Teaira McCowan becomes the first rookie in WNBA history with more than 20 points and 15 rebounds in consecutive games
What a difference a week has made for the Indiana Fever.
On August 20, the Fever were defeated by a New York team that came into Indy on an eight-game losing streak. The Fever led for just 19 seconds in that game.
One week later, the Fever dominated the fourth-best team in the league for 40 minutes. With McCowan outplaying Liz Cambage, the Fever led comfortably for most of the game and defeated the Las Vegas Aces 86-71 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The Fever, who beat Seattle two days earlier, have now won consecutive games against top-8 teams for the first time this season. Heading into Sunday’s game at Seattle, the Fever were just 2-17 against teams one through eight.
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Indiana, which is 5-4 since the All-Star break, has fed off McCowan as she has exploded into the conversation for WNBA Rookie-of-the-Year. At Seattle, McCowan finished with 22 points and 19 rebounds, which is the second-most rebounds in a game in team history. Teammates teased McCowan after the game, asking why she couldn’t have “just” grabbed one more rebound. That would have made McCowan just the sixth player in league history to post a 20/20 in the same game.
Two days later, McCowan had another dominating performance against the Aces. Even though she was defended by Cambage for a good portion of the game, McCowan outplayed one of the league’s best centers and tied her season-high with 24 points. McCowan also grabbed 17 rebounds, blocked five shots, and made all eight of her foul shots. No other rookie in league history has had two straight games with that many points and rebounds.
Cambage finished with 15 points and 6 rebounds.
After the game, Fever coach Pokey Chatman was asked if she thinks McCowan is coming into her own.
“I think so,” Chatman said. “You think about the opponent she played a couple of days ago. That’s so different from this opponent. I thought her game against Seattle was tremendous because she played so many extended minutes against those smaller forwards. She played the big, big girls tonight and I thought she stayed vertical (out of foul trouble). And we had a little thing with her. We said, ‘Look, if you stay vertical and they finish over you at 6’7 with your hands up, just slap them on the butt and say good shot because we need you on the floor.’ And I thought she also stayed disciplined when it got a little ragged with some pushing and shoving, which is to be expected with the big girls. But I’m just proud of her and I know she’s going to continue.”
McCowan had four fouls against Vegas, but at no point did Chatman have to take her out of the game with foul trouble.
In the Fever locker room, McCowan was telling reporters that she’s making reads and trying to be a team player when Erica Wheeler interrupted by yelling,
“She’s being a GOAT. That’s what she’s doing, she’s being a GOAT!”
McCowan was a bit more humble in describing her accomplishments, but she did admit that she’s gaining confidence in herself.
“When my vets are encouraging me to get better every game and they’re keeping my confidence high, it’s a good feeling,” McCowan said. “I feed off that and I feel good about myself. So once I start scoring, then my teammates are feeling good about themselves.”
It certainly doesn’t hurt McCowan’s confidence that she’s playing so well against some of the world’s best post players.
“Going up against the best of the best, I didn’t shy away from that,” McCowan said about battling Cambage. “I knew what kind of player she was, a tough player who’s going to be physical. I didn’t let it get to me. I tried to play my game as much as I could. Sometimes I got a little frustrated, but I bounced back quicker. And that’s the thing, I’ve been bouncing back pretty quick.”
McCowan started seeing consistent playing time on June 19. Since then, she’s averaged 11 points and 10 rebounds per game. She leads the league with a rebounding percentage of 23.8%. McCowan has been at the top of that category, which measures the percentage of available rebounds a player grabs while in the game, since mid-June.
While McCowan’s stats are impressive, Fever coach Pokey Chatman has often talked about ways her rookie impacts a game that fans don’t see in the box score. McCowan’s post presence opens up space for the team’s perimeter shooters on the offensive end of the floor. Kelsey Mitchell took advantage against Vegas by knocking down 4 of 7 shots from behind the arc and finished with 16 points.
Chatman has also talked about McCowan’s ability to alter her opponents’ shots. Last season, Indiana’s opponents made 64.3% of its shots from less than five feet, which was worst in the WNBA. This season, the Fever’s opponents have made 51.9% of its shots from that distance, which is best in the league. McCowan is also seventh in the league with 1.4 blocks per game.
