WNBA: Liberty Torch Mercury And Clinch Playoffs
By Mel Greenberg
NEW YORK -- The New York Liberty won't be sitting on the sidelines again when the WNBA playoffs get under way later this month.
"The Liberty are back," New York president and general manager Carol Blazejowski beamed Saturday night in Madison Square Garden after the Liberty (19-11) became the second Eastern Conference team to earn a berth in the postseason by blasting the defending champion Phoenix Mercury 107-69. "It's like old times."
The defending conference champion Indiana Fever (20-10) clinched a berth Friday night beating Phoenix and maintaining first place.
New York (19-11), which reached second place Friday night winning in Atlanta, moved to within a game of the Fever. If fifth-place Connecticut (15-15), on its last hopes to avoid playoff elimination for the second straight season, wins at home over Indiana Sunday, the Liberty, who will host the Fever Tuesday night, will be playing for first place against Indiana.
"Now we're going to set new goals for ourselves for the postseason," Liberty Hall of Fame coach Anne Donovan said.
Actually, in consideration of Blazejowski's proclamation, there are some elements that occurred Saturday night that made it new times for the Liberty.
The 107 points broke an all-time franchise record topping the previous total set against Phoenix in 2008. New York has now won eight straight, a new all-time win streak for the franchise, which spent much of the season mired in fifth and last place in what has been a very tight race in the East.
New York is now 12-2 since the All-Star break.
The Liberty also set a high for first-half points scoring 61 in building a 61-42 lead over the first two quarters and outscoring the Mercury (14-17), in each quarter for a 46-27 advantage the rest of the way.
Unlike the early Liberty years when playoff participation was a regular occurrence, youth is now a mainstay of this team.
Former Rutgers star Cappie Pondexter, who was the second overall pick by Phoenix in 2006 until coming here in a blockbuster offseason trade, had 28 points.
Former Stanford star Nicole Powell, fetched off the former Sacramento Monarchs roster in the offseason dispersal draft, had 23 points and nailed a career-high 7 of 9 three-pointers. Her four in the first period tied a WNBA record.
"Actually, my teammates did a very good job setting me up," Powell said.
Veteran seasoning has come from the free-agent signing of Taj McWilliams-Franklin, a previous member of two former Detroit Shock league champions who scored 13 points Saturday night.
Plenette Pierson scored 12 points off the bench and Janel McCarville, the main returning player from last year, scored 10 points.
Phoenix maintained second place in the West but fell 14.5 games behind Seattle and failed to clinch a playoff spot with the loss.
"They came out ready to play and we didn't," said Phoenix coach Corey Gaines, whose team like New York was involved in back-to-back scheduling heading into the game.
"Nicole is a great shooter and Cappie is a great player," Gaines said of the opposition. They came out and played a great game."
DeWanner Bonner scored 20 points, former Temple star Candice Dupree scored 10, but Diana Taurasi, the reigning MVP, was held to six points.
Two other games were played Saturday night.
Atlanta (19-13) moved into into a virtual third-place tie with idle Washington (18-12) two games behind Indiana and a game behind New York, by winning at last-place Chicago 98-74, as Erika de Souza led a balanced attack with 17 points.
The Dream snapped a four-game losing streak and also clinched a playoff berth, leaving Washington and Connecticut contesting the last spot in the East.
The Sky (13-18) fell 7.5 games behind Indiana in the East and were led by former Rutgers star Epiphanny Prince, who scored 18 points.
The Los Angeles Sparks (12-19) moved into sole possession of fourth place at the moment in the West, beating Tulsa 92-87 in Oklahoma as Tina Thompson scored 24 points and DeLisha Milton-Jones scored 20.
The Shock (5-26), the former Detroit franchise which is 20.5 games behind the West regular season Seattle Storm (25-5), got 26 points by former North Carolina star Ivory Latta.
On Sunday, the fifth-place Minnesota Lynx (11-19), who have suffered two narrow defeats, will try to pull even with Los Angeles again by trying to beat the San Antonio Silver Stars (12-18) in Minneapolis.
However, Los Angeles owns the tie-break over the Lynx at 3-0.
Connecticut will be hoping Seattle can beat the Mystics in Washington so the Sun can stay alive if they beat Indiana. If Washington wins and Connecticut loses, the race for the last spot will be over because the Mystics will have a four-game advantage over the Sun with three to play.
Then it will be fight the rest of the week in the East for seed position.
In the West San Antonio could still mathmetically be eliminated in the playoff hunt while Phoenix would have to lose its remaining games to also head to the sidelines for the winter.
The Guru will return to Washington Sunday.