All season, the Liberty struggled to solve the Indiana Fever. It turns out that the winning formula is rather unorthodox: Play two straight elimination games, don't rest your players, and make sure you have as little time to prepare as possible.
Whatever works, right?
The Liberty, which advanced against the Washington Mystics on Tuesday, were back in Madison Square Garden last night, defeating one of its biggest rivals, 84-67, in Game 1 of the best-of-three Eastern Conference final.
Led by Kiah Stokes and Tina Charles, it was a complete victory, from tipoff to garbage time. The Liberty never trailed and led by 22 in the fourth quarter.
"I was in shock of the effort, the intensity, and the focus that we exhibited on a back-to-back game," coach Bill Laimbeer said. "They have been growing, there's no question about that. When you get into a playoff environment, your senses elevate tremendously, and we're learning about each other at a rapid pace."
The Fever had won the last four meetings and led the season series 4-1. That is, until Stokes' 21 points and five rebounds off the bench, and Charles' 18 points, nine assists and seven rebounds changed the tenor of these playoffs. Though the Liberty is the No. 1 seed, this was one time when the favorite wasn't necessarily the favorite. The Fever averaged 80.9 points against the Liberty, which has the best defense in the league (71.1 points against per game).
Pope Francis is scheduled to say Mass Friday at Madison Square Garden. That forced the Liberty to play back-to-back games, unlike Indiana, which advanced against the Chicago Sky on Monday. This is the fifth straight conference final appearance for the Fever, and the Liberty's first since 2010.
"We just laid an egg," Fever star Tamika Catchings said. "Off a back-to-back is when you normally perform your best -- when your back is against the wall and you know there's something you've got to go get, you're going to get it . . . We were lax a little bit tonight and that's unacceptable."
The Liberty was on fire from the very beginning, thanks to contributions from Stokes and Sugar Rodgers, two of the standouts in the clinching Game 3 against the Mystics, the Liberty's second elimination game in a row. Two Stokes putbacks broke ties at 14 and 16, and Rodgers hit back-to-back threes with less than a minute to go to give the Liberty a 26-18 lead at the end of the first quarter.
The Liberty scored 24 points off 16 turnovers, while Rodgers and Epiphanny Prince dominated from downtown -- each going 4-for-6. By the beginning of the third quarter, the lead was down to four before Prince kicked out a pass to Tanisha Wright, who sent it right back to Prince along the baseline. Prince's three-pointer opened the gates to a 16-6 third quarter.
"That's been our MO all year, just having confidence," Charles said. "[We wanted] to throw the first punch . . . We know what we want and we're going to try and take it from whoever is in front of us."