Sports

Liberty’s Turnaround Led By Ex-Rutgers Star Pondexter

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(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

NEW YORK (AP) — Cappie Pondexter is quick to share the credit with her teammates for the New York Liberty’s turnaround.

The former Rutgers star, who won two WNBA titles in the previous three seasons with Phoenix, was the cornerstone acquisition in the Liberty’s offseason roster overhaul that followed a 21-loss season, the second-worst in franchise history. New York also added Nicole Powell and Taj McWilliams-Franklin, and then got Plenette Pierson in an early-season trade.

The changes worked as the Liberty rebounded with a team-record 22 wins, and then outlasted Indiana in a three-game, first-round series to return to the conference finals for the second time in three years.

“It’s not just about me, it’s definitely been a team effort,” Pondexter said.

All four newcomers had won championships with other teams: Powell with Sacramento in 2005; Pierson with Detroit in 2006, and then again along with McWilliams-Franklin in 2008.

“They’ve been there and they know it,” Liberty president and general manager Carol Blazejowski said. “Their mindset was infectious with the rest of the team, and that’s where you have to be, that’s where your focus has to be, single focus come playoff time.”

It took time, however, for everyone to get on the same page. After struggling to a slow start, the Liberty were the WNBA’s top team after the All-Star break — going 15-3, including a franchise-record 10-game winning streak.

The turnaround during the season has been especially satisfying to Pondexter, who spent her first four seasons playing with stars like Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor on the Mercury.

“In the beginning it was a little frustrating when you’re used to playing with certain players, and just having that chemistry,” Pondexter said. “It took a while for us to find it. The fact we have it now is great. It’s going to be even better as time goes on and we’ve played more and more together.”

In Phoenix, Taurasi received most of the credit for the team’s success. With the Liberty, although Pondexter wants to share the credit with her teammates, she is undoubtedly the leader on the court. She averaged 21.4 points per game — trailing only Taurasi, who won her third straight scoring title — and a team-high 4.9 assists.

“She brings this competitive maturity and no-excuse kind of approach that permeates the rest of the group,” coach Anne Donovan said. “We have winners here, people that have won championships but she’s the one that bands that collective energy together, that refuse-to-lose attitude.”

Pondexter finished third in the MVP voting to three-time winner Lauren Jackson of league-best Seattle and Indiana’s Tamika Catchings. The Liberty star shrugged it off, choosing to focus on the team’s success instead.

“For me, it’s a bigger picture,” Pondexter said. “Awards are great, my ultimate goal is to win a championship. I’m just going to keep working hard for that.”

The road to the championship got a little harder for New York, which trails the best-of-three Eastern Conference finals 1-0 against Atlanta after dropping the opener at home 81-75 on Sunday night. Game 2 is Tuesday night on the Dream’s home court, and Game 3, if necessary, will be Thursday back in Madison Square Garden. The winner will advance to the WNBA finals against the Storm, beginning Sunday at Seattle.

The Liberty’s success on the court this season has also led to a resurgence in fan support, particularly for Pondexter, who came to New York in a three-team deal that sent popular stars Shameka Christon and Cathrine Kraayeveld to Chicago.

Down the stretch in the regular season and the first-round series with Indiana, every big play or trip to the free throw line at the Garden was accompanied with roaring cheers and chants of “M-V-P! M-V-P!” They even did it in the opener against the Dream, though Jackson was announced as the winner several days earlier.

“I definitely hear it, I feel the energy,” Pondexter said. “It’s been awesome. … We draw so much from their energy and their enthusiasm and excitement.”

Donovan, who coached Pondexter on the U.S. Olympic team that won the gold medal at the Beijing Games two years ago, isn’t surprised by the way the Liberty star has connected with the home fans.

“She looks and carries herself, in particular on the floor, as a New Yorker,” said the coach, who grew up in nearby northern New Jersey. “I think people relate to a blue collar competitor and someone who loves the pressure. … I think the New Yorker in all of us really appreciates that.”

Blazejowski agreed, adding: “New Yorkers and the metropolitan area, they want winners. They really appreciate talent and they appreciate players that work hard and that’s certainly everything Cappie does. She’s made for Broadway.”

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

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