NEW YORK, NY - Tuesday night's thriller at Madison Square Garden sends the New York Liberty to the next round of the playoffs with a 79-74 win over the Washington Mystics. The number one overall seeded Liberty advance to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 2010.
The two teams exchanged road wins in the series, with the Mystics taking Game 1 in New York in double overtime. The Liberty countered with an 86-68 win in Washington Sunday, forcing a Game 3 as they tried to avoid an upset.
After the game, Liberty Head Coach Bill Laimbeer said he didn't know what to anticipate heading into the postseason. He explained, "our expectations at the start were low, our expectations coming into playoffs were ‘we don't know.' We can still win the whole thing, or we can get beat in the next round. "
He continued, "We've started the process of growing this team and this basketball franchise. We've shown the fans and this organization that we have something special to build upon. Right now, it's fun for everyone involved and they're having a good time."
The Mystics started out hot in the first quarter. It was Ivory Latta who notched the first points of the game, fittingly with a three-pointer. In her last outing at Madison Square Garden, she was 4 of 6 from beyond the arc, including hitting one in OT that would help seal the Liberty's fate.
Back at it on the road, she added two more three's before the quarter ended. Meanwhile, New York would only manage four points in the final five minutes of the first, helping the Mystics get off to a ten point lead heading into the second quarter.
Said Latta, who finished the quarter with nine points, "the way we came out in the first quarter, I think it showed a lot about this team and what we can do. Basketball is a game of runs. But unfortunately, they won the game. "
The second quarter told a much different story for both teams. Starting at the 7:36 mark, the Liberty would score 15 unanswered points. This marked a nearly five-minute scoring drought for the Mystics.
The momentum swing began with a no-look pass to Tina Charles for the lay-up to bring the game within seven. The next play down the floor, Tanisha Wright got the and-1. A Candice Wiggins deep three-pointer not only brought an enormous smile to her face, but it reenergized the home crowd as they saw the Mystics' lead now cut to one. However, it would be an unlikely hero to give the Liberty their first lead of the game.
Sweet Treat Trio: Charles, Wiggins and 'Sugar'
Candice Wiggins, Sugar Rodgers, and Tina Charles had a combined 54 points and 16 rebounds in the nail-biting physical game three against the Washington Mystics.
Coming off the bench, Sugar Rodgers hit a lay-up with 5:02 left in the second quarter, giving New York the 28-27 advantage. With less than two minutes left, it was Rodgers with the hot hand again, this time nailing a three. The guard, who averaged 8.1 PPG in the regular season, led all scorers with 14 points in the first half. She helped her team head into the locker room with the lead, 45-37.
After the game, Rodgers dismissed the idea that her performance should be surprising. Instead, she credited her hard work for the made shots, which included 10/10 from the line. She explained, "I practice every night. I practice every morning. So those are the things I expect to do when I get on the court."
Tina Charles added, "Sugar is in the gym 24/7. We have practice, and she's there that night. She just wants to keep getting better. I'm really proud of her. Sometimes you just have to wait your turn."
However, the win wouldn't come easy for Rodgers and the rest of her team. Through the first seven minutes of play in the second quarter, two Tina Charles jumpers would be the only points the Liberty scored.
This allowed Washington to take back the lead, until Wiggins hit two big threes for New York. Reminiscent of Friday night's close game, where the Liberty led by one heading into the fourth, the score was tied at 47 heading into the final quarter.
Tierra Ruffin-Pratt notched six of her 17 points in the fourth, as the score remained close throughout. With two minutes to go, the Liberty trailed by one point. Kiah Stokes hit a lay-up to regain the lead, and a Mystics turnover gave Prince and the Liberty possession of the basketball again.
Rodgers capitalized with a driving lay-up to put New York up by three. After a foul call, Latta remained calm from the free-throw line, hitting both of her shots to pull the Mystics back within one point.
Epiphanny Prince answered with some coolness of her own at the other end. With the shot clock expiring, she hit a step-back jumper to give her team a 77-74 lead. Latta attempted a three as time expired, but she came up short.
"It's never easy. I tell our players that no matter what your record is, no matter what your seed is, it's never easy. It's always going to be a grind in the playoffs; every game is going to be hard. We made the right plays at the right time, stepped up and made the shots, and won the ball game," said Laimbeer.
Tina Charles led all scorers with 22 points, while Sugar Rodgers added 20 for New York. Ivory Latta notched 18 points for Washington.
Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals will take place Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden at 7 p.m.