NEW YORK, NY - The New York Liberty took Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals Wednesday night, beating the Indiana Fever 84-67.
New York was not given an easy task. After a close five-point victory over the Washington Mystics in Game 3 of the Semifinals Tuesday night, they took the court at Madison Square Garden less than 24 hours later. Tina Charles played all 40 minutes against Washington, but assured the media, that adrenaline would give her the strength she needed to face the Fever the following night.
Liberty Head Coach Bill Laimbeer said Charles approached him before the game, stating, "she came and sat down on the bench right next to me right after warm-ups and said ‘I'm not tired. Don't take me out tonight because of minutes.'" He was happy to oblige, as she played 37 minutes before being substituted in the final minutes.
Charles proved she was ready early on. Along with teammate Epiphanny Prince, the Liberty star ended the first quarter with 6 points.
Charles finished the game with 18 points, 9 assists, and 7 rebounds for New York. After the game, she explained, "I knew that to them it would be them stealing this game because we played back-to-back. But for us, we know what we want, and we're going to try to keep on taking it from anyone in front of us."
When asked if she was tired, Charles said with a smile, "I'm not tired. I could play again right now."
She received help from some of the Liberty's newer stars. After scoring 20 points Tuesday night, Sugar Rodgers proved her scoring capabilities again in front of the home crowd. The third-year player, who averaged 8.1 PPG this season, had 12 PPG in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
She kept the momentum of her postseason scoring going in the first quarter. With under a minute to go Rodgers nailed a three-pointer, and didn't hesitate to shoot when she got the ball again 30 seconds later, knocking down another three. The Liberty got off to a strong start, leading 26-18 heading into the second quarter.
Said Laimbeer, "I was in shock by the effort, the intensity, the focus we exhibited on a back-to-back game like this. I think it surprised everybody. Our energy level, our determination throughout the game. I'm very proud of our players."
In the second quarter, it was another bench player, Kiah Stokes, who helped fuel the offense. Stokes finished the half with 12 points, going 6/7 from the field. The rookie led all scorers heading into the locker room.
The Liberty bench contributed 23 points in the first half alone, en route to 41 points total in the game. Combined with Prince's 11 and Charles' eight, New York finished with 48 points in the first half.
Meanwhile, the Fever relied on even scoring. Their starters each got more than five points but no more than eight in the first half. A combined offensive effort allowed them to keep the high-scoring Liberty within reach heading into the second half, only trailing 48-42.
They wouldn't be in their sights for long. Scoring plateaued for the Fever in the third quarter. They notched seven points compared to the Liberty's 16, opening the door for a 15-point deficit heading into the fourth. While foul trouble from Tanisha Wright and Candice Wiggins prevented them from making much of an impact, star players continued to shine for New York.
Fever Head Coach Stephanie White explained, "they were the hungrier team, they were the more aggressive team, and they played like a team playing for a Championship."
With both teams resting their starters in the final minutes of play, Rodgers and Stokes added to their point totals. Stokes finished with a game-high 21 points, while Rodgers ended with an impressive 14. The crowd gave a standing ovation as the clock ran out to signal the end of the game.
Prince added 17 points for the Liberty. Meanwhile, Shenise Johnson finished with a team-high 12 points for the Fever.
"Not our best performance in a long time but I told my team to keep their heads up. Our backs are against the wall again, but we've been in this position before, just like they have too," said Fever forward Tamika Catchings.
Game 2 will be played in Indiana on Sunday at 1 p.m.