New York City, NY - About an hour after the final buzzer had sounded, the scene was almost surreal. Kara Lawson, still in uniform, chatted with Washington well-wishers in the stands.
The scoreboard read 10:00 to play, the score knotted at zero. Washington Mystics coach Mike Thibault would gladly take that even margins and a five minute added session to settle this. There would be none of that.
The New York Liberty, with a late surge, defeated the Mystics at Madison Square Garden 79-74 to close out the best of three series. The Liberty host Indiana in the first game of the East Conference finals on Wednesday.
"It's quite upsetting," Thibault said following the contest. "Two teams left it all on the floor, one moves on." Thibault cited rebounding the key difference. "No rebounds, no wins," he said.
On the night, the Liberty outrebounded Washington 34-29. In offensive rebounding percentage New York owned a 34-21% edge. Individually Kiah Stokes with 13 and Tina Charles' 12 paced the Liberty, and all rebounders."One or two added rebounds a game, especially on offense, can make a difference in the playoffs," Thibault added.
The veteran coach, whose Mystics dropped the final two games of the series were taught a bitter lesson in his estimation. "Some lessons are painful. We have a young team, and I want them to hurt and remember this during the offseason."
Ivory Latta, the Mystics leading scorer with 18 points, echoed her coach's observation. "Rebounding was the difference," Latta said. "Coach harped on it all season, that and limiting turnovers."
Turnovers were an Achilles heel for the Mystics in game two. Tonight they committed eight leading to a dozen Liberty points. Crucial numbers in playoff basketball where the margin of error, as Thibault noted, is magnified.
"There's not much else to say," Latta added. "We are heartbroken. We did some good things this season we just have to get better." Tierra Ruffin-Pratt reiterated Latta's assessment noting, "Boxing out was something coach preached about. I just think this experience will help in the long run."
The lessons of Thibault will be capably assimilated and employed next season. You can count on it. The way in which this team played down the stretch and took the team with the league's best record to the wire is also a noteworthy accomplishment. For the present, dealing with the sting of having come so close is just very difficult to handle.
"Right now," Latta added, "this just hurts so bad."