Frenetic Rally Shocks Detroit, Put Liberty One Win From Finals
• Post-game Notes and quotes
Just two years ago, the New York Liberty were struggling to enter the WNBA's playoff picture. Now, the youngest team in the league is on the verge of advancing to the Finals after a rousing, come-from-behind victory over Detroit on Friday night in front of a raucous Madison Square Garden crowd.
Trailing the Eastern Conference's top-seeded Detroit Shock by six points heading into the final quarter, the Liberty used a total team effort to scratch out a 60-56 win to take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-three series.
The two teams now head out to Detroit for a 3 p.m. showdown on Sunday. Victory in that game would put the Liberty into the WNBA Finals, while a loss would force a decisive Game 3 on Monday night.
Down by nine points with under a minute to go in the third quarter, the Liberty got a lift when Ashley Battle hit a big three-pointer from the corner to cut the Shock lead to 43-36. New York used that three-pointer to spark a 12-1 run that spanned stretched into the fourth quarter and gave the Liberty the lead for good.
The comeback was swift: Backup point guard Leilani Mitchell, who had struggled earlier in the game, calmly drained a 23-foot three-pointer that brought The Garden crowd to its feet. Less than a minute later, Battle took a feed from Janel McCarville and slashed to the net, making an acrobatic move to the basket to bring the Liberty within one. After Detroit's Kara Braxton hit one of two free throws, McCarville herself swooped under the defender, going up and under to tie the score at 43-43.
Following a few minutes of strong defensive play at both ends of the court, Shameka Christon nailed a 17-footer from Mitchell, giving New York its first lead since being up 8-7 in the first quarter. Alexis Hornbuckler's jumper tied the score moments later, but Christon's strong move to the hoop for a lay-up put New York ahead again 47-45 and a lead they would not surrender for the rest of the game.
Essence Carson expanded the lead to four with a spectacular driving lay-up. After that, New York had to deal with Liberty nemesis Deanna Nolan, who scored the final 11 points on the night for the Shock.
But in contrast to the past, New York responded to Nolan. After Nolan hit a jumper to cut the lead to two, Cathrine Kraayeveld came right back with a bucket of her own. Nolan then used the next possession to bury a three-pointer, bringing the Shock within one, before Erin Thorn, who had not played the entire second half, made a driving lay-up with her left hand to push New York back ahead.
Thorn, the longest tenured member of the Liberty, scored the final five points for New York to secure the victory. After Nolan hit three free-throws on a questionable foul call on Carson, Thorn sank two clutch free throws herself to give New York a three-point lead.
With 11 seconds remaining, Nolan heaved a 23-foot three-pointer to tie the game from point blank range, only to see hit clank off the side of the rim. While Detroit appeared to be in position to grab the rebound, Loree Moore did a fantastic job to get between her and the Shock player, allowing the ball to go out of bounds. After Erin Thorn was fouled, she drained the first of two free throws to seal the 60-56 victory.
Thorn's heroics, while perhaps unexpected to an outsider, was pretty much businesses as usual as far the Liberty were concerned.
"We don't even think about it anymore because we know she is going to knock them down," said McCarville. "She does it every day at practice. She comes in with the utmost confidence and knocks them down. We don't even question it if she's going to miss or not. She sealed the game for us in Game 3 (against Connecticut) and this one, so she knows how to get the job done. … She knows her role, she knows what needs to get done, and I would not want anyone else on the team shooting those free throws"
Thorn said her experience paid off in the clutch situation.
"I've just always got to be ready," responded Thorn. "It's not something I'm unfamiliar with. But I just took what the defense gave me. I knew I had a big and had to attack the basket, and the free-throws, that's just something I'm confident in. I always want to be the one to take those shots because I'm confident it will go in."
While a total team effort -- that saw seven players score points in the fourth quarter -- won the game, for two quarters, the Liberty were in position to do so based on the awesome play of their two stars, McCarville and Christon. With just 1:16 left to play in the first half, they were the only two players to have scored for the Liberty, accounting for all 17 points up until then when Erlana Larkins put in her own rebound for a bucket.
"I thought we got good looks, but didn't make any shots in the first half," said Liberty Head Coach Patty Coyle, whose team made just three of 14 shots from the field in the opening quarter. "I think in the second half we got good looks, but we were making our shots. I would credit Detroit's defense because they guard you."
McCarville notched 13 of her team-high 17 points in the first half. She finished off her strong stat line with four boards and two assists, while attracting constant double teams that opened up the floor for her teammates.
Christon benefited from McCarville's presence, recording her second career double-double in the playoffs with 11 points and 11 rebounds. In fact, she notched her first career double-double against the Shock last year in Game 1 of the First Round, when she had her epic performance in scoring 16 points and 15 rebounds. Christon added to her feat tonight with two assists, a steal and an impressive block.
Once again, the Liberty bench was the difference in the game, outscoring Detroit's 17-10. New York was led by Thorn and Battle, who each scored five points, along with Larkins with two and Mitchell with three.
New York's win was its third in a row against the Shock at home, as the WNBA Eastern Conference Finals returned to MSG for the first time in four years. It also marked the Liberty's fifth time in the Conference Finals, and they are on the precipice of advancing to the Finals if they can steal one of two on the road in Detroit.
Because of their heroics at home, New York will get two cracks at it, and they fully understood the importance of winning at home.
"It was key to hold serve at home," said McCarville. "I don't think too many teams are going to go into Detroit and win two games on their floor. Obviously to get one here is big. It's the first step in what we needed to take in order to beat them. We definitely got a foot in the door."
Thorn agreed, saying, "It was very important. It's going to be tough to steal one in Detroit, but to steal two is a near impossible task. They are real good on their home court. So to get this home one was a big deal for us."
They also appreciate the support of their rowdy fans at The Garden.
"Oh my God, the crowd was absolutely amazing," said a jubilant Christon in the locker room following the game. "They were just so loud. The energy of the building, it just makes this place so magical when you have fans there behind you. You can feel it. They are like, ‘Ok, we want this! Let's go all the way! You can do this! It's just so … wow, it's great."
For those who have been on the team through all the ups and downs the previous few years as they have revamped their roster, making the WNBA Finals would be a dream come true.
"It would be by far the greatest accomplishment in my basketball career," said Christon. "Ever since I started playing basketball, I always wanted to go to some kind of championship, but always fell short. So to actually be here, and now finishing out my fifth season, and seeing the ups and the really, really lows, it would be great. It would be a great feeling."
Thorn, the elder statesman of the team, wholeheartedly agreed.
"It would be awesome," she said. "We've fought hard, and done this whole rebuilding thing quickly in just two years, so to get there this year would be huge."
Now that the chance is within reach, they don't want to let it slip through their fingers.
Watch New York's quest for an Eastern Conference Championship Sunday at 3:00pm on ESPN, and be sure to check nyliberty.com for all your playoff information.