NEW YORK — Tina Charles and the New York Liberty are headed to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time in five years thanks to a strong effort from Sugar Rodgers and the reserves.
Charles scored 22 points and Rodgers added 20 to help the top-seeded Liberty beat the Washington Mystics 79-74 on Tuesday night and advance out of the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2010.
"It means a lot to take that first step," said Charles, who also had 12 rebounds. "When I came home to New York this was my goal to win a championship, and now we've made it out of the first round."
The Liberty don't have too much time to rest as Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals will be here Wednesday night against the Indiana Fever because the Pope is coming to New York and will be at MSG on Friday.
"It is what it is," Charles said. "At this point of the season you don't worry about rest, you worry about the next game."
With Charles struggling from the field in the first half and Epiphanny Prince missing 10 of her first 11 shots, Rodgers, Kiah Stokes and Candice Wiggins came off the bench to spur New York.
Trailing 72-71 with 1:46 left, Stokes hit a layup off a nifty assist from Rodgers. After a steal on the other end by Rodgers, she hit a layup with 58 seconds left to give New York a three-point lead.
Ivory Latta hit two free throws with 42.5 seconds left to cut Washington's deficit to 75-74.
With the shot clock running down, Prince hit a 15-footer, only her second basket of the game to make it a three-point game with 20 seconds left. Washington had one final chance but Latta's 3-pointer was blocked by Stokes with 5 seconds left and New York held on for the win.
"I'm proud of our players, the playoffs you never know any given night who's going to do it for you," New York coach Bill Laimbeer said. "Every player needs to be ready, 1 through 11."
Stokes said the team took to heart that in the double overtime loss in the playoff opener Washington's bench outperformed New York.
"We knew and we wanted to make sure it didn't happen again," said Stokes, who had eight points and 14 rebounds.
New York's reserves outscored Washington 40-19.
"Their bench did a heck of a job," Washington coach Mike Thibault said. "Their bench played better than their starters. Sugar Rodgers was good, Wiggins was good, Kiah Stokes was good. Give them credit."
Washington scored the first 14 of the first 16 points in the third quarter to turn an eight-point halftime deficit into a 51-47 lead. Emma Meesseman had six of those points for the Mystics.
Charles wouldn't let the Liberty go away. After missing 11 of her first 16 shots, the All-Star hit a jumper from the top of the key and then had a putback. Wiggins hit consecutive 3-pointers to tie the game at 57 heading into the final quarter.
The Mystics jumped out all over New York hitting five of its first seven 3-pointers to go up 25-13 with 16 seconds left in the first quarter. New York looked like the second top seed in the East ready to fall in the opening round after Indiana knocked off No. 2 Chicago on Monday night. Stokes had a putback just before the buzzer that made it a 10-point game and gave the Liberty momentum heading into the second quarter.
Rodgers and Candice Wiggins helped New York score 16 of the next 18 points to take control of the game. Rodgers' layup made it 28-27 with 5:11 left in the period and gave New York its first lead of the game. She was just getting started, scoring 10 of the Liberty's next 13 points sending the Liberty crowd into a frenzy. A 3-pointer by Wiggins was the other basket during that spurt. She ran down the court pumping her fists after the shot swished through the net.
While the attendance couldn't match the 10,000 that showed up for Game 1, the crowd did include WNBA President Laurel J. Richie, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and No. 1 New York fan Spike Lee, who sat courtside. The Fever were also in the crowd as they came to New York on Tuesday afternoon to be ready to play tomorrow.
The Liberty led 45-37 at the half.
New York center Carolyn Swords didn't play after injuring her foot in Game 2 on Sunday which the Liberty won by 18 points. The Mystics were victorious in the opener, winning in double overtime.
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