Sports

Pondexter, Vaughn Lead Liberty To Conference Finals

A fan cheers on the New York Liberty  during the WNBA Eastern Conference semifinal basketball game against the Indiana Fever, Wednesday Sept. 1, 2010, in New York. The Liberty defeated the Fever 77-74 to win the semifinal series. (AP Photo/Stephen Chernin)

A fan cheers on the New York Liberty during the WNBA Eastern Conference semifinal basketball game against the Indiana Fever, Wednesday Sept. 1, 2010, in New York. The Liberty defeated the Fever 77-74 to win the semifinal series. (AP Photo/Stephen Chernin)

NEW YORK (AP) – Despite finishing with a franchise playoff record for scoring, Cappie Pondexter gave Kia Vaughn all the credit for helping the New York Liberty advance to the Eastern Conference finals.

Pondexter scored 30 points, including a tiebreaking jumper with 28 seconds remaining, and Vaughn had a season-high 13 points in extended playing time to lead the Liberty to a 77-74 victory over the Indiana Fever on Wednesday night in the decisive Game 3 of their East semifinal series.

“She was amazing,” Pondexter said of Vaughn. “My whole career, her whole career I’ve never seen Kia play like that. If she didn’t play like that, we definitely wouldn’t be here advancing to the next round. Her performance was one of the best and amazing.”

The two played together in college at Rutgers alongside Essence Carson, who added 11 points for the Liberty. New York reached the conference finals for the second time in three years where the Liberty will face Atlanta in the East finals beginning Sunday night at Madison Square Garden.

The Liberty were without starting center Janel McCarville, sidelined by a sprained left ankle. Plenette Pierson started in her place and finished with eight points in 23 minutes, and Vaughn played a season-high 26 minutes.

“No one told me I was going to play as much as I did,” said Vaughn, who has averaged about 10 minutes per game her first two seasons in the league. “I’m happy because that lets me know I did something great.

Katie Douglas scored 24 points, Tamika Catchings had 21 and Ebony Hoffman added 13 for the Fever, who fell to 0-7 in postseason series in which they didn’t have home-court advantage, including last year’s WNBA finals loss to Phoenix.

After Pondexter made her go-ahead jumper from the right side of the basket while going out of bounds, Catchings missed a driving layup 4 seconds later and Taj McWilliams-Franklin grabbed the rebound off the side of the rim.

The Liberty called timeout, but were called for a 5-second violation on the ensuing inbounds play, turning the ball over to the Fever. Catchings missed another layup with 12.9 seconds to go, McWilliams-Franklin again corralled the rebound and passed to Vaughn, who was fouled by Douglas.

Fever coach Lin Dunn believed Catchings was fouled on both layup attempts and did not hesitate to criticize the officials.

“I’m very disappointed that Eric (Brewton), Denise (Brooks) and Lamont (Simpson) did not call a foul when Tamika drove to the rim the first time, and the second time,” Dunn said. “It’s unfortunate that the players did not get to finish the game on their own.”

Catchings, however, put the blame on herself.

“Things happen and regardless of whether you get fouled or not, I didn’t finish two layups,” she said. “Doesn’t matter. I take the blame. You got to hit those shots.”

Vaughn then made 1 of 2 free throws to extend the Liberty’s lead to three points, and Indiana’s Briann January missed a potential tying 3 with 3.9 seconds left.

In both of New York’s wins in the series a reserve player took advantage of extra playing time. In Game 1 it was Essence Carson, who scored 17 points. This time, it was Vaughn. Both stressed the importance of staying focused and being ready when called on.

“I just pretty much had to come in, and just be myself, be aggressive and attack the boards,” Vaughn said. “I knew it was hard with Janel not out there. My teammates and coaches, they believe in me. I’ve been working hard in practice and it showed out on the court.”

Trailing by five earlier in the fourth quarter, the Liberty rallied in a low-scoring period – New York outscored Indiana 14-8 – and took a 74-72 lead on Pondexter’s three-point play with 1:14 remaining.

“I live for moments like these as a basketball player,” said Pondexter, who eclipsed her own franchise postseason record of 28 points she set in Game 1 of this series. “When I’m in the gym working out, I think about moments like this, to prepare myself mentally. … I just took it upon myself to take over (down the stretch).”

Hoffman rebounded her own missed layup and put it back to tie the score 24 seconds later.

Douglas scored nine points in the third quarter – on two 3s and three free throws – as the Fever, who led 47-46 at halftime, increased their advantage to seven points on three occasions. The last time came when Catchings made 1 of 2 free throws to make it 66-59 with 1 1/2 minutes left in the period.

Pondexter had a layup about 15 seconds later and McWilliams-Franklin had a basket with under 32 seconds left to pull the Liberty to 66-63 heading to the fourth quarter.

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