WNBA Eastern Conference Finals: Indiana Fever vs. Washington Mystics or Atlanta Dream
Game One: Thursday, September 26, 4:00 p.m. PT (ESPN 2)
Game Two: Sunday, September 29, Noon PT (ESPN 2)
Game Three: Tuesday, October 1, time TBA (ESPN 2) -- if necessary
Six months ago, Layshia Clarendon was leading the California Golden Bears to the Women's Basketball Final Four in New Orleans. On Sunday afternoon, her new team, the Indiana Fever, swept the #1 seed Chicago Sky out of the playoffs and became one of the last four teams standing in the WNBA. And on Thursday evening, Layshia will be playing in her second "final four" in the space of six months, as the Fever take on either the Washington Mystics or the Atlanta Dream in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Cal's Layshia Clarendon - Cutting down the nets after reaching the Final Four
The Fever were the #4 seed in the Eastern Conference, while the Sky were #1. The Sky featured unanimous WNBA rookie of the year Elena Della Donne (whom Cal fans will remember was Layshia's closest competition in the Senior CLASS Award voting last spring), and the WNBA's defensive player of the year, Sylvia Fowles (who should get an award for being a great defender despite her last name). But the best 2-of-3 series wasn't even close. In Game 1, the Fever overwhelmed the Sky on the road, 85-72, with a dazzling offensive performance, shooting over 50% from the floor, and hitting a remarkable 68% on threes (10 of 16). Watch the three-point show here, including an assist from Layshia at :35, and Layshia herself hitting a three at :43.
(You have to click the link, because the WNBA doesn't allow this YouTube video to be embedded.)
And in the clinching Game 2, the Fever combined more dazzling offense with absolutely smothering defense, for a 79-57 victory (and it really wasn't that close). 6'5" Della Donne and 6'6" Fowles were constantly out-rebounded and outmaneuvered by the shorter but wilier Fever players, Tamika Catchings, Erlana Larkins, and Shavonte Zellous. The Sky's most outstanding player, Elena Della Donne, was held to 2 of 11 from the floor. And Layshia Clarendon did her part as well. She played her usual good defense, and in 17 minutes she scored 9 points (4-7, 1-1 from three), had a rebound, an assist, and a nifty steal. Most memorable, perhaps was her buzzer beater at the end of the first quarter to put the Fever up by 8. Here are the highlights, with Layshia just beating the shot clock to score two at :58.
(Again, you have to click the link for the YouTube video)
It started out as a tough year for the Fever. Although they are the defending WNBA champions, when they began the season with a dismal 1-7 record, it didn't look like they would be going anywhere. They were decimated by injuries, the effect of which was worsened by the WBNA's small rosters (eleven players per team), and lack of a standard disabled list (WNBA teams are not allowed to replace injured players on their roster until they get down to eight active players). As a result, Layshia was thrown into the fire early in the season. Instead of being eased into WNBA play slowly, she started four games early in the season, playing 30 minutes or more on occasion. She would have played even more, had she not suffered an injury herself which kept her out of a couple of games.
Because the Fever's outstanding point guard (and former ASU player) Briann January was injured, Layshia was forced to play point guard much of the time, which is not her natural position. The step-up in talent between college and the WNBA also meant that Layshia was not able to get as many open shots as Cal fans were used to seeing. But as the injured players started to come back, the Fever picked up their game. Layshia's minutes decreased, but as she got more experience at the WNBA level, she gained confidence and became more comfortable with the game. Her performance so far in the playoffs has been very solid.
If you watch the Fever in the Eastern Conference Finals, the player you will want to watch out for the most, apart from Layshia of course, is Tamika Catchings. She is the last of the original WNBA players still in the league. At age 34, with 17 years of WNBA experience, Catchings is still clearly the best player on the team. She is so impressive that the ESPN article about the game began with Layshia Clarendon's thoughts about her teammate:
INDIANAPOLIS -- Sometimes, Indiana rookie guard Layshia Clarendon suddenly will remember that her down-to-earth, low-key, friendly teammate is actually a very big deal. "I see the way people cheer for her, the way the other team reacts when they announce her name," Clarendon said. "And I think, 'Oh, my gosh, that's right. This is the Tamika Catchings, three-time gold medalist, awesome community leader.' They are those 'oh wow' moments. But she makes you feel like she's just another person."
Of course, Catchings isn't just another player. She is a future Hall of Famer, someone who is at least in the MVP discussion every WNBA season. And in the Fever's Eastern Conference first-round series victory over Chicago, Catchings displayed her usual relentlessness. She was the best player on the court.
Also of special note is Shavonte Zellous, who was voted most improved player of the year in the WNBA. And there are a couple of Pac-10/12 players Cal fans will remember: ASU's Briann January and Stanford's Jeannette Pohlen. Pohlen missed most the this season with an injury, but came back late in the season and seems to be returning to the form that drove other Pac-10 teams crazy a few years ago. It did seem a little weird to be cheering when Pohlen hit a three on Sunday, but such are the vagaries of sports.
Whether the Fever will play the Washington Mystics or the Atlanta Dream in the Conference Finals will be determined when those teams play the third game in their series on Monday. Whichever team wins will have home court advantage over the Fever, because it will be the higher seed (#2 or #3). So the Fever still have a long way to go. But they seem to have really turned up their intensity in the playoffs, so it won't be at all surprising if we have the chance to see Layshia Clarendon playing for the WNBA Championship two weeks from now.