WNBA: Liberty Burns Fever As East Race Gets Tighter
NEW YORK -- With veteran stand-up comedian Robert Klein watching among the crowd of 8,953 in Madison Square Garden Tuesday night, the New York Liberty transformed a major Eastern Conference showdown with the Indiana Fever into a lop-sided 78-57 laugher to help set up what will be perhaps the wildest regular season finish this weekend on both sides of the conference aisle.
The victory enabled New York (20-11) to pull within a half-game of the defending East champs. A short while later the Washington Mystics (20-12) stayed close behind with a 76-66 win in San Antonio over the Silver Stars (12-20) to move within a game of first place.
New York, which spent much of the early season weaving behind in fifth and sixth place out of playoff positioning, finally got untracked after a loss here in the closing minutes to the Minnesota Lynx.
"We were 4-7 and asked them what do they want to do," Liberty coach Anne Donovan said of coming back from what she thought was the low point of the season.
New York has done plenty since. Tuesday night's win was the the Liberty's ninth straight, two more than the previous franchise record, and 13th of 15th since the All-Star break.
Furthermore, first place is now in New York's hands to win on the final weekend. While not getting into other permutations for now, the Liberty's best shot is a 3-0 sweep.
Just ahead is a home-game here Thursday night against the Western cellar-dwelling Tulsa Shock (5-27), which is 21 games behind first-place Seattle.
"Those are the kind of games that are tricky playing a team like Tulsa this time of year," said former Rutgers star Cappie Pondexter, who cautioned that levity must be tempered despite the big win. Klein, incidentally, visited the Liberty dressing room after the game.
A win over the Shock deadlocks the Fever, who will visit San Antonio Friday night and host Minnesota Sunday.
Both of Indiana's opponents will most likely be still trying to cram their way into the Western playoff mix.
But New York must visit Washington, who is still alive to fight for first or second -- the top two playoff spots that offer home-court advantage in the revised 1-1-1 best-of-three first round format in conference postseason competition. That will also hold for the second round for the top surviving seeds and then the WNBA finals will continue in its best-of-five 2-2-1 arrangement.
Previously, the better teams began on the road, returning home for the second and, if necessary, third games in conference series competition.
The Liberty will finish here Sunday, hosting the Connecticut Sun (16-16), which will be looking to be a spoiler of sorts depending on where things are following Saturday's games.
The Sun, who romped over Tulsa 90-62 Tuesday night in the final home game of the season, were eliminated Sunday at home by Indiana.
Indiana arrived here Tuesday night, thinking knockout in knowing that a win over the Liberty and a loss by Washington would make them regular season conference champs for the second straight seasons.
For now, if New York and Indy are tied going into Friday, a 2-0 finish by the Liberty or an 0-2 or 1-1 effort by both teams gives the Liberty the top seed because Tuesday's win tied the season series at 2-2. The next tie-break is conference record, which the Liberty (13-7)could top because the Fever (13-9) finished are finished with their Eastern rivals.
Of course Washington could cause a three-way tie for first by Saturday morning if the Mystics beat the Liberty and San Antonio beats the Fever.
But for the moment Donovan, who like Klein grew up watching the NBA in the Garden, could savor one of the better efforts in her storied Hall of Fame career.
"I think back to that (former WNBA) Charlotte team when we were 1-10 and went to the finals," Donovan said of an earlier coaching effort before winning a WNBA title with Seattle (2004) and guiding the USA squad to an Olympic gold medal in Beijing, China in 2008. "This has a feeling like that ... we were written off by a lot of people but never lost our confidence.
"It's really fun to be a part of it. I grew up in the Garden watching the Knicks play so for me to be part of a winning team at the Garden, that's special," said the former star of Bergen Catholic High across the Hudson River in New Jersey.
Donovan, incidentally, heads to take over the Seton Hall women's program back at the collegiate level once the Liberty run ends, which may be a while off their current performance.
Leilani Mitchell, a strong candidate for most improved player in the league, canned 4-of-5 three pointers against Indiana and finished with a Liberty-high 19 points. Veteran Taj-McWilliams Franklin had 14 points and 10 rebounds, Pondexter scored 13, and Nicole Powell scored 10.
