INDIANAPOLIS — Ebony Hoffman’s two big plays put the Indiana Fever one win away from their first WNBA title.
She hit the jumper that gave her team a one-point lead with 57 seconds left, then blocked Tangela Smith’s shot with a second remaining to help Indiana defeat Phoenix 86-85 in Game 3 of the finals Sunday. The Fever took a 2-1 lead in the series and can clinch the championship with a win at home Wednesday.
Indiana forward Tamika Catchings said Hoffman has been a force since going through a slump at the end of the regular season.
“In the playoffs, she’s stepped up her game and done such big things, especially in the Phoenix series, playing unbelievable, out of her mind,” Catchings said. “That’s awesome to see that, especially with the hard work she’s put in over the years.”
Hoffman, who led Indiana with 18 points, did it all with a sprained right shoulder. She left the game with 7:21 left and returned with 3:40 to play.
“My shoulder just popped out and went back in,” Hoffman said. “It’s just going to hurt.”
Catchings had 14 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists, Briann January scored 17 points, and Katie Douglas had 15.
Cappie Pondexter led Phoenix with 23 points and Le’coe Willingham added 17. Diana Taurasi, the league’s MVP, scored 18 points but shot 6-for-16 from the field.
The lead seesawed throughout the fourth quarter.
Hoffman’s long shot from the left corner put Indiana ahead in the final minute. The officials reviewed it to determine if she was behind the arc and concluded it was a 2-pointer, giving Indiana an 86-85 lead.
Pondexter rushed downcourt and missed a layup, and Catchings rebounded. Then Indiana missed twice in close, but got the offensive rebound. January dribbled the ball out of bounds with 22 seconds left, though, to give Phoenix a final chance.
Pondexter missed a short jumper, and Catchings went for the rebound. She tried to call timeout, but Willingham tied her up and a jump ball was called.
Catchings felt she had called the timeout.
“I got the rebound looking for a referee to call timeout, but Le’coe got there, and I guess they felt like her hands were on the ball,” Catchings said.
Willingham won the jump ball, and Phoenix called timeout with 3.4 seconds left to set up the final shot.
Phoenix wasn’t looking for Smith on the play.
“It was designed for Penny (Taylor),” Pondexter said. “I think I overthrew the pass and it ended up in Tangela’s hands. Tangela got a decent look, and Ebony blocked the shot. We had numerous chances to get a good-looking shot. We didn’t execute. Sometimes, that happens.”
The final margin irked Phoenix because the Fever got a free throw when Taurasi was called for a technical foul that she didn’t agree with.
Taurasi had just made a tying layup with 5:14 to play, then took the ball and put it on the baseline for Indiana to inbound. As Taurasi turned around, she ran into Douglas, who fell and briefly held her stomach.
Taurasi said the officials told her she had thrown an elbow. Taurasi disagreed, saying her head hit Douglas and the play actually messed up her bun.
Catchings made the technical free throw to take a 76-75 lead, then January was fouled on the possession Indiana gained after the technical, and she made two free throws.
“Lose by a head butt,” Taurasi joked.
There were seven lead changes and three ties in the second half.
The series has been tight throughout, with Phoenix winning Game 1 in overtime and Indiana taking Game 2 93-84 on Thursday.
“Game 3 is probably the hardest we fought out of this whole series, and it’s tough when you lose like that,” Pondexter said. “So now, it’s more mental than anything. Game 4, I think we have to be stronger mentally, and the rest will take care of itself.”
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