Liberty Clinch Playoff Berth in Style
With a spot in the postseason hanging in the balance, the New York Liberty refused to be left on the outside looking in, riding a hot fourth quarter to a dramatic come-from-behind 58-52 victory over the Chicago Sky on Sunday afternoon at Madison Square Garden.
Faced with a must-win situation after Washington had hit a three-pointer with 0.1 seconds left for a 74-72 victory over Connecticut, the Liberty knew they could not back into the playoffs and would have to get there through the front door.
The MSG crowd came out in full force, well aware of what was at stake from the first tip-off. Fittingly, the game mirrored the Liberty's season, as New York started off strong, hit a late slump and then took over the game in the final quarter to reach the playoffs, which begin at home at 7:30 p.m. on Friday night against Detroit. (Buy Tickets Now)
With only ten minutes left and the home team trailing by seven, tension had filled the Garden air. Needing to step up over the course of the last quarter, Janel McCarville and Shameka Christon emerged to lead their team to the postseason.
The Liberty opened the final quarter with a full court press that Chicago simply couldn't handle, and within the first three minutes, New York was on a 6-0 run that cut the lead to one point before Chicago hit a pair of free throws to give them a three-point advantage.
Unfazed, the Liberty marched right down the court, and after McCarville scored a quick bucket on the next possession, Christon hit a clutch three-pointer to put them ahead 49-47 and send the Garden crowd into frenzy.
"We knew what was on the line and what it would take to get us there," said a bruised and bloodied McCarville, who scored 10 of her 14 points in the final quarter and finished the match with nine boards.
Chicago responded with the next three points, taking their last lead at 50-49 with 3:09 left to play. On the next possession, McCarville powered herself to the basket to put New York back on top at 51-50, and the Liberty never trailed after that.
A defensive stop by New York was followed by Christon nailing a clutch jumper in the lane with just under two minutes to go for a four-point advantage that swung the game firmly in the Liberty's favor.
On Chicago's next trip down the court, McCarville striped the ball loose, and after running the length of the court and drained a bucket while drawing the foul. After missing the free throw, the Liberty was up 55-50 with just under a minute to go.
The Sky scored on their next trip down the court to make it a one-possession game, but after some nifty ball movement, the Liberty found Christon all alone for a huge three pointer to put them up six. After stealing the ball, all that was left was for Thorn to dribble out the clock and hoist the ball into the air in victory.
As the Garden crowd erupted, the coaching staff shook hands while the team celebrated their eighth playoff appearance in 11 years on the court.
"To make the run that we made, our backs have been up against the wall for three weeks now," said Liberty head coach Pat Coyle. "We made the plays we had to make to get here, and as I said earlier, I couldn't be more proud of a group of young women than I am of this team."
Next up for the Liberty are the Shock, the defending WNBA champions, who finished the season with the league's best record. The Liberty were the only team to beat the Shock twice in 2007, including a dramatic 85-84 win just one week ago.
"I think we match up well with Detroit," said McCarville. "We are going to go out there and do the best we can. We are going to give it our best shot and we are going to play as hard as we can play and worry about ourselves.”
The game itself got off to a sloppy start, with both teams committing numerous turnovers while struggling to put points on the board. But Christon's deep two-pointer with 5:01 left in the first quarter seemed to ignite New York, and Cathrine Kraayeveld followed up with a long three on their next trip up the court to give New York a 7-2 lead.
Kraaveveld and McCarville established themselves down low on the defensive end, forcing the Sky to hoist low percentage shots. As a result, New York escaped the first quarter with an 11-9 lead despite their own struggles on the offensive end.
Chicago opened the second quarter on a run to cut the Liberty lead to one, but once again, Christon sparked New York by drawing a foul on a three-point shot with 5:57 left in the half. The forward calmly drained all three free throws to give New York a bit of breathing room and a 17-13 advantage.
Sky coach Bo Overton was issued a technical foul with 4:15 to go in the first half, but Erin Thorn was unable to convert the free throw attempt. Still, she was able to brush her blunder aside, finding Kraayeveld with a sweet dish down in the low post for an easy bucket.
Kraayeveld's and Christon paced New York in the first half with eight and seven points respectively, but outstanding team defense was the reason for the Liberty's 28-21 halftime lead. The Liberty held the Sky to 20 percent shooting (8-for-40) from the field in the opening 20 minutes.
One half away from the Liberty's first playoff berth in two seasons and their eighth overall in 11 years, Head Coach Pat Coyle saw her team commit a number of errors that enabled Chicago take their first lead of the game, 29-28, just 2:30 into the third quarter. After a defensive lapse, the Sky added another easy bucket, forcing Coyle to use an early timeout with 7:02 remaining in the quarter.
The break in the action calmed New York's nerves as they returned to playing strong defense. Still, they didn't make their first field goal until Kraayeveld's three pointer with just over five minutes remaining in the quarter tied the score at 32-32.
Chicago responded with a 13-6 run to close out the quarter, putting them ahead 45-38, but the fourth quarter would belong entirely to the Liberty.
"We just pretty much continue to be there for each other," said McCarville. "This team has a lot of character, and when we lose don't point fingers. We just go back to the practice court and see where we can get better to correct the mistakes we made. We continue to go from there. We grow and learn together."
NOTES: Sunday's game was also Fan Appreciation Day, and after they finished celebrating their playoff berth, the players gave away personally autographed jerseys to 13 lucky fans.