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Liberty's title quest ends, Indiana advances to WNBA Finals

New York Liberty players, including New York Liberty

New York Liberty players, including New York Liberty center Tina Charles (31) and forward Essence Carson (17), look on from the bench as time runs out to end Game 3 of the WNBA Eastern Conference finals at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2015. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Somewhere down the line, when the fresh sting of defeat fades and any lingering disappointment is stymied by time, the Liberty's 2015 season will be remembered by its participants in only a positive light.

On the doorstep of its first WNBA Finals since 2002, the Liberty was dominated in all facets of the game in its 66-51 loss to Indiana in Game 3 of the best-of-three Eastern Conference Finals at Madison Square Garden last night. It was a sour end to a season that players and coaches agree will act as a building block for the team's future success.

"A great learning experience, a great start," Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer said. "Indiana's been there, done that. They know how to close.

"You've seen a lot of changes in this past year. We're built for being the best organization in this league. That's what we want to be. We've had a great start. Yeah it hurts, but it's about the body of work. And I'll take this season all day long."

This Liberty team, the same one that began the year with Essence Carson as the only player remaining from its 2013 roster, meshed quickly and finished with the top record in the regular season for the first time in its 19-year history.

"Best thing about this season is I gained sisters," All-Star forward Tina Charles said. "This team isn't like any other that I've been on. Great characters. People with pride in who they are, on and off the court.

"I think the thing that hurts most is that we're not going to see each other anymore, because we're really like a family. We are a family."

Candice Wiggins came off the bench to lead the Liberty with 15 points. Charles had 13 points and 10 rebounds. Marissa Coleman paced Indiana with 15 points and Tamika Catchings scored 14.

The theme was established right from the start, when the Liberty committed three turnovers in the first four minutes.

In one possession late in the first quarter, three Liberty players -- Tanisha Wright, Kiah Stokes and Charles -- grabbed offensive rebounds, and all three missed their ensuing layup attempts.

"As far as Xs and Os today, you all saw we couldn't throw the ball in the basket," Laimbeer said. "It was very frustrating. Part of it was, I won't call it nerves, but anxiousness, like 'We got to go so fast.' And that's something you learn [to control]. That's the experience we don't have."

By halftime, the Liberty should have considered itself lucky to be trailing just 33-22. They committed 13 turnovers in the first half, or one more than it averaged in each of the first two games. They shot 26 percent to Indiana's 45 percent. Charles and Epiphanny Prince, the team's most prominent offensive weapons, combined to shoot 3-for-16 from the field for seven points.

It carried over into the third quarter, when Coleman's barrage of three-pointers -- she drained three in the quarter's opening four minutes -- put the Liberty into a 42-26 hole.

With assistant coaches Katie Smith and Herb Williams screaming on either side of him, Laimbeer, usually the source of fiery emotion, watched calmly.

"A large part of the season we won games by hopscotching around, and finding the right pieces at the right time during games," Laimbeer said. "In the playoffs, you have to have all the pieces working together. We just didn't have enough."

Prince knocked down a corner three with 3:37 left in the third, pulling the Liberty to within 46-31. Carson took a crosscourt pass from Charles 15 seconds later and buried a three to make it 46-34.

With 9:06 left in the fourth quarter, Wiggins hit a straightaway three-pointer and followed it 45 seconds later with a layup to bring the Liberty to within 49-45.

But Catchings drew a foul on Charles on Indiana's next possession and hit two free throws. It was the beginning of a 10-0 run for the Fever that would be the final blow in the Liberty's season.

"I think she's really great at knowing when to take over a game," Charles said of Catchings, "and knowing when to get her teammates involved and giving them confidence. Tonight that's what she did. She facilitated really well. That comes with experience, and that's something I take note of."

In what was perhaps the Liberty's worst game of the year, its final box score wasn't pretty: 21 turnovers, 33 percent shooting from the field, a season-low 51 points. But it wasn't enough to overshadow everything that had led the team to this point.

"It really just feels like a dream come true," said Carolyn Swords, who was signed by the Liberty in the offseason, "to have been given the opportunity to come here and be a part of something really special.

"I fell in love with the franchise, the fans and being at MSG. Disappointing ending, but thankful to be a part of it. I think this is only the first chapter for this group."

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