For three quarters Saturday, the Liberty's season opener couldn't have looked sweeter. The team unveiled a new offense, two new players and showcased its depth.
However, the fourth quarter arrived and all that crumbled. The offense turned stagnant, the defense slipped into complacency and a deep bench couldn't stop a runaway Connecticut offense that rallied for a 78-73 win at the Garden.
"It's tough because we had it," said Liberty guard Cappie Pondexter, who scored 19 points. "I think we won every quarter but the fourth. And it's hard to win games when you're not scoring in the fourth quarter."
The Liberty's last essential offensive possession -- with 7.6 seconds remaining and down by 3 -- came to a halt when Leilani Mitchell ran into the Sun's Allison Hightower trying to set a screen. Mitchell was called for an offensive foul, and the Sun coaxed the game away on free throws.
"Defensively we kind of broke down a little bit," Mitchell said. "It's disappointing. Being able to play in the Garden, we wanted to win especially for that reason."
The Liberty, playing at Madison Square Garden for the first time since renovations displaced them to the Prudential Center in Newark last summer, were hoping for a nice hometown boost from the crowd of 8,112, which included current Knicks players J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert along with former star Larry Johnson.
And for the majority of the game, against a tough Connecticut team that finished second in the Eastern Conference last season, the Liberty was rolling. It exercised its newfound depth as nine different players saw at least 14 minutes, with coach John Whisenant subbing liberally.
With the addition of guard Kelly Miller and forward DeMya Walker, the Liberty can stay relentless on defense, catering to Whisenant's over-aggressive on-ball style. But, ahead 58-51 going into the fourth, things deflated.
"We just hit dry spells where we weren't efficient, whether it was defense or offense," Whisenant said. "We've got to play better."
The Sun (1-0) took a 67-65 lead with 3:54 left but Pondexter hit two buckets to give the Liberty a 71-69 lead. It couldn't get enough stops down the stretch, though.
Asjha Jones gave the Sun a 73-71 lead with a mid-range jumper with 31.4 seconds remaining. Pondexter's layup attempt with 18 seconds left was too strong.
And, after Mitchell's charge, the Liberty's reunion party was spoiled. "We haven't had everybody here the whole training camp," Pondexter said. "We're still getting acclimated. We still looked good, just not good enough to win obviously."
The Liberty can get some revenge when it travels to Connecticut to play the Sun this evening.