NEWARK, NJ- The night began on an upbeat note for the home team.
The Prudential Center crowd was pumped, the music blaring and the New York Liberty faithful were certain their favorites could protect 'our house'. The opening quarter had Liberty fans already planning the itinerary of a trip to Mohegan Sun for the third and deciding game in the series on Monday. The Liberty showed great energy, the perimeter shots were falling and the visiting Connecticut Sun, down 12-0 early, managed but two field goals the first quarter.
The Liberty lead was eleven at the quarter and when Cappie Pondexter drained a perimeter shot three and a half minutes into the second, the difference was 16 points. All of this, the excitement, the optimism and early lead, made the outcome difficult to swallow. The Connecticut Sun regrouped en route to a 75-62 victory over the Liberty to close out the first round series with a 2-0 sweep.
"It was an ugly start for us, no doubt," said Connecticut coach Mike Thibault. "The best thing about this team is we hang around. We finish games."
Especially on the road where the Sun enjoyed an outstanding 13-4 record this past season.
While the defense gradually settled in and improved, the Sun's 'big three', as Thibault terms them, was very instrumental in victory. WNBA MVP Tina Charles (25 points, 14 rebounds-both game highs), Asjha Jones (20 points) and Kara Lawson (15 points) all rose to the occasion.
Charles was outstanding and tireless in the paint and from ten feet. Her outstanding and tireless inside play for 38 and a half minutes had MVP stamped all over it. Jones, despite nursing a saw foot, was deadly from outside. She canned a dozen points in a momentum shifting third quarter that saw Connecticut trim a 6 point half time deficit to only a bucket as the final quarter began. Lawson made a succession of big shots down the stretch.
"I coached Kara (Lawson) for about four years," New York Liberty coach John Whisenant said. "I knew she is tough and can hit those big shots for you."
With just under four minutes to play and the Liberty ahead by one, Lawson buried a top of the key three pointer, was fouled and hit the free throw that gave the Sun a lead it would not relinquish.
"That four point play broke our backs," Pondexter said. "it broke our spirit and they just drilled us after that."
As Lawson's trey found the bottom of the net and subsequently broke the hearts of the Liberty and their fans, the dynamics for the reversal of fortune were already in space. Connecticut focused on game length and maintaining poise.
"We know basketball is a game of runs," Charles said. "We just kept playing hard until we were able to get our run. Entering the fourth quarter we took a mindset as if we were down and facing elimination."
Technically, Thibault made a few adjustments at the half. One, as Charles pointed out, was to take away the Liberty's high low offensive attack. Without and inside play, New York was forced into a jump shooting scenario.
'I think our defensive effort was tough to sustain for forty minutes," Whisenant said. "Our offense was affected and we did not have the depth on that end. We rode Cappie (Pondexter) to death."
Pondexter paced the Liberty with 20 points. She shot 8 of 22 from the floor and was 1 of 6 from three. And those points were not easy as Allison Hightower and Tan White "tag teamed Pondexter on defense," per Thibault. The next highest and only other double digit scorer for the Liberty was Kara Braxton with ten.
The Liberty season ends. In retrospect, there were positives as the club overcame an 0-5 start, numerous injuries and made the playoffs. No small achievements given the adversity. A still relatively young Connecticut earned a first round sweep an two tough contests.
"Getting a first round playoff win is nice," Thibault said, "but the best thing is in sweeping we can heal some injuries and get a few days rest."
Well deserved at that.