NEW YORK, NY - The Indiana Fever came into Madison Square Garden and took Game 3 in a decisive 66-51 win over the New York Liberty. This will be their third trip to the WNBA Finals in seven years.
New York had the best record during the regular season and were the favorites heading into the Playoffs. They appeared to be on track for their first finals appearance since 2002. In Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals at home, they won handedly, 84-67.
On the road for Game 2, they remained in control but the Fever managed to rally for the 70-64 victory. The stage was set for the Liberty to return to New York and close the series out in front of the home crowd. It didn't happen.
Liberty Head Coach Bill Laimbeer explained, "Are we disappointed? Yes. But at the same time, when we started it was embarking on an adventure to compete for a championship. I give Indiana all the credit in the world. They are an experienced basketball, team. They've been there, done that. We have a ways to go."
The first half was a story of turnovers, fouls, and missed shots. It wasn't for lack of opportunity; the Liberty had 11 offensive rebounds and many chances to capitalize.
New York attempted 34 field goals compared to Indiana's 29. They just couldn't get the ball to fall, missing easy layups and allowing the Fever to pull ahead. New York's offensive plays looked rushed and at times the players appeared frantic as they failed to generate points.
"We couldn't throw the ball in the basket. It was very frustrating. I won't call it nerves, just anxious," said Laimbeer.
The heart of Indiana
Tamika Catchings will become the first player in WNBA history to stay with single franchise for 15 years. The 2001 first round draft pick has been loyal to Indiana since turning pro.
In the first quarter, Tina Charles did her best to keep her team alive, contributing seven points. Her And-1 at the 1:29 mark tied the game at 11. Trailing by two points heading into the second quarter, things then began to unravel for the Liberty.
The team only scored seven points in the ten-minute period, opening the door for the Fever to pull ahead. 13 turnovers in the half for New York further hindered their offensive opportunities. New York entered the locker room shooting 26 percent from the field compared to the Fever's 45 percent.
"This wasn't the first time that we didn't shoot well in the first half all season long. Our shots weren't going down, and then we got rattled a little bit," explained Tina Charles.
New York trailed by 11 at the start of the third quarter, 33-22. When they were down 18 at the 6:29 mark, Laimbeer called a full timeout. His team returned to the court with a renewed energy. Epiphanny Prince got her first two points of the night, and nailed a three shortly after, setting the tone for a potential comeback.
A big three-point basket for Essence Carson brought the game within 12 and in turn, forced Indiana to call a timeout. When Carson was wide open in the right corner moments later, her teammates swung her the ball, and she knocked down a long two-pointer. The made shot got fans in attendance, like Madison Square Garden favorite Spike Lee, out of their chairs.
During New York's offensive run, the Fever made careless errors. A Candice Wiggins three-pointer reenergized the crowd and continued to add momentum. The Liberty entered the fourth quarter down nine points and appeared to be mentally back in the game.
Liberty fans were hopeful the tides had turned. A shot clock violation by the Fever allowed New York to gain control of the ball, leading to a Candice Wiggins three-pointer. The veteran added a layup less than a minute later to pull the game within four points with 8:21 to go.
However, it was the closest they would get. The Fever's more experienced players proved to be calm under pressure. Tamika Catchings made two free throws and a bucket to stifle New York's momentum. She finished the game with 14 points. Erlana Larkins similarly added two big baskets. It was too much for New York to come back from.
"The grit, the character; I knew that we would come back, and we would be ready for them back at home," said Catchings. Fever Head Coach Stephanie White added, "It obviously wasn't the prettiest of games, but it was a battle. Our team encouraged one another; they played for one another, and they were unselfish."
Marissa Coleman had a team-high 15 points for the Fever. Candice Wiggins was the top-scorer for the Liberty, adding 15 points of her own.
The Fever face the Minnesota Lynx in Game 1 of the Finals Sunday at 3 p.m.