At 35, Cappie Pondexter still has plenty to give Indiana and the WNBA

Cappie Pondexter, in her 13th WNBA season, won championships with Phoenix in 2007 and 2009. Jerry Holt/Star Tribune via AP

MINNEAPOLIS -- Young teams lose games in moments like this, and seven-time WNBA All-Star Cappie Pondexter wasn't about to let it happen.

Last week, the Fever -- make that the 1-16 Fever -- were hanging tough in the third quarter against the defending WNBA champion Lynx, winners of seven straight. But three turnovers, the last a shot clock violation, shook their confidence. With the score 39-39 and a timeout called, Pondexter, one of the league's all-time greats who joined the Fever just two days earlier, thought her new teammates needed pumping up.

"We came in the huddle and everyone was slumped," Indiana forward Natalie Achonwa said. "Cappie was like, 'It's a tie game.' That just got us sitting back up. Just because a couple of possessions go wrong doesn't mean we're not engaged."

Pondexter checked into the lineup moments later, and an 8-0 Fever run followed, including a short jumper from the veteran guard. The Lynx tied the score again early in the fourth quarter, but Indiana's 20-8 closing run secured the surprising 71-59 victory. Pondexter, in her first action for the Fever after the Sparks let her go, showed the way, coming off the bench to score eight of her 12 points in the final period.

"We had the momentum from the start of the game," Pondexter said. "[The Lynx] were on their heels. Sometimes you have to remind them the game is about runs. You're going to have good runs and bad runs. You have to remember the momentum is on our side. Small things like that."

Indiana, in the midst of a rebuilding project, wasn't Pondexter's first choice. At 35, she's a two-time WNBA champion and the league's No. 4 career scorer. She signed a free-agent deal with Los Angeles in the offseason, seeking a third ring before she called it a career.

But Pondexter played only about 10 minutes a game, averaging 3.6 points -- both career lows -- as Sparks coach Brian Agler leaned on Odyssey Sims and Riquna Williams as his primary backup guards. The Sparks waived Pondexter on June 28, three days before her contract would be guaranteed for the season.

It didn't take long for Indiana coach Pokey Chatman, who coached Pondexter with the Chicago Sky from 2015-16, to pick up the phone. The Fever began the season with the league's third-youngest team, averaging 25 years, 164 days. Chatman had Candice Dupree to mentor the Fever's forwards, but she needed another veteran to tutor Indiana's backcourt "babies" -- guards Kelsey Mitchell, Tiffany Mitchell, Erica Wheeler and rookie Victoria Vivians. Pondexter signed a free-agent deal on July 1.

"Cappie's an experienced player who knows how to compete at the highest level," Chatman said. "She knows how to start a game and close out quarters. Just that experience. Having to learn under the lights and learn how to practice. ... It's one thing for me to show them on video after the fact. It's nice to have someone on the bench speaking the same language, and on the court doing the same things."

Pondexter's departure from Los Angeles was amicable, and she had little interest in rehashing it.

"It's a business at the end of the day," she said in the visitor's locker room at Target Center. "If you focus on the past, you can't really step into future. I'm 13 years in [the league]. I understand it's a business. I understand the organization had to do what was best for the team. At the same time, this organization had to do the same thing.

"I wasn't frustrated at all. I was told to trust [Agler], and that's what I did. It is what it is. Now I'm in Indiana, and when Pokey calls me and plays me, I'm ready. I'm fresh. I didn't play the first half of the season. ... I've still got a lot to contribute."

Indiana hosted Atlanta the day Pondexter signed. She didn't dress in the 96-64 loss at Bankers Life Fieldhouse but sat on the bench and offered encouragement. Chatman said Vivians, who helped guide Mississippi State to consecutive Final Fours in 2017 and '18, struggled on both ends of the court in the first half until Pondexter pulled the rookie aside during a timeout. A refocused Vivians scored 21 of her 27 points in the second half, her total being the most by a Fever rookie since Tamika Catchings in 2002.

"Cappie met her before she got to the bench and spoke to her," Chatman said. "She had a nice, calm manner, pointed out some things, and bam, [Vivians] went on a little run. It's different when it's coming from one of your teammates, someone you have respect for."

Said Achonwa of Pondexter: "She's only been here a couple of days, but we felt the difference. She holds our guards accountable. We definitely needed a little bit of that experience in the guard position like Candice helps me personally in the post. Being able to see something from her years of playing, from a Hall of Famer's point of view, helps tremendously, especially in huddles. It's keeping us positive."

Experience wins in the WNBA, and Pondexter hopes to speed up the process with her new teammates. Encouraged by what Phoenix's Diana Taurasi and Minnesota's Rebekkah Brunson are still doing at 36, Pondexter feels she still has a lot left.

"I'm 35 years old," she said, "but I'm a 21-year-old at heart."