Dream ride McCoughtry magic to finals

Long before draft day 2009, Atlanta Dream coach and GM Marynell Meadors was sure whom she wanted to pick. When she was asked about it during the college season, she didn't just come flat out and say the name. But everything she described about the player she wanted made you think, "She has to be talking about Angel McCoughtry, right?"

She was. Meadors didn't totally tip her hand, but she might as well have. While there was outside speculation that she might go a different direction, Meadors never altered course.

And when she indeed could finally say the name, everything changed for the Dream. From 4-30 in 2008 to the WNBA finals in 2010 -- a difference of two seasons that have been filled with highlight-reel plays from McCoughtry.

Tuesday was the best show yet in the career of an ascending star: McCoughtry was unstoppable on a night when the Dream shut the door on a very good New York Liberty season.

How do you top New York star Cappie Pondexter's 36 points? By scoring 42 yourself, as McCoughtry did in the Dream's 105-93 Game 2 victory that propelled Atlanta to the WNBA Finals.

It was a WNBA playoff record for points; McCoughtry passed Tamika Whitmore's 41 in 2006. It also eclipsed McCoughtry's previous best (34) in her two-year WNBA career. It was a "Swoopesian" performance, and a reminder of why many people compared McCoughtry to the great Sheryl Swoopes before the Louisville star was drafted in 2009.

McCoughtry was here, there and everywhere Tuesday night in Philips Arena. A swift and wiry strong 6-footer, McCoughtry added three rebounds, four assists and five steals to her pileup of points.

And one play near the game's conclusion stood out to highlight not just her sheer athletic talent, but her growth as a competitor. After appearing to be knocked down at New York's end of the floor, McCoughtry didn't gripe when she didn't hear a whistle.

She stayed focused on the action, which allowed her to grab a loose ball and race down for a layup, on which she was fouled for a 3-point play. McCoughtry camped out at the free throw line Tuesday, much as she did in the opener on Sunday in New York.

She was 30-of-38 from the line (79 percent) in the series; the entire Liberty team was a combined 28-of-39 (72 percent). Obviously, this was something New York was ticked off about, but time and again, McCoughtry successfully forced the action.

Afterward, McCoughtry at first tried to shrug off how big a night it had been for her, saying it was just "like any other game." But then she acknowledged that, actually, it really was something special.

"The atmosphere was great. This is stuff you live for," she said. "This is what you play for, what you work hard for. So I take it back; this was different."

McCoughtry did not come into the WNBA unaware of its history; to the contrary, she grew up admiring players such as Swoopes, Lisa Leslie and Dawn Staley. Having led Louisville to the national championship game as a senior and now helping the Dream advance to the WNBA finals, McCoughtry is more and more appearing to be on a career trajectory that is much like the greats she looked up to.

Pondexter, who has played five WNBA seasons now, has established herself in that stratosphere, too. On Tuesday, with the Liberty still missing injured post player Janel McCarville, Pondexter did all she could to try to force a Game 3 back in New York. But McCoughtry prevented that.

"We're both the leaders of our teams," said Pondexter, who added nine assists. "When the game's on the line, I expect myself to step up, and I'm sure Angel's the same way. She was in a great rhythm."

Pondexter and her former Phoenix teammate, Diana Taurasi, both wanted to win a WNBA championship this year without the other's help, but each saw her team fall in the conference finals. Now, they both turn their attention to the upcoming World Championship for Team USA, a quest McCoughtry will join when the finals end.

Liberty coach Anne Donovan will leave to take her job at Seton Hall. And the New York fans sadly know they've seen the last of the Liberty at Madison Square Garden for a while. The arena will be renovated during the next three summers, during which time the Liberty's home games will be in Newark, N.J.

McCoughtry kept the Liberty from playing at least one more game in the Garden this season. The sweep gives the Dream, who had lots of time off after the first round, a chance to be pretty fresh going into the finals.

Not that McCoughtry, who will turn 24 on Friday, needs a lot of rest. She's still a young pup, but with a game that is increasingly sophisticated and mature. And the Liberty felt the full force of her impact Tuesday.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at voepel.wordpress.com.