WNBA: Rutgers Alums Give New York Playoff Opener
By Mel Greenberg
NEW YORK - The New York Liberty's Version of Jersey Girls has become as much a winner as the hit TV series, epsecially Thursday night in an 85-73 win over the Indiana Fever in the other opener of the best-of-three WNBA's Eastern Conference semifinals series at Madison Square Garden.
As much as can be said of the exploits of MVP frontrunning candidate Cappie Pondexter this season, it was another former member of the Scarlet Knights who was the essence of making sure the Liberty held on to their home court advantage against the defending conference champions in front of a crowd of 14,624.
That would be Essence Carson, the sewventh overall pick of the 2008 draft who grew up across the Hudson River in Newark spending her summers watching the Liberty play in Madison Square Garden.
Carson, relegated more to a substitute's role this season, came off bench scoring nine of her 17 points in the fourth quarter to help the Liberty pull away from the Fever decisively for the second time here in a little over a week.
But her 7-of-10 performance on the offensive end was only part of what Carson did.
Having the job of defending Indiana's Tamika Catchings, another frontrunning MVP candidate, Carson was able to contest the Olympic gold medalist to shooting 5-for-15 from the field, even though the former Tennessee All-American finished with 18 points.
"Offensively, that kind of lift is a wonderful thing to get that from anybody off the bench," said Liberty coach Anne Donovan, whose Hall of Fame career began in high school playing for Bergen Catholic High in northern New Jersey.
"It could not have happened to a more professional player than Essence," Donovan said. "I've watched her role change dramatically over the last 12 months and she has just remained focusd, composed and confident. When her number was called she just stepped right in and did the job for us at both ends."
Carson gave a little grin when asked whether she had been inspired watching former Rutgers teammate Matee Ajavon play well for the top-seeded Washington Mystics Wednesday night in their opening loss at home to the fourth-seeded Atlanta Dream.
The Mystics will try to avoid elimination Friday night in the other Eastern semifinal series when Washington plays in Atlanta.
"Actually, I didn't (watch the game)," Carson said. "I just tried to rest my body and stay focused and continue to believe in myself and the entire team and what we're doing right now."
New York, which tied for first with Washington but got the second seed, will try to close out the third-seeded Fever in Indianapolis Sunday. A third game, if necessary, will be played back here next Wednesday.
Pondexter, a native of Chicago who became one of Rutgers all-time players as an adopted Jersey woman, praised Carson's performance after scoring 28 points herself and incredibly holding Indiana's Katie Douglas scoreless.
"She was spectacular tonight," Pondexter said. "In the fourth quarter she came up huge. I think our bodies kind of wore down -- the starters -- we couldn't make shots. But Essence Carson saved us today. And that is what it is all about. That is what team is all about. I'm so happy for her right now."
For a while, New York seemed ready to suffer the same fate as Washington did in the Mystics' opener against Atlanta.
The Liberty, trailing by a point at the end of the first quarter, than fell 10 points behind the Fever but were able to fight back and take a 48-47 lead at the half.
Then the momentum began to shift, especially on the play of Carson in the fourth quarter when the Liberty went from a single-digit lead to as many as 20 near the end of the game.
"When we went into halftime, I knew we could play better," said Donovan, who has made similar remarks since the All-Star break when the Liberty bolted from a last-place team to a 15-3 finish and the first-place tie. "We just needed to get re-focused defensively and I thought that we did that in the second half. In the first half, they really got out in front of us too much."
Taj McWilliams-Franklin, a major free-agent signing in the offseason who had played on two of the three WNBA championships of the former Detroit Shock, had 15 points and 10 rebounds.
Nicole Powell, a former Stanford star, scored 12 points for New York and connected on 3-of-6 three-point attempts while Pondexter's long range efficiency produced 5-of-10 attempted treys.
Kia Vaughn, another former Rutgers star who went in the first round a year ago to the Liberty, played briefly less than two minutes.
Carson's offensive explosion helped offset the play of Leilani Mitchell, the WNBA's top three-point shooter who was named the WNBA's Most Improved Player earlier Thursday but was scoreless against the Fever.
Indiana's Tammy Sutton-Brown, yet another former Rutgers center as is Vaughn, had 10 points and Ebony Hoffman scored 10.
The Fever, who had a chance to gain the No. 1 seed in the East going into the last week of the season, lost their last three games. However, prior to Thursday night, coach Lin Dunn had discounted the streak would affect Indiana's performance in the playoffs.
But by the fourth quarter there was New York defending tough and placing the Fever in quarantine.
"I thought there was a period when we missed a layup and another layup and another and they came up and answered," Dunn said. "That gave them an enormous amount of confidence. I also thought their offensive rebounds finally broke their backs."
Pondexter, who came from the defending WNBA champion Phoenix Mercury in a mega three-team deal in the offseason, once again lived up to her leadership promise, especially prior to Thursday's tipoff.
