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Sugar Rodgers helps Liberty advance to East finals

From left, the New York Liberty's Erica Wheeler,

From left, the New York Liberty's Erica Wheeler, Kiah Stokes, Essence Carson and Candice Wiggins celebrate on the sideline late in the fourth quarter of Game 3 of the WNBA Eastern Conference semifinals at Madison Square Garden, Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2015. Credit: Jason DeCrow

A spoonful of Sugar helped the Mystics go down. Oh, and Kiah Stokes came up pretty big, too.

Rodgers scored four of her 20 points in the final minute to help the Liberty go ahead, and Stokes tipped a potential tying three with four seconds left as the Liberty defeated the Washington Mystics, 79-74, Tuesday night in the deciding Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals at Madison Square Garden.

The result -- and the dizzying final minutes -- cured a host of ills. For one, the Liberty beat a stingy team that had given it trouble all season. The Liberty came back from a big early deficit, staved off elimination and advanced to the conference finals against the Indiana Fever -- its first trip to the second round since 2010.

Game 1 is Wednesday night at the Garden. The quick turnaround is because of Pope Francis' visit there Friday night.

"Sugar is in the gym, 24/7," said Tina Charles, who led all scorers with 22 points. Although Rodgers saw her playing time dwindle midway through the season, she contributed in Games 2 and 3. "If we have practice, she's in the gym that night," Charles said. "She never let up and she's never complacent."

The Mystics led by three with 2:50 left, but Charles banked in a jumper to draw the Liberty to within one. Stokes, posted up under the basket, took a feed from Rodgers to put the Liberty ahead 73-72 with 1:45 to go. Rodgers came up with a steal on the Mystics' next possession and nailed a driving layup.

The Mystics were down by three with four seconds left and put the ball exactly where they wanted it -- in the hands of their best three-point shooter, Ivory Latta. Latta took her shot from the top of the key but Stokes, arms outstretched, tipped the ball to essentially end the game.

"It was a great block," coach Bill Laimbeer said. "Tonight when she started the game, she would be the first one to tell you -- I hope she does tell you -- that she was a deer in the headlights. Nonexistent . . . I was on her, the trainer was on her and the players were on her . . . Once she got her feet grounded and her mind right, she played a solid game."

The same could be said of the Liberty as a whole. Playing without Carolyn Swords (right foot), they were down big early. They trailed by 12 in the first quarter and ended it down by 10. But a 15-0 run in the second quarter changed all of that.

Candice Wiggins made a right-wing three-pointer with 6:14 left to draw the Liberty within 27-26, and Rodgers put it ahead a minute later, on a reverse layup. Rodgers followed with a bucket behind the arc, a possession kicked off by Wiggins' steal under the Mystics' basket.

The Liberty was 18-for-19 from the free-throw line.

"I'm very proud of our players," Laimbeer said. "The playoffs, you never know in a given night who's going to do it for you."

New York Sports