlighted by winning the 2012 title. They were also treated to the career of one of the greatest basketball players in former MVP and 10-time All-Star Tamika Catchings.
But after Catchings retired, the Fever spiraled down the standings and finished 9-25 in 2017. Then, 2018 happened and the team hit rock bottom.
The Fever finished last season with the worst offensive rating (97.8) and field goal percentage (40.6%) in the league, as well as with the fewest assists. But Indiana was also one of the worst defensive teams in the league last year. Indiana allowed opponents to shoot a league-best 47.3 percent against them last year, as well as gave up the most rebounds to opposing teams last season.
So yes, it was problems on both ends for head coach and general manager Pokey Chatman’s squad in 2018.
But not all hope is lost heading into another rebuilding season. The Fever’s top three leading scorers last season, Candice Dupree (14.2 points per game), Kelsey Mitchell (12.7 ppg), and Natalie Achonwa (10.3 ppg), are back this year. Dupree finished the year in the league’s top 10 in two-point field goals made, while Mitchell placed in the top five in three-point field goals made.
Achonwa led the team in rebounding (6.9 rebounds per game) and finished top 10 in the league in total rebounds. Indiana returns its best distributor on offense from last year in point guard Erica Wheeler (4.1 assists per game), who finished top 10 in the league in total assists.
But the Fever’s three-point shooting will rest solely on the shoulders of Mitchell this season, as Indiana will be without its two best shooters this year. While Victoria Vivians is out for the season due to a torn ACL, Cappie Pondexter announced her retirement during the offseason. Vivians’ three-point percentage (39.9%) was 10th best in the WNBA last year.
With the third pick in this year’s draft, the Fever used it to select the aforementioned McCowan to help bolster their low post play on offense, rebounding and defense around the rim. As a senior at Mississippi State, McCowan was the SEC Player of the Year and a first-team All-American. As a junior, McCowan won the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year for the Bulldogs.
The Fever are far from being ready to return to the playoffs and contend for a title. But there’s a reason for fans to be hopeful that this team can improve and finish outside the cellar this year.