A new era of Indiana Fever basketball began in Washington, D.C. on Friday with an 84-70 loss. But there were plenty of positive moments from familiar faces and newcomers.
Here are five takeaways from the team’s season-opener:
Fever can’t quite overcome rough start
The Fever kept pace with Washington in the opening minutes, thanks to Tiffany Mitchell and Kelsey Mitchell scoring the team’s first 10 points. But Washington used a 12-0 run to take a 27-14 lead, putting Indiana on its heels. What had been a one-point deficit was a 15-point deficit by the start of the second quarter. Washington shot 12-of-16 in the first period. By the end of the first half, Washington had scored 50 points to Indiana’s 31.
“That’s not acceptable at all,” Fever coach Marianne Stanley said. “We’re not going to ever use an excuse about being young or anything. That has nothing to do with being young. That has to do with being ready from the opening tip to bring the energy, the effort, the competitiveness that we saw in the second half.”
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Veterans make their presence felt early
For all the talk about the Fever rookies, their veterans will have to step up as the newcomers find their footing in the league. Kelsey Mitchell finished with a team-high 18 points, while Tiffany Mitchell finished with 7.
It wasn’t long ago that Kelsey Mitchell was a rookie. She knows what the nerves feel like, and she said she was impressed with what she saw from her young teammates. The team’s five rookies combined for 31 points and 30 rebounds.
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“Hat’s off to our young group because they brought everything to the table that they could possibly bring, and all you can do is respect that,” Mitchell said. “I love that chip on their shoulder. They don’t care about who they’re playing against. They want all the smoke. It’s not arrogance. It’s not them being cocky. They’re just confident. I love playing with confident people.”
Once she got going, NaLyssa Smith was tough to stop
The Fever’s top draft pick missed her first three shots and committed a few early fouls and turnovers but scored the first points of her professional career on a second-quarter layup, and turned it into a three-point play. She finished with 13 points, including nine in the second half, and grabbed a game-high 13 rebounds.
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Was she expecting a double-double in her first game?
“I go into every game with the expectation to play my hardest, to help this team get a win,” she said.
Emily Engstler provided a big spark
The rookie out of Louisville replaced Smith late in the first quarter. Within a minute, she’d grabbed her own miss and scored a putback. In the first two minutes of the second quarter, she’d grabbed two rebounds and blocked a shot. She finished with nine rebounds, four points, two steals and two blocks in just 17 minutes.
“I’m not a mathematician. How does that work out over a 40-minute game? It’s unbelievable, really,” Stanley said of Engstler’s production. “She’s a battler. She’s a player who fights and has a nose for the ball, that doesn’t mind contact.”
Queen Egbo scored 10 points, had six rebounds and two assists. Destanni Henderson had four points, five assists and a pair of rebounds.
Washington’s experience showed late
Indiana trailed by as many as 21 in the third quarter, but managed to trim the deficit to six when Kelsey Mitchell hit a jumper with 5:42 remaining. But the Mystics answered with a 13-0 run to put the game away.
Ellena Delle Donne, two time WNBA MVP, played like it in her first game of the season. She scored 21 points on 8-of-16 shooting and grabbed nine rebounds. A trio of other Washington players finished in double-figures. The veteran group forced Indiana into 18 turnovers.
“There was a lot of experience on their side of the ball,” Stanley said. “They understand the game. We’re learning and progressing. But I think we learned an important lesson tonight that from the opening tip, you have to play the way you’re going to play, and there’s not a moment to lose.”
Indiana will play its first home game of the season on Sunday afternoon against Los Angeles. The grind of the WNBA schedule will force players to have a short memory.
“I think all these experiences for our players are going to be valuable experiences,” Stanley said. “They’re gonna learn a lot each step. It goes toward helping them be better the next time.”