The Liberty came into the Eastern Conference finals against Atlanta with a distinct advantage in something that’s supposed to be crucial in early September: postseason experience.
But that didn’t seem to mean much to the upstart Dream. Certainly not in the final minute of Game 1, when a young Atlanta team took advantage of a few costly Liberty mistakes to seal a win at Madison Square Garden and take control of the three-game series.
The Liberty held a lead with under one minute to go in the fourth but couldn’t hold on in its 81-76 loss to the Dream on Sunday night. New York will now have to win two straight -- starting with Game 2 on Tuesday night in Atlanta -- to reach the WNBA Finals.
“This group has been there before and they all have their own experience,” Liberty coach Anne Donovan said. “We will have to go to Atlanta to get it done.”
The Liberty certainly had an opportunity to steal a win in the opener after getting outplayed for most of the first 35 minutes of regulation.
Atlanta left the door open when guard Iziane Castro Marques missed two free throws with 1:03 to go and the Dream up, 74-73. Cappie Pondexter got the rebound and hit two free throws to put the Liberty up 75-74.
Essence Carson was whistled for a bad foul on Angel McCoughtry -- a call Pondexter protested after the game. McCoughtry knocked down two free-throws to give Atlanta a 76-75 lead.
The Liberty then allowed Castro Marques to leak out for an uncontested layup after a Pondexter miss on the ensuing posession to put the Dream up, 78-75, with 31.3 to go.
New Yorlk still had a puncher’s chance but Taj McWilliams-Franklin threw the ball away and into the hands of Dream guard Shalee Lehning on its next posession.
“We made costly mistakes in the last two minutes that we do not normally make,” Donovan said.
Atlanta was playing its first game since August 27 after sweeping top-seeded Washington in the conference semis. But the Dream didn’t look rusty at all, taking the Liberty in the paint by outrebounding New York 40-28.
“I don’t know that we’re going to come ahead on the rebounding margin but I know that on that end we have to do a better job,” Donovan said.
The Liberty certainly felt the absence of starting forward Janel McCarville, who was out with a sprained left ankle. Donovan wasn’t saying whether McCarville would be available for Game 2. If she’s on the bench, the Liberty bigs -- Kia Vaughn, Plenette Pierson and McWilliams-Franklin -- have to find a way to compete with Atlanta down low. Atlanta outscored New York in the paint, 50-34.
“We’re undersized,” Pierson said. “It’s a tough match-up.”
New York reeled off ten wins in the second half of the regular season to make the playoffs. Now, it needs to win two straight to keep the season alive.
“I’m not worried at all,” said Pondexter, who scored a game-high 24 points on 8-of-20 shooting. “This team is a fighting team. When our back is gainst the wall we give out 100% effort. I’m excited (for Tuesday).”