- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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The future's so bright for the New York Liberty's Rutgers connection that Scarlet Knights coach C. Vivian Stringer had to wear shades.
OK, she was actually sporting them in that cool, on-top-of-her-head way as she joined 16,682 other Liberty fans rocking Madison Square Garden on Wednesday. Since we did a well-deserved ode to the UConn influence earlier this week in looking ahead to the Western Conference finals, we should note the Rutgers impