Indiana Fever coach Stephanie White wasn’t looking like a coach of the year candidate early in the season.
The Fever started the year 3-6, as they dealt with players leaving and returning to the line up due to overseas committments or injuries. Until they began a five-game winning streak June 30, Indiana was living at the bottom of the Eastern Conference.
Then a strange thing happened after the All-Star break at the end of July.
The Fever had to play a make up game July 28, which gave them back-to-back contests with one already scheduled the next night. Despite having to travel from Connecticut back to Indianapolis quickly, the Fever won both games. They’ve won eight more since then, and lost only once.
Sunday’s win, against the East-leading Liberty, brought Indiana within a game of first place. Suddenly, the conference title is up for grabs, and first-year coach White is looking like a leading COY candidate along with Bill Laimbeer, who has similarly turned New York around.
White, who played for the Fever in the team’s first years, attributed their hot streak to a combination of presence, team chemistry and flexibility.
“Obviously we had a slow start, but it helps when you get healthier, which everyone in the league deals with,” she said. “The other thing is that everyone’s really gelling together. We have players who are playing different roles, a bit more involved roles than they have in the past.”
“We have new players in (rookie) Natalie (Achonwa) and Shenise (Johnson), who have both played significant roles in what were doing. And everyone’s getting comfortable on both ends of the floor. We’re getting back to what we do best, which is on the defensive end of the floor.”
White became an assistant coach under Lin Dunn in 2011. After Dunn retired last year, White was picked for the top spot. She inherited a deep roster that features ten-time All-Star Tamika Catchings, with whom she used to play, and a mixture of veterans and newcomers.
Catchings is leading the team in scoring, as she has for years. Others have taken turns stepping up this season – perhaps most notably four-year veteran Johnson, whom Indiana acquired from the Stars last March. She is the third-leading scorer for the Fever, averaging 11.3 points per game, which is four more points than last season.
Others who have taken turns pouring in double-digit numbers are Marissa Coleman, Lynetta Kizer, Achonwa, Briann January and Shavonte Zellous.
“I’m really proud of this team,” White said. “They’re such good teammates, they’re such hard workers, they’re unselfish. They all want us to be better collectively, and they’re just a great group to work with.”
Catchings said the team feels the same way about White.
“Stephanie is great, and she’s been great for us,” Catchings said. “The biggest thing is she’s been consistent. She has the same expectations for all of us, for every individual to do the same things. That got her respect from the team.”
Dunn, who works as a consultant to basketball teams now, sometimes comes to Fever practice to give feedback. She makes herself available to White when she has questions. Dunn said she isn’t at all surprised White is doing a great job in her rookie season as a head coach.
“She has kept the parts of our system and core values that have been the foundation of Fever basketball. She has added her own up-tempo style, focus on a balanced attack, and she has great attention to detail,” Dunn said.
“I believe her consistent use of 10-11 players every game has also created great team chemistry.”
White, who isn’t much older than a few of her players, is perhaps the only coach who jumps in for a few minutes with her team during pre-game shoot-around. She said the biggest difference between being an assistant and a head coach is the amount of stress. The biggest challenge is finding the best ways to use practice time.
“You listen to all the suggestions, but in the end you have to make the call, and it has to be a call in the best interests of the team and the players,” White said. “Whether that be substitution patterns, plays in the game – all of that factors into how you make yourselves a better team, and every decision matters.”
“The biggest challenge for me is managing practice, with the limited time to get to practice with injuries, player age and travel. It’s prioritizing and getting the most out of your team with the short amount of time you have on the floor.”
White said being a head coach is the biggest job she’s had yet, and she still has a way to go.
“I probably haven’t learned it the way I need to learn it yet,” she said. “I’m working on being a bit more efficient, having us go as hard as we need to go in the short times that we have. I continue to be a work in progress.”