Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer has yet to cleanse his palate of the sour taste of back-to-back fifth-place finishes in the Eastern Conference. Not even this year's team racing off to the best start in franchise history has helped.
"We haven't won anything yet," Laimbeer said. "I'm sure our PR guy will make a note of that, but we haven't gotten home court, haven't even qualified for the playoffs. So it doesn't mean anything."
With its 78-67 win over the Atlanta Dream Friday night at Madison Square Garden, the Liberty improved to 18-7. It now owns a 21/2-game lead in the East.
But the Liberty still has nine games to play. Eight of its remaining opponents are .500 or better. That's what made a game like Friday night's, against the last-place Dream (9-16), all the more important.
"They're getting close to elimination time," Laimbeer said. "We knew going in this was going to be a playoff test. They needed this game very badly."
Fresh off its most overwhelming performance of the season -- a 73-45 trouncing at the San Antonio Stars (the 45 points allowed matched the lowest for a WNBA team in 2015) -- it quickly became evident that this would be a much more hard-fought battle against a conference opponent.
The teams went back and forth through the first half, with the Liberty carrying a 37-36 lead into the break. To begin the third, the Dream went on a 12-2 run. Then Laimbeer inserted Brittany Boyd.
The rookie out of the University of California had seven points and four assists, but her impact was especially felt in turning the game's tempo. "She comes in and gets us going," Laimbeer said.
Trailing 48-39 with 6:01 left in the third, the Liberty finished the quarter on a 15-3 run to take a three-point lead into the fourth.
All-Star Tina Charles -- who had 25 points and seven rebounds -- had six points over that span. Charles missed a hook shot, but Kiah Stokes managed to poke it back to her on a box-out. Charles then swished a 15-footer to make it 49-48 with 2:11 left in the third.
Three possessions later, Epiphanny Prince pump-faked on the perimeter, then drove hard inside for a bucket, before converting a foul shot to make it 52-51 with 1:16 left in the third. Charles then knocked down a jumper from the top of the key to give the Liberty its three-point lead.
The Garden crowd was finally energized, and began doing an enthusiastic rendition of the wave -- as in, most of the 9,303 in attendance were involved -- to begin the fourth. Boyd's trey put the team up 57-51 with eight minutes left, ending the wave as everyone stood to cheer.