NEWARK, NJ - It all came down to the final minutes, each possession magnified in importance as the clock was winding down.
On this night, the New York Liberty played for their collective playoff lives. It was a long shot but winning on this evening was a must.
They competed valiantly in the first half, trailing the Phoenix Mercury 43-41 at the break. The second half saw a duplication, on the Liberty's part, of that intensity and effort from the first twenty minutes. In the stretch the Liberty had a chance. Yet on this humid night it was not to be.
The Phoenix Mercury edged the Liberty 80-76, ending any faint post season hope and closing the books on the New York team's three year stay at the Prudential Center.
"The effort tonight is what it should have been," said Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer.
The 'should have been' might be in reference to the effort needed to line up against a team like the Mercury. On the other hand, it might have been a response to the season in general in which his club suffered through many a night of a strong first half followed by a second severely lacking in effort and/or intensity.
The Liberty didn't only have a trip to the post season as an incentive. This was a night they were honoring their own Katie Smith, one of the league's best and most popular players, set to retire at the end of the season. They were without the services of Cappie Pondexter, sitting out with a sore knee from Friday's loss to Atlanta. In her place Leilani Mitchel filled in at the point.
An appreciable part of the damage done by the Liberty was courtesy of the offensive boards. They pulled down 20 on that end, led by Plennette Pierson's half dozen. Smith did her part with a team-high 17 point effort.
"Katie (Smith) not only scored but she played an outstanding floor game," Laimbeer praised, before continuing with a laugh. "Plus, she had to face (Diana) Taurasi and those two went at it."
All eyes were on rookie Britney Griner in the post. The Liberty defended and held her to nine points. Again, there was support from Candace Dupree and sweet shooting Dewanna Bonner (4 of 5 from downtown) with a game-high 18 each. Taurasi added 17 points and nine assists.
"Everyone played hard," Smith said. "We didn't get the stops at the end when we needed them but it might have been one of our best, if not best efforts all year."
When it came down to it tonight, this contest of 11 lead changes and eight ties, was a case of the Liberty not executing the final minutes while Phoenix converted.
"We are not a great offensive team," Laimbeer admitted afterwards outside the Liberty locker room. "We knew that going in. We try to get the ball in the post and we rebound and defend."
An Achilles heel this season has been turnovers. Interestingly the Liberty committed just eight on the night, arguably their best showing to date. On the other hand was the poor percentage (34.9%) from the field.
That latter mark was as telling as any in the outcome which put New York at 11-21 with two road games to play. On an evening billed as Fan Appreciation night Laimbeer noted, "the fans had to appreciate this effort."
For more on the Liberty, check out our New York Liberty season storystream.