Indiana Fever 2019 season recap: a new direction ahead

The Fever will look to a new coach to continue their positive momentum from the 2019 season

Bankers Life Fieldhouse was buzzing after the Fever beat Connecticut 104-76 in the season finale. Fever fans witnessed three players set significant milestones . A crowd that filled most of the lower bowl and a good portion of the middle deck saw the Fever improve to 7-6 after the all-star break. Hundreds of fans lined the perimeter of the court long after the game to catch autographed mini-basketballs thrown by Fever players. The cheers lasted at least 20 minutes after the final buzzer.

Those Fever fans are confident in this young team. There’s an excitement in Indy at the end of the season that didn’t exist in 2017 and 2018. It will be up to the new coach/general manager to keep the momentum going.

Less than 24 hours after the Fever enjoyed one of their most positive home games in years, the team fired head coach and general manager Pokey Chatman on September 9. During a conference call with reporters later that day, VP of Basketball Operations Tamika Catchings didn’t give any indication that the team’s core of young players will face the same fate as their former coach.

Assuming the nucleus of Kelsey Mitchell, Erica Wheeler, Teaira McCowan remain intact, (and can Candice Dupree please play forever!?) here’s a look at what the new coach will be inheriting following Indiana’s 13-21 season in 2019.

A team full of promising young players

  • McCowan, who was the third-overall pick in the 2019 draft, set a franchise record with 305 rebounds in her first season. She also finished second in the WNBA in rebounds. That’s impressive considering McCowan only started 16 games and didn’t start seeing consistent playing time until mid-June. She also scored in double-digits in nine of the last ten games. Chatman raved all season about McCowan’s perimeter defense, which doesn’t always show up on the stat sheet.
  • Indiana Fever center Teaira McCowan makes it difficult for Las Vegas Aces forward Dearica Hamby to get her shot off during a game on August 27. McCowan had 24 points, 17 rebounds, and 5 blocks to help Indiana win 86-71. Photo by Kimberly Geswein

  • Mitchell, who was the second-overall pick in the 2018 draft, set a WNBA regular-season record with nine three-pointers in the Fever’s final game of the 2019 season. She finished second in the WNBA with 79 made three-pointers in 2019. She also shared point-guard duties with Erica Wheeler and handled the role admirably, leading the team in assists in eight games.
  • All-Star MVP Erica Wheeler appears to be the heart and soul of the team. Wheeler’s inspirational performance in Vegas gave a much-needed jolt of energy to her teammates. The Fever had lost 10 of 11 games going into the All-Star break, but they looked like a different team after Wheeler brought home the MVP trophy. After scoring a game-winning layup to beat Atlanta on July 31, which was the first game after the All-Star break, Wheeler said she wanted her MVP performance to be a “wave” of energy that her teammates could ride for the rest of the season. Although Wheeler only scored in double-figures twice in the last 12 games, she’s a big reason why the Fever finished the season 7-6. Wheeler set a franchise record with 175 assists in one season. She is also sneaky good at swooping in for rebounds at the defensive end.
  • Indiana Fever guard Erica Wheeler attacks the basket during a game against the Las Vegas Aces on July 10, 2019. Wheeler, who is 2nd in the WNBA with 99 assists, has been named as an All-Star for the first time in her career. Photo by Kimberly Geswein

  • Victoria Vivians will be returning in 2020. The eighth overall pick in the 2018 draft shot nearly 40% from behind the arc while playing every game (starting 26) during her rookie season. She missed the entire 2019 season after tearing her ACL during a game in Israel in March. Vivians and Mitchell combined for 135 three-pointers in 2018, which was the most by a rookie tandem in WNBA history. Having Vivians and Mitchell on the perimeter with McCowan in the paint should be a coach’s dream inside-outisde combination.
  • Veteran leadership was provided by Dupree, Natalie Achonwa, and Shenise Johnson. Rookie Kennedy Burke, who was claimed by Chatman hours after she was waived by Dallas on May 24, provided solid minutes at the 1, 2, or 3 positions. Betnijah Laney and Tiffany Mitchell provided solid perimeter defense. Forwards Stephanie Mavunga and Erica McCall gave the team a spark off the bench while rookie guard Paris Kea showed flashes in the 11 games she played. It will be interesting to see who remains on the Fever’s roster with new leadership in 2020.