"Some of the guys were tight today," Pondexter said. "I said to them, `It's a regular game. The stakes are a little higher and, yes, there's something special if you win, but it's a regular game. You play this every day. Don't put added pressure on yourself."
Pondexter knows the Fever will still be tough, especially having gone against them last year in a thrilling five-game final won by Phoenix in the closing minutes at home.
"I know Indiana. They're not going to go away. They're going to make some adjustments. Coach Dunn is going to tell them about their effort.
"It would be easy to lose focus and say, `Yeah, we got this.'
"But it's not like that. I know coach Donovan with her experience, me, myself, "Taj, Nicole, we're going to make sure everybody's focused."
Former Temple Star Candice Dupree In Playoff Record Debut
Cappie Pondexter may no longer be on the Phoenix Mercury, but the star who replaced her on the roster in last season's mega three-way deal led the WNBA defending champions to an opening 106-93 win against the San Antonio Silver Stars in Phoenix Thursday night.
Candice Dupree, who went sixth overall to the Chicago Sky in the same 2006 draft in which Pondexter was the overall No. 2 pick with Phoenix, matched a career high of earlier this season with 32 points in the best-of-three Western Conference semifinals opener.
The second-seeded Mercury will try to close out the third-seeded Silver Stars in the best-of-three series Saturday when the teams move to San Antonio, Texas.
If a third game is necessary, the series will return to Phoenix Monday,
In Saturday's other Western semifinals series, the Seattle Storm, who rolled to the top of the conference as the No. 1 seed with a 28-6 record, will try to eliminate the No. 4 Sparks at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
A third game, if necessary, would return to Seattle on Tuesday.
Seattle won the title in 2003 but has since been eliminated in five straight conference semifinals series -- the last two by Los Angeles.
In Thursday's game Dupree, a former Temple star under former coach Dawn Staley, fell a field goal short of the WNBA playoff record for a half when she scored 18 points. The Florida native had been in Chicago four seasons and Thursday was Dupree's first postseason action.
Her performance set a WNBA record for a player making their debut in postseason play.
"She was doing something all over the court, rebounding, running the lane, she was posting up in early transition," Phoenix coach Corey Gaines said afterwards. "We called a couple of plays which we don't usually do for her, coming across the lane, but she had a good look tonight so we rode her back."
Back in the preseason discussing the loss of Pondexter and the addition of Dupree, Gaines said the Mercury high-octane scoring system designed under former coach Paul Westhead was actually designed more for a player such as Dupree.
Penny Taylor added 20 points, while Diana Tarausi, the reigning MVP, had 14 points and dealt 10 assists for the Mercury.
San Antonio's Becky Hammon had 19 points and Sophia Young scored 16.
The two teams split their season series 2-2 and Phoenix beat San Antonio 2-0 in last season's opening round.
Dupree talked about her playoff debut.
"It was a great experience, obviously my first playoff game," she said. "The intensity was high, everybody was extremely motivated, and our main goal is trying to win this series in two. I just tried to come out as motivated as possible.
"Like you said, I was getting up and down the floor. I tried to do that early to get us going."
Taurasi, using humor that might come from her former college coach -- UConn's Geno Auriemma, deadpanned that Dupree's game wasn't that great because she missed five shots.
She then said of her Mercury teammate who is in the USA Senior Women's Team pool with Taurasi for next month's world championship coached by Auriemma: "She played amazing today. That is what we're going to need if we are going to make any type of run -- people stepping up and playing big," Taurasi noted.
"Dupree had a great game today but DeWanna Bonner came off the bench and gave us incredible energy. Penny carried us for a stretch. This is when we are at our best, when we have a lot of people doing a lot of things."
San Antonio's Young talked about how tough it was defending Dupree, who was an unknown force when former Temple assistant Ervin Monier discovered her. He is now asslociate head coach to new La Salle coach Jeff Williams.
"I thought Candice Dupree had a big game and her teammates did a great job of getting her the ball tonight. She was able to get to the basket, she shot a lot of layups. She shot 12-for-17, obviously she shot a high percentage because she was shooting layups. I thought her teammates did a really great job of playing with her and taking advantage of her size inside."
The Mercury in Game 2 will be returning to the scene of a last-second loss Sunday in the final regular season game that gave the Silver Stars the third seed.
""It will be tough," Dupree said of Saturday's next contest. "Their fans are pretty intense there. We just have to come out and hopefully recreate what we did tonight and if not, play harder. It's a desperate situation for them, so we know they are going to come out fighting, and we have to do the same thing."
Earlier in the day the Mercury's Bonner, a second-year pro out of Auburn, was named the WNBA's sixth player winner in the second of the first two postseason honors announced by the league and voted by the media.
Ballots, including the All-League first and second team picks along with MVP selections, were due Monday.