ROSEMONT, Ill. (AP) — The defending champion Indiana Fever had a losing record while struggling through an injury-plagued season, were without one of their best players, and their offense was among the worst in the WNBA.
Still, they do have experience, and now they're one win from returning to the Eastern Conference finals.
Shavonte Zellous scored 20 points to lead the Fever in an 85-72 victory over the Chicago Sky in the opener of their Eastern Conference semifinal series Friday night. Briann January and Karima Christmas had 16 points each, Erlana Larkins added 12 points and 11 rebounds, and Tamika Catchings scored 11 points.
Indiana was in control for most of the night against the conference's top seed. The Fever led 50-37 at halftime and extended the advantange to 19 on Catchings' basket with 5:36 left in the third quarter. The Sky got no closer than 12 the rest of the way against a defense that allowed a league-low 70.5 points per game.
"When you come in somebody else's gym, it's important for you to get the hot start instead of letting them get the hot start and then you try to play catch-up," Zellous said.
The Fever were without injured star Katie Douglas, who is day to day with a different back injury than the one that limited her to just four games during the season, but playing short-handed in big games is pretty much the norm for Indiana.
The Fever lost nine players to injury this season and four for at least 16 games, and are the only playoff team with a losing record. During the title run last season, Douglas was lost in the conference finals and Jeanette Pohlen tore her left ACL in Game 2 of the Finals.
All that experience Indiana has helped Friday, while Chicago was playing its first playoff game.
"They are very, very good. The missing link is playoff experience, and that's what they're getting this year, and it's going to be so good for them for the future," Indiana coach Lin Dunn said. "They're young, they're getting the experience of what it's like to be in the playoffs, and we certainly didn't think we had the advantage."
Indiana does now, and Chicago coach Pokey Chatman said the reasons went beyond experience.
"I don't knock Lin's comment for playoff experience," Chatman said. "I mean that's great for you guys to write about, but it boils down to 94 by 50, 10 feet, 11 players cutting and screening, 50-50 balls."
That partly became apparent for the Fever on offense, something that hasn't helped them much this season. But on Friday it propelled them to the brink of eliminating Chicago on Sunday in Indianapolis.
The Fever had the league's lowest shooting percentage at 39.3, but made 51 percent of their shots. In the first half, Indiana shot 56.7 percent from the floor, including 66.7 percent on 3-pointers, and led by 13 at halftime.
For Chicago, it was a disappointing start to the franchise's first playoff appearance. In their eighth season, the Sky had a team-record 24 wins and led the East by seven games. However, they lost to Indiana for the fourth time in five meetings this year.
Elena Delle Donne scored 20 points to lead Chicago after receiving the league's Rookie of the Year award before the game. Epiphanny Prince had 19 points and Sylvia Fowles, selected as the Defensive Player of the Year, added 16 points and 10 rebounds.
None of that, however, helped Chicago earn its first playoff win.
"There were several defensive shortcomings," Chatman said. "When there's too many to remember you know it's been a tough night.
Delle Donne only scored four points after halftime, and said the Sky "weren't able to get into a flow." But much of that was because their defense struggled.
"Because when we're playing great defense, getting stops, we're able to run in transition and get the matchups we want," Delle Donne said. "But when our defense isn't clicking we tend to struggle offensively."
Indiana exploited that, thanks in part to its experience in games like Friday.
"I think being the defending champions and going all the way through the playoffs like we did last year short-handed really has helped this team make it through this season," Dunn said.