Briann January helps Indiana make third journey to WNBA Finals

Guard Briann January, a seven-year veteran, and Indiana beat Minnesota 3-1 to win the 2012 WNBA Finals. Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images

NEW YORK -- The end of the regular season was a little stressful for the Indiana Fever in regard to their perimeter. From Aug. 28 to Sept. 11, Briann January played just nine minutes in one game and missed five other games because of a knee injury and back issues.

The Fever's record in that stretch: 2-4. With the playoffs coming, the last thing Indiana wanted was January on the bench. But fortunately for the Fever, that's the last place she has been.

January has been a key figure in Indiana's run to the WNBA Finals, which was capped by Tuesday's 66-51 Game 3 victory over New York in the Eastern Conference finals.

January had an exceptional game doing exactly the things that the Fever need from her. She had eight points, eight assists, six steals and just one turnover, playing for nearly 34 minutes.

"You have to, at this level and this time of the season, raise your intensity, your focus, your sharpness on both ends of the court," said January, who returned to action in the regular-season finale Sept. 13 with 13 points and showed she was ready for the playoffs. "Give all the credit to my team, because everybody stepped up."

"I think she's grown in her pace, her poise and her composure. ... Bri beats you with speed, with quickness, with toughness." Fever coach Stephanie White, on guard Briann January

January, who along with teammate Tamika Catchings was on the WNBA's all-defensive first team, was critical in helping hold the Liberty to a season-low 51 points Tuesday. The Liberty shot 33.3 percent from the field (21-of-63), with starting guard Epiphanny Prince just 2-of-11.

"Everyone has to contribute their piece to the puzzle, that's how our defense works," January said. "It has to be like clockwork for us to execute our schemes. You have to be active, vocal and pride yourself in that."

Defense has been January's calling card since she was drafted No. 6 out of Arizona State in 2009. Like two guards taken ahead of her in that draft, No. 3 Kristi Toliver and No. 4 Renee Montgomery, January was more a natural shooting guard who had to learn to be more comfortable as a point guard.

In January's rookie season, she came off the bench and learned from veterans such as Tully Bevilaqua. The Fever lost the WNBA Finals in five games to Phoenix that year, but it was clear that January was a big part of their future.

She was in a reserve role again in 2010 but became a starter in 2011. However, an ACL tear cut January's season short at 10 games. Then 2012 was a triumphant return, as Indiana won the WNBA title 3-1 over Minnesota. January averaged 10.3 points and 3.9 assists in the regular season, and 11.5 and 3.8 in the playoffs.

But there was one particular play during the 2012 postseason for which January will always be remembered. Indiana was trailing top-seeded Connecticut 1-0 in the East finals, and Game 2 was tied. In the closing seconds, Catchings got a rebound and found January on a long pass for an open breakaway layup -- but January missed. The entire arena in Indianapolis seemed to let out a collective, "Oh, no!"

What makes it memorable, though, is this: January never gave up on the play. She dived after the ball, which was headed out of bounds toward the Sun's bench. Acrobatically, January saved it back into play and Shavonte Zellous picked it up and made a buzzer-beating jumper to win the game for the Fever.

They went on to take Game 3 in Connecticut and then top Minnesota for the title. It's possible that if January hadn't made the play, the Fever still might have prevailed in overtime of Game 2. But January's save and Zellous' shot gave the Fever a dramatic victory that seemed to permanently shift the momentum in their favor the rest of that postseason.

And it's a snippet of January's career that could be shown on video by coaches at all levels of basketball as the definitive example of not giving up on a play. How often do you see players miss a shot they fully expect to make, and then -- even if for a split second -- express frustration? January didn't have that split second to spare in chasing the ball.

"After that game, I didn't even remember how I got to the ball," January said. "All I remembered was sitting on the floor and seeing Z hit the shot. And I was like, 'Wait, what just happened?'

"I think we replayed it the next day and I saw it. Unbelievable ... but I've tried to make all my layups since then. The neat thing is that I've had a ton of emails from coaches who say, 'I showed this to my team, because you exemplify hustle, hard work and never giving up.' That was cool to hear, because that's how I love to play."

January had worked a lot with Fever head coach Stephanie White while White was an assistant to Lin Dunn, who retired after last season. But that has become an even more important relationship now with White in charge. As a former WNBA guard herself, White understands the challenges January faces and knows how best to communicate with her.

"She's very relatable," January said. "She's still a student of the game, and she wants to see what I see. We have a lot of dialogue to figure out the best ways to execute things."

January wants to be a coach when her playing days end, which is still quite a ways off, as she's 28. But working with White is helping January as both a player now and moving toward a future on the sideline.

"I probably caught myself early on doing her a little bit of a disservice trying not to be what Lin was with her," White said. "But then I realized I still have to challenge her and let her know how she can do some things better. To not be afraid to push her. But the other thing is that the reciprocal communication is critical.

"If she see something she wants to call, that's her call. She can do that. When I ask why, I just want to know what she's thinking. I feel like as the season has gone on, she and I have started to see the same things. I think she's grown in her pace, her poise and her composure."

"She's playing with so much [confidence] offensively and defensively." Tamika Catchings, on Briann January

January will be facing another very experienced point guard in Minnesota's Lindsay Whalen. They are an example of how very different types of players can excel at the same position.

"Whalen is very cerebral, and she beats you with change of speed and by picking you apart by knowing exactly where the ball needs to go," White said. "Bri beats you with speed, with quickness, with toughness. The evolution for Bri is seeing the second line and third line of defense, beyond just the first line.

"That comes sort of naturally for Whalen, but Bri is a more a self-made point guard. But she's gotten better at those things every year."

And perhaps there's no greater compliment than one that comes from Catchings, the player who has been the Fever's heart for her entire career.

"The biggest thing about Bri is her confidence, she's playing with so much of it offensively and defensively," Catching said. "I look at her, even her emotions ... she would get so into the game, and go through the highs and lows. But I feel like she's able to maintain and stay steady."

Now January, who was signed to a contract extension on Aug. 31, is set to play in her third WNBA Finals. The Fever were the No. 3 seed in the East, but they're the team that's still alive.

"We just came together, and that's the special thing about this team," January said. "Having Steph at the leadership position refocusing us, an amazing player like Catch and a nice leadership core group from 2012 really helped us to get to this level."