Liberty look like champs in Game 1

NEW YORK -- The New York Liberty did more than defend their home court Thursday night in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Indiana Fever.

With a thoroughly dominant second half against the defending Eastern Conference champ, the Liberty let Indiana and the rest of the league know they have the pieces in place to make a run at the first WNBA title in franchise history.

"Hopefully, everybody understands that it's not a fluke over here," Cappie Pondexter said after scoring a game-high 28 points in the Liberty's 85-73 win in the opener of their three-game series against the Fever. "I think we're a contender for winning the championship. I think we have that on our minds. ... Hopefully everybody knows that."

Pondexter was the headline act Thursday night, but her supporting cast more than shared the spotlight against Indy. Reserve guard Essence Carson gave the Liberty a huge lift with 17 points -- 11 of which came in the second half -- and Nicole Powell chipped in 13 as the Liberty outscored the Fever 37-26 after halftime to earn a resounding win.

The Liberty now have won nine straight at home, including eight in a row to end the regular season.

"This means a lot [because] you want to start the series off the right way," Carson said.

It's going to be a long, quiet plane ride back to Indianapolis for the Fever, who controlled the game for a brief period in the second quarter but couldn't contain Pondexter, who set a franchise record for points in a playoff game.

Sure, Indiana, boasting a superstar in Tamika Catchings and impressive size in the paint, can regroup in time for Game 2 in Indianapolis on Sunday night. But it won't be easy after the Liberty landed the equivalent of a first-round knockdown in the series opener.

Pondexter certainly didn't let the glare of the Garden blind her in her first playoff game on the game's biggest stage. The 27-year-old MVP candidate was incredible in the first half, hitting five of eight 3-pointers and finishing with 23 points.

She set the franchise record for single-game scoring in the postseason (25) with a layup with 5:48 to go in the third quarter. The fast-break layup gave the Liberty a 55-53 lead. From there, it was defense (the Liberty forced nine turnovers) and a heavy dose of Carson and Taj McWilliams-Franklin, who scored 10 of her 15 points in the final 16 minutes.

The Liberty finished a franchise-worst seventh in the Eastern Conference last season. But adding a superstar (Pondexter), a sharpshooter (Powell) and a presence in the paint (McWilliams-Franklin) has made all the difference for this team. And all three of the additions made their presence felt Thursday, with McWilliams-Franklin adding 10 rebounds to her point total as the Liberty outrebounded the Fever by 14 and grabbed 15 on the offensive end.

Pondexter, who won two titles with Phoenix before forcing a trade to New York in the offseason, said earlier this week that she believed the Liberty had the chemistry and personnel to win the WNBA title.

"Definitely, there's no question about that," Pondexter said. "The chemistry that we have and the togetherness, that's all you need. In Phoenix, we weren't the most talented team, but we had our backs no matter what. I think this team has the same characteristic."

And Thursday night only gave that theory more credibility.

Ian Begley is a regular contributor to ESPNNewYork.com.

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