After the season finale, Achonwa said, “We’re going to be good going forward. Our youth stepped up. They grew, and with that one more year of experience under their belt, and them going overseas as well, look out for them next year for sure.”

A team that had difficulty winning close games

According to the Fever’s media relations game-notes, 12 of the team’s 21 losses were two-possession games in the final minute of regulation.  If the Fever could have won just three of those games, they would have made the playoffs.

Here are three home games that were there for the Fever to win if they had executed down the stretch:

  • June 11 vs. Seattle: In this 84-82 home loss, Indiana led by a point with 29 seconds left. On Seattle’s ensuing possession, Achonwa was called for a questionable blocking foul against Jewell Loyd, who gave Seattle the lead with two foul shots. The Fever were unable to score on their next two possessions and lost a game that was there for the taking.
  • July 10 vs. Vegas: The Fever led by five entering the final quarter, but could only manage 10 points in the fourth quarter in this 74-71 loss. After committing eight turnovers in the first quarter, the Fever did not turn the ball over for the next 25 minutes as they established their third-quarter lead. Then they turned the ball over three times in the final five minutes, missed a free throw that would have tied the game with eight seconds left, and attempted a two-point shot instead of a three when they were down three points with a second left.
  • July 19 vs. Washington: In her first game back from her facial injury, and the first game she wore the mask, Elena Delle Donne torched the Fever with 28 points and 15 rebounds. Remarkably, the Fever outscored the Mystics in quarters two, three, and four. Crisp ball movement and a fast pace helped the Fever get quality looks as they kept up with the high-powered Mystics offense. A pair of free throws by Laney put the Fever ahead by four with 1:41 left. However, a defensive breakdown on the next possession left Delle Donne wide open for a three, which she made to cut the lead to one.  After a jumper by Wheeler, Delle Donne hit another three to tie the game with 48 seconds left. The game went to overtime, where the Fever’s offense fizzled out. Washington won 95-88.

If the Fever want to be a playoff team in 2020, they will have to close out games like the three mentioned above.

If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best

The Fever feasted on the bottom three teams but struggled against the top eight. Indiana went 8-2 against the Wings, Liberty, and Dream, but were just 5-19 against the top eight teams. The Fever closed the season by winning three of five against playoff teams (Aug. 25 at Seattle, August 27 vs. Vegas, and September 8 vs. Connecticut), but they can’t expect to make a playoff run without beating the top teams more consistently.

The potential for a terrific home-court advantage at Hinkle Fieldhouse

It’s never ideal for a WNBA team to be forced to find a new home court, but the Fever have made the best of their situation by announcing they will play at historic Hinkle Fieldhouse in 2020, 2021, and part of the 2022 season while Bankers Life Fieldhouse undergoes renovations. It’s just 6.5 miles north of Bankers Life, so it’s no problem for Indianapolis residents to get there. Hinkle, which serves as the home court of the Butler University men’s and women’s basketball teams and the volleyball team, has a seating capacity of 9,100. It was the site of the 1954 Indiana High School Boy’s Basketball championship game where tiny Milan High School won the title over a much larger school, which was the storyline of the movie Hoosiers. Hinkle Fieldhouse holds a special place in the hearts of Indiana basketball fans, which could help draw new fans to Fever games for the next few years. The move to Hinkle shouldn’t deter anyone in Indy from attending a Fever game. If the Fever start winning consistently, the atmosphere of this classic fieldhouse could provide an electric home-court advantage for the next few seasons.

Mavunga spent most of her childhood living in the Indianapolis area, so she is familiar with the history of Hinkle Fieldhouse. She also played a few games there in high school. After the win against the Sun, she said, “I’m really excited to have my teammates come there and show them exactly what Indiana basketball is about.”

With another top draft pick and a plethora of promising young players, the Fever’s new coach/general manager will have plenty of tools to lead the Fever back to the playoffs for the first time since 2016. Expectations are the highest they’ve been in years, so whoever steps in as coach will need to win right away.

All stats provided by the Indiana Fever media relations, basketball-reference.com, and WNBA.com.

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