“I’ve been noticing how much she’s grown, just from her free throws, the way she’s shooting the ball, her confidence, her rebounding, it’s just been incredible,” Fever forward Erica McCall said. “It’s really cool to witness because she puts in a lot of work and just to see her grow throughout the year has been phenomenal. She’s a great player.”
Kennedy Burke is also making the most of her extended minutes
While McCowan is getting the headlines, the Fever have another rookie who is playing well as the season winds down. Burke averaged just 5.8 minutes per game in July, but has averaged more than 25 minutes in the last five games. Chatman is a fan of Burke’s versatility, which has earned Burke a spot in the starting lineup the last three games. The 6’1 rookie out of UCLA is listed as a guard, but she can play multiple positions and confidently defend wherever she’s asked to play. She can also rebound and knock down perimeter shots.
“She has length. She can guard a 1, 2, 3, and some fours, and that allows us to switch some screens that you wouldn’t normally switch,” Chatman said. “And she’s a rebounding guard … so I think once she gets more reps at the intricacies of this game and starts working on some of her skill set to utilize her size, she’s going to be a force to be reckoned with. And I think she’s already that, even if it doesn’t show up on the stat sheet.”
While Burke’s stats don’t always jump off the page, she makes solid contributions in several areas. She had three steals and five rebounds against New York and against Seattle. On Tuesday versus the Aces, Burke had seven points, two steals, and four assists in the first half. Her pesky defense helped the Fever race out to a 53-33 halftime lead as they limited the Aces to 28% shooting in the first half. Burke picked up three quick fouls in the first few minutes of the third quarter so she didn’t play as much in the second half. But by then, the outcome of the game wasn’t in question.
“Her flow is, like, so free,” Kelsey Mitchell said about Burke.
Burke’s first start of her WNBA career came at Los Angeles, which is where she grew up. She wasn’t expecting to be put into the starting lineup for that game, but it was certainly a pleasant surprise to make her first start so close to home. Now that’s she’s earned more playing time, she wants to prove that she can be the type of player who energizes her teammates with her defense.
“Just keep being that defensive spark,” Burke said when asked what she wants to accomplish in her final four games. “I know that on the offensive end, my shots aren’t going to fall all the time, so if I’m being that defensive spark, it’s going to bring something to my team.”
Burke didn’t join the Fever until May 25, a few days after she was waived by Dallas. Burke made her WNBA debut in Indiana’s third game on June 1.
“She came here a little bit late, but you can never tell. It’s almost as if she’s been here from the beginning, she gels with us so well,” Fever forward Stephanie Mavunga said. “She never lets up, she’s definitely relentless on both sides of the ball and that’s what I love about her. She’s a very tough matchup for many opponents because she’s a six-foot guard. Just the potential there is definitely limitless and so I’m excited to see her growth over the years.”
The Fever keep their extremely slim playoff hopes alive
Phoenix owns the tiebreaker over Indiana since they beat the Fever all three times they played this season. To make the playoffs the Fever (11-19) would have to win their last four games and the Mercury (14-15) would have to lose their last five games.
Even though the Fever are most likely not making the playoffs, this is certainly a team to keep an eye on during the last week and a half of the regular season.
Will McCowan continue posting these monstrous numbers as teams begin to focus more of their game plan on keeping her in check?
Will Kelsey Mitchell continue looking comfortable coming off the bench? She has knocked down four three-pointers in four of the last eight games. She is fourth in the league in three-pointers made (63).
Will the Fever’s momentum help them be competitive on August 29 against Los Angeles, a team that’s blown out Indiana in their previous two contests? (Yes, the final on July 12 was 90-84, but the Fever scored the last 19 points during the last three minutes of that game to make the final look much more respectable than the game actually was.)
The Fever still have games against the Sparks, Lynx, and Sun. As those teams battle for playoff seeding, will the Fever be one of those late-season teams that no one wants to play?
Kimberly Geswein contributed with quotes from the Fever locker room.
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