MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Lynx entered the WNBA Finals with a banner already hanging in Target Center and a loaded roster that had visions of becoming the league’s next dynasty.
The Indiana Fever haven’t backed down from a fight all postseason, and it’s clear they don’t plan to start now.
Erlana Larkins had 16 points and 15 rebounds and the Fever stunned defending champion Minnesota with a 76-70 victory over the Lynx in Game 1 on Sunday night.
“We’ve made it to this point, what’s there to fear?” Larkins said. “We know they’re the defending champions and they’re going to bring their ‘A’ game. ... So what, they’re the defending champs? We’re here to take one.”
That’s exactly what the Fever did — they took it.
Tamika Catchings scored 20 points for the Fever, who played without leading scorer Katie Douglas because of a sprained left ankle. They scored 15 points off of 17 Minnesota turnovers and outscored the Lynx 38-24 in the paint to become just the second visiting team this season to win at Target Center.
“We came in here without any fear,” coach Lin Dunn said.
Briann January added 11 points and six assists and Erin Phillips scored 13 for Indiana.
Game 2 in the best-of-five series is Wednesday night in Minneapolis.
Seimone Augustus scored 23 points and Rebekkah Brunson added 10 points and 10 rebounds for the Lynx, who are looking to become the WNBA’s first repeat champion in 10 years.
Maya Moore had 14 points and 10 boards but made just 4 of 14 shots and Lindsay Whalen managed 12 points on 4-for-12 shooting. Now they’ve lost homecourt and trail in a series for the first time since their title run started last year.
“For some reason we didn’t come out ready to play and they were,” Augustus said.
Indiana led by 10 in the second quarter and withstood a furious opening to the second half by the Lynx. Minnesota looked to be taking control with an 8-0 run midway through the third that gave them a 54-50 lead and put the Fever on their heels.
But it takes more than a few jumpers in a row to shake this resilient Fever.
Indiana pulled it off without Douglas, who sprained her left ankle in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals in Connecticut and didn’t make the trip. There is some question whether Douglas will be available at all in this series.
Losing a leading scorer normally would mean curtains for a title run, but the Fever have already shown they can overcome problems like this. They trailed each of the first two series 1-0 before rallying to win the last two games as they chase after their first title. The Fever even played their best game of the postseason after Douglas went down with the ankle injury five minutes into the game against the Sun, burying Connecticut with a barrage of 3-pointers to cruise to a 16-point victory.
They were just as strong in the finals opener early, using superior ball movement to find wide open shots on the perimeter and cutters to the basket for easy layups. Indiana opened up a 10-point lead in the second quarter and some hard-nosed play had the Lynx flustered.
Catchings leveled guard Monica Wright with a screen and Augustus picked up a technical foul after Wright was called for a foul on the play.
“We are not here to just be in the finals,” Catchings said. “We are here for a great opportunity, and both teams, we both want it bad. So every game is going to be just like this game. It’s going to be tough, it’s going to be hard-nosed.”
Just the way Larkins likes it.
The 6-foot-1, 205-pound center bullied her way around the paint all night, out-muscling the Lynx frontcourt for position and keeping possessions alive grit and hustle. Her putback with 3:20 to play gave the Fever a 72-62 lead, and now the Fever have the view from the driver’s seat for the first time this postseason as they go for their first title.
“She is exactly the type of player we’ve been looking for, what I call a warrior,” Dunn said. “She does all the dirty work.”
Attendance figures have been down league-wide this season, a troubling sign for a league that has been fighting to gain traction in the United States almost since its inception. The lower bowl was jammed at Target Center for Game 1, with a spirited crowd announced at 14,322 waving white pom poms.
They didn’t have much to cheer about in the fourth quarter, when the top offensive team in the league missed 12 straight shots at one point to squander any chance at a comeback.
“They only played seven players. They came off a three-game series,” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said. “They have been traveling. You know, they are exactly what we thought they would be, and probably then some.”