In one of the better nights for the other two Rutgers alum on the Liberty, Essence Carson had nine points off the bench and substitute center Kia Vaughn had her moments when the Liberty pulled ahead.
Fever MVP candidate Tamika Catchings scored 25 points but the New York defense clamped down on her in the second half, allowing just six points.
"They came out and the third quarter was our biggest difference," Catchings said. "Just the intensity level that they came out with after halftime and we just didn't have it. We go to San Antonio from here then we have Minnesota at home. It's still a tight race."
Fever coach Lin Dunn credited the Liberty energy and cited Mitchell's performance.
"I thought Leilani broke us down with her penetration," Dunn said.
Meanwhile, Washington got 21 points and 12 rebounds from former Maryland star Crystal Langhorne in another double double effort by the native of Willingboro, N.J., near Philadelphia.
Former Duke star Monique Currie scored 13 points as did Katie Smith.
San Antonio, which got 19 points from Sophia Young stayed in a three-way tie for third with Minnesota, which had been ahead but lost at the Seattle Storm, 68-64, while the Los Angeles Sparks fell at home to defending WNBA champion Phoenix, 90-84.
The Mercury (15-17) clinched second place, 11 games behind Seattle (26-6), and gained the other home-court slot in the Western Conference first round.
The third place Western trio are 14 games behind the Storm.
The one team that fell further back in the East mix, though already owning a playoff spot, was the Atlanta Dream (19-14), which suffered an 84-79 home loss to the last place Chicago Sky (14-18), which is 7 games behind Indiana.
The Sky but could finish in a fith-place tie with the Sun, though both teams won't be in the postseason. In terms of the draft lottery whose No. 1 pick will likely result in the choice of UConn senior Maya Moore, Chicago would likely have a slightly better shot through a tie because of the season-series win.
However, the Sun pick is actually owned by Minnesota off a draft-day deal in April sending former Nebraska star Kelsey Griffin to Connecticut for the Sun's 2011 first-round pick.
Atlanta remained in fourth at 2.5 games behind Indiana and got 19 points from Iziane Castro Marques. Chicago's Sylvia Fowles scored 18 points and grabbed 14 rebounds.
The Dream could catch New York or Washington but not both because the other two will meet each other Friday so Atlanta after a hot start to open the season will finish third or fourth or tied for third standings wise.
In the one game that had not one implication whatsover, the Connecticut Sun shook off its playoff elimination to down Tulsa at home in Uncasville as former UConn star Renee Montgomery scored 22 points.
Asjha Jones, another ex-Huskies sensation, had 18 points for the Sun, while Tina Charles, the overall No. 1 pick of April's draft, had 10 points and 10 rebounds.
Charles, the consensus national player of the year for UConn last season on the way to a second-straight unbeaten NCAA title, had her 21st double double extending the new WNBA regular season record by two. Natalie Williams had 19 for the former Utah Starzz in 2000.
Sandrine Gruda and Tan White each scored 13 points for Connecticut, while Tulsa's Scholanda Robinson scored 18. The Shock were previously located in Detroit, which won three WNBA titles.
The third place deadlock in the West remained after the two late night results arrived Eastern time early Wednesday morning.
Lauren Jackson, an MVP frontrunning candidate for postseason WNBA honors with Indiana's Catchings and New York's Pondexter, had 24 points for Seattle in its rally over Minnesota.
Lindsay Whalen scored 20 for the Lynx, who held a 39-28 halftime lead, making it another tough loss in yielding double digit advantages.
Diana Taurasi, former Temple star Candice Dupree, and Penny Taylor each scored 15 points for the Mercury, while Tina Thompson scored 33 for the Sparks.
Phoenix won the season series 4-1.
In terms of the Western deadlock and remaining two games, Minnesota will be at Los Angeles Friday night in a game the visiting Lynx must win because the Sparks have already won the season series between the two.
San Antonio, as mentioned, hosts Indiana.
Los Angeles finishes at Seattle, Saturday, while Minnesota visits Indiana, which could still be battling for first in the East on Sunday. San Antonio will host Phoenix the same day.
Let's wait for the Minnesota-Los Angeles and San Antonio Friday result to see what scenarios remain.
The Lynx, as mentioned, already own one lottery pick courtesy of the deal with Connecticut, which is eliminated in the East. Minnesota will have a second shot if the Lynx become the odd team out.