Indiana Fever can see what they strive to be in fourth-quarter collapse vs. Las Vegas Aces

LAS VEGAS — For three quarters, the Fever looked like they could contend with the back-to-back WNBA champion Las Vegas Aces.

The Fever made a switch to the starting lineup, putting fifth-year player Katie Lou Samuelson back at the 3 in place of third-year player Kristy Wallace in hopes to get more offensive firepower. For a while, it seemed like it was working — the offense translated into defense.

“She was shooting the ball really well, and it just puts another threat out there,” head coach Christie Sides said of Samuelson. “We’re really trying to work the ball inside, defenses start collapsing, and I thought she would be another person that we could swing action to, and just her size, her decision-making in the paint, I’m just wanting to give her that opportunity.”

Indiana had held Vegas to 65 points through 30 minutes, and they spent most of the game within single-digits.

Then, the Aces exploded in the fourth quarter. Kelsey Plum scored eight points to lead Las Vegas on a 10-0 run to start the fourth; something Indiana couldn’t recover from. Las Vegas ended up outscoring Indiana 23-10 in the fourth, giving the Fever a 88-69 loss.

“We battled our butts off for three quarters,” Sides said. “… For those three quarters, you hold Vegas to 65 points, and you feel pretty good about where you are. Then they went on that 10-0 run and it just deflated us, and I think that’s all about you just got to be able to put the ball in the hole.”

The Fever’s defense was lacking to start the fourth quarter, and that translated into a lackluster offense. Indiana shot just 26.7% from the field in the fourth, compared to 38.7% in the first three quarters. The Fever were missing layups. They were missing free throws. Shots that should come easy bounced off the rim for the young team.

“They hit some tough shots,” Fever center Aliyah Boston said. “We were there contesting, but at the end of the day, they’re the back-to-back champs, and they make big plays and they hit big shots. I think on the offensive end, we just had to hit a few of those shots that we missed right around the rim, or even some of our 3s, just to stay in it. But I don’t think that took away from anything, the way we battled tonight the entire game.”

Games like these can test teams’ resolve; when their opponent is on a 10-0 run to start the quarter, can they get out of their own head to push past that?

That kind of resolve comes with experience, and that’s what the Aces have over the Fever. The Aces’ starting five has a combined 34 years of experience in the WNBA, as well as back-to-back championship runs and multiple Olympic medals. There are four Olympians on the Las Vegas roster, and zero on the Fever.

The Las Vegas Aces have been in just about any type of situation they can be in the WNBA; they’ve had the highs of winning the championship, they’ve had the lows of losing seasons and No. 1 picks. Just five years ago, the Aces received their third straight No. 1 pick in Jackie Young; A’ja Wilson and Kelsey Plum came in the two years before.

Where the Aces are now, two-time champions with a core of No. 1 picks, is somewhere the Fever hope they can get, and they have the basis for it.

The Fever have 2023 No. 1 pick Boston, 2024 No. 1 pick Caitlin Clark and 2022 No. 2 pick NaLyssa Smith. But those three, with less than five years of combined in the league, don’t yet have the experience that the Aces have, and it’s something they can’t rush.

Turning a franchise like the Fever around takes time, and it takes patience. It takes small victories. Right now, the Fever are beating teams they need to beat; the teams the Fever tallied wins against are a combined 49-98; the teams Indiana has lost to are a combined 168-76.

The Fever’s goal was to make the playoffs this season, and at 9th in the WNBA with 19 games to play, they’re in the hunt for it. Indiana won’t be WNBA champions on Day 1, but it’s something they can build toward.

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