With 10 seconds left and one point ahead of Fever, NaLyssa Smith went on to take on Emma Meesseman for a jump ball at Sky’s land end.
While coach Carlos Knox put a calm face on his team, especially the rookies, his heart was definitely racing. But he remained calm, chatting with the rookies through their locations, how to set up and where to get the ball.
But the players on the bench at Fever had their feelings written on their faces. Indiana struggled from a 13-point lead in the first half by scoring a season-high 35 points in the third quarter.
As Indiana waited for the referee to throw the ball, Danielle Robinson and Tiffany Mitchell had smiles on their faces. Queen Igbo was biting her nails, staring at the court as Emma Cannon wrapped her face in a towel, her eyes closed to the ball.
When the ball went up, Smith sent it forward toward Lexi Hull, who was able to deliver it to Victoria Vivians, drawing the foul.
Vivian divided the shots, then with 7.8 seconds left, Fever broke into the defense, forcing Courtney Vanderslot to waste shots and winning 89-87.
“It was a thrill,” Cannon said. “A lot of our rookies were on the court and we wanted to make sure they were in the right places and we knew what to do with the ball if you went here or you went there. Those moments in those games are special because a lot of the games don’t show up at that moment, that’s a hit or a pit stop. So it was a great learning point for everyone and it was something special for us to win at home.”
Nalissa Smith put on a career performance of surprise, scoring 26 points and scoring a double career double. Kelsey Mitchell came close to a double-double with 13 points and 9 assists.
Rookie Lexi Hull and newcomer Emma Cannon have played most of their minutes so far. Hull had a career high of 10 points while Cannon added 11 points just two weeks after joining Fever.
“Carlos always says just stay prepared and your chance is coming, it’s coming, keep going,” Hull said. “And that’s exactly what I’ve been doing. Getting extra time in the gym, just knowing my time will come and I hope I can take advantage of that.”
While the jump ball was perhaps the game’s sharpest point, Smith’s green-lighting 39 seconds before play was crucial. After Vivian passed it to Smith, the rookie took his dribble, rolled toward the hoop and then hit the jumper while making a foul. Smith hit the free throw to give her team an 88-87 lead.
Indiana’s next defensive possession was just as important, forcing Chicago to miss four under-the-basket shots. Fever managed to get off with the last bounce before it reached the sky to pull the jump ball.
“I’m so proud of their resilience because they really are a team that’s ready to turn a corner,” Knox said. “I talk about how our record does not reflect the team we are. But I really feel under these circumstances, they keep fighting, they keep pushing.”
Indiana’s explosive third-quarter attack prepared the team for the win. But the fever waned 50-37 in the first half after nine points in the second quarter.
Within 20 minutes, Knox was disappointed with his team’s performance and told them about it during the break.
“We had a very intense half-time conversation, to say the least. I just wanted them to be a bit more insistent,” Knox said. I wanted them to understand the game plan and I wanted them to choose their game the way we prepared this game. We prepared for this match at a high level and they didn’t understand from a winning point of view, what it takes to beat the world champions.”
Kelsey Mitchell fueled the energy shift to a fever and lifted 10 points in the third quarter. Indiana outperformed Chicago 35-20 in this period.
Mitchell opened the quarter with a basket, before Smith scored six consecutive points, all from layup. Vandersloot responded with two back-to-back jumpers. Next, Emily Engstler came alive to hit the cross and block a shot, halting Mitchell’s drive.
What served as the real transmission was Mitchell grabbing her bounce from under the basket, then making the act of tossing the ball into a deluge of Sky jerseys. When the bench and crowd broke, Fever received a technique that only led to more cheer.
“Kelsey understands that she’s getting a lot of attention, as are all of our potential stars,” Knox said. “She can be on the floor in different poses, and she opens the floor up for our attack in a great way tonight I think she showed.”
Robinson capped the 10-0 lead with two free throws to give Fever their first lead since early in the second quarter. As the skies returned to the rhythm of the attack, the fever kept rolling and advancing 72-70 in the final quarter.
Both teams put together 17 points in the fourth quarter, but the Indiana effort made the difference.
Kahleah Copper has already challenged Fever, scoring 28 points on 61% of the shot. Copper hit four three-pointers, while Fever made only two deep shots as a team.
The Fever will be back on the road for four games in a row, starting with the Dallas Wings on Thursday.