INDIANAPOLIS — There’s a certain double-edged sword to having a roster as young as the Indiana Fever, who now have seven players aged 23 or younger after signing Rennia Davis on Friday morning. In the span of three quarters Friday against Minnesota, Indiana backed the kind of play that potentially provided a glimpse into the future with losses of composure, inconsistent shooting and underwhelming defense. The night served as a microcosm of that reality in an encouraging performance that ultimately fell flat in a 87-77 loss at Indiana Farmers Coliseum.
An energetic bench unit led by Emily Engstler and significant minutes from Destanni Henderson led Indiana to one of their most complete halves of the season, pressing and forcing turnovers defensively, leaking out for fast breaks as much as possible against a Minnesota team on the second leg of a back-to-back. It all came crashing down in a matter of minutes in the third quarter.
The veteran Lynx carved Indiana up with their ball movement on a 15-0 run. The Fever, getting their shot all game, went cold from deep. Defensively, they committed touch fouls. They complained to the refs about said touch fouls. They couldn’t handle Sylvia Fowles, who had 22 points and 12 rebounds, down low.
“It’s tough, man,” guard Kelsey Mitchell said. “You think you’re close. Like, my whole career in Indiana is like when you think you’re close it’s like damn, you’re still not there. I guess it’s a part of the process.”
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Engstler began her night with a pair of 3-pointers in the first quarter, her first triples since July 5 against Seattle. She also flashed a passing skill that hasn’t always been present throughout the season, at one point setting up Danielle Robinson for an open 3 on the break and finding cutters from the high post all night.
It’s been a season full of adjustments for the rookie: to the pace of the game at the next level, to the WNBA’s condensed season, to flying commercial to road games, which she didn’t have to do at college at Syracuse and Louisville. Her performance Friday was another step in her development and evidence of the payoff of those adjustments. She finished with eight points, three rebounds and four assists, and the Fever were plus-13 when she was on the court.
But fittingly, Engstler’s intensity that helped spark the Fever combined with her inexperience and kept her from finishing the game. She picked up two fouls in the first half and two more in the second, limiting her to five minutes in the second half and keeping her on the bench for almost the entire fourth quarter.
“I would have loved to play her more, but her emotional level allows her to play at a high level,” Knox said. “We love her. We love what she brings to the table. Her development is coming slowly but surely in different areas. We just want to see her continue to grow as a player.”
The loss was the Fever’s eighth in a row, and while not their lowest margin of defeat, it was the most competitive and longest they’ve led during the slide. Knox acknowledged postgame it was progress in a season where little has gone right. But the result leads him to where he’s been throughout the streak: assessing what went wrong and how to get a young team to piece together 40 consecutive minutes of quality basketball.
“It’s a young team, and veterans like to take advantage of different things when that happens, so it’s very understandable when it comes to that,” Knox said. “But there’s no excuse or no reason for you to just fall out of touch with competing, and I think our lapse of not competing in the third quarter is what really hurt us.”