Liberty look to pull off a Shock-er

Aug. 23, 2007 Liberty Playoff Central
Video: Mary Murphy Previews the Series

The New York Liberty return to the WNBA postseason for the first time in two years, and the eighth in eleven seasons, on Friday night at Madison Square Garden, as the underdog in a first-round matchup against the reigning WNBA champion Detroit Shock.

Being the underdog is one thing, but being intimidated is something else, and the Liberty are certainly not shaking in their boots. That's because New York was more successful than any other team against Detroit in the regular season, and the Liberty were the only WNBA squad to record to record multiple victories over the Shock, finishing with an even 2-2 record. Even when the Liberty lost to Detroit, the games were hardly one-sided.

After losing the first game against the Shock by 10 on June 8, New York edged Detroit in overtime 82-81 on July 6. The two teams then went to overtime for a second time the next time they faced off on July 18, but this time the Shock prevailed 87-82.

In their final regular-season matchup with the Shock -- and needing a victory to keep their playoff hopes alive -- the Liberty authored the 2007 season's most dramatic finish, Erin Thorn hit a running buzzer-beater for a spectacular 85-84 victory.

All of that success against Detroit during the regular season is one reason why Head Coach Pat Coyle is confident her team can pull off the upset.

"I don't care who we play," said the third-year head coach. "I really don't. To make the run we made at the end of the season, you look at the Washington game, the Connecticut game and really, in fact, the Detroit game. We had to win these games. Our backs have been up against the wall for about three weeks now. But we've made the plays we had to make to get here, and I couldn't be more proud of a group of young women than I am of this team."

Detroit Head Coach Bill Laimbeer is equally aware of match-up problems that the Liberty present for his talented squad.

"They shoot three balls well," he said. "They are young and energetic. They move well, swing and penetrate well to kick out for three balls. That's pretty much their strengths. They'll be well prepared, and we know that. We have a size advantage, and we'll try to exploit that. Our strength is in rebounding, there is no question about that. But they're a scrappy little team that gets after it and wins games by hard work."

New York enters the playoffs after winning four of their last five games to qualify for the postseason, while the Shock lost four straight. Still, Laimbeer is not worried that momentum might be on the underdog's side.

"Obviously, we are the defending champions, and we have gone into the playoffs losing four straight. Of course, that was not necessarily by design, but we didn't really try hard to win the games anyway. We played hard, but I didn't play the horses enough to win those games, which actually got them kind of mad at me. That's good. They are feisty right now. I think we are optimistic about our chances. Our core remains in tact and they know what it takes to get it done."

The 2007 campaign marks a major turnaround for a New York team that finished 2006 with an 11-23 record. Surprisingly, Coyle believes it was a seven-game losing streak in the middle of the season that made her believe this team had a shot to reach the playoffs.

"Everybody is going to think I'm nuts," she said after the Liberty clinched the fourth seed with a 58-52 victory against the Chicago Sky, "But I thought when we lost the seven games in a row, we didn't get blown out in any of those games. I thought as the young kids got more experience that we'd have a chance. I thought we were probably a year away, but all the tough games and close games we played prepared us for this moment. We played well enough to win, but we had a couple of bad breaks. But that right there told me that if we could keep it close that we would have a shot."

"Last year we got blown out a lot," Coyle continued. "But this year we improved our front line to add to a group of guards who have played here. I thought once those young kids got more experience and once we got more experienced together that we'd have a chance at the end with this all being so close."

Fittingly, her players echoed the same sentiment.

"We played an up and down season," said Cathrine Kraayeveld. "We've played so hard together and lost a lot of close ones, so we're just looking to go out and have fun, play as hard as we can, and let it happen. Whatever happens, we are going to be proud of the way we played."

So what does Coyle think now that New York has made the postseason? Like any good coach, she is not satisfied with simply getting in.

"This whole thing is a process," she said. "Are we there yet? No. This whole thing's a process, and it's going to take being in the playoffs and learning from this experience that we are going to take on."