For the Liberty, the task was simple: win and get in.
Now the challenge is to prove they belong among the league’s elite.
“We’re going to have to step it up another notch,” Stefanie Dolson said after the Liberty outlasted the Atlanta Dream, 87-83, in the regular-season finale Sunday at Barclays Center.
The Liberty (16-20) qualified for the postseason for the second year in a row and the 17th time in the franchise’s 26-season history. They will meet second-seeded Chicago in a best-of-three first-round series.
About two hours after the Liberty victory, Chicago routed Phoenix, 82-67, to set that matchup. The series will start Wednesday in Chicago and the Liberty will be the seventh seed.
Even though there were unanswered questions as she and her teammates left Barclays Center for the last time in the regular season, Dolson did not seem particularly worried about a matchup against the second seed.
“Anyone we play against, we’ve [beaten in the regular season], so we have to have confidence we can beat these teams,” Dolson said. The Liberty went 1-3 against Chicago in the regular season.
Entering the season’s final day, the Liberty were in a four-way race with Phoenix, Minnesota and Atlanta (14-22) for one of the final two WNBA playoff berths. They controlled their own destiny after their 80-70 win over the Dream in Atlanta on Friday.
Natasha Howard broke a 79-79 tie by making a free throw with 1:54 left. After Atlanta’s Chyenne Parker missed a short jumper, Howard drilled a corner three-pointer to extend the lead to 83-79 with 55.6 seconds left.
“I know my teammates believe in me to do those things,” said Howard (18 points).
Aari McDonald’s layup with 26.9 seconds left brought Atlanta within two. After a timeout, Erica Wheeler fouled Sabrina Ionescu (five points), who made both free throws for a four-point lead.
On the ensuing possession, Wheeler missed a three-pointer and Howard was fouled after grabbing the rebound. She made both free throws to push the lead to 87-81 before McDonald converted a window-dressing layup with 2.6 seconds left.
Marine Johannes scored 18 points and shot 6-for-8 from three-point range off the bench for the Liberty. Dolson added 15 points and 12 rebounds.