It was hyped as a potential WNBA Finals preview, and the atmosphere at Madison Square Garden on Friday night certainly screamed "playoffs!"

But the Liberty simply saw the Minnesota Lynx as the last hurdle to overcome before clinching its first playoff berth since 2012.

"It was just a team that was in our way of accomplishing what we want to get done," All-Star forward Tina Charles said after the Liberty clinched that berth with an 81-68 victory. "Just treating it as the next opponent."

Yet WNBA fans will recognize the Liberty's win over the best in the West as a statement of sorts. Unlike the recent success enjoyed by the Lynx (19-10) -- which made the Finals three of the previous four seasons and won two titles -- the Liberty (19-8) finished fifth in the Eastern Conference in each of the previous two seasons before racing off to the best start in franchise history this year.

The Eastern Conference-leading Liberty is 2 1/2 games ahead of Chicago and Indiana.

Behind a six-point first quarter by Epiphanny Prince (22 points), the Liberty built a 27-16 lead in the first 10 minutes. But after shooting 0-for-5 in the first quarter, MVP candidate Maya Moore scored 14 points in the second.

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The Lynx got to within three points after a free throw by Moore with 58 seconds left in the first half, but Prince's pull-up jumper with less than a second remaining gave the Liberty a 43-38 lead heading into the break.

In the second half, the Liberty's lead peaked at 14 points. Prince drained a corner three-pointer and was fouled with three minutes left in the third. She hit the ensuing free throw for a four-point play that gave the Liberty a 58-44 lead.

The 10,059 in attendance ensured a playoff atmosphere. "There were no intensity lulls," Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer said.

Charles had 18 points and 11 rebounds. The Liberty shot 50.7 percent and limited the Lynx to 37.3 percent shooting.

"They're a fine-shooting team, but we're a fine defensive team," Laimbeer said. "Holding them to 37 percent is right in our wheelhouse.

"We have a long way to go. This just happens to be one game. We beat a quality team in our building. We expect that. We didn't really get anything accomplished today. You'll all write that we made the playoffs. In the locker room, we'll be like, 'OK, great. Let's go play tomorrow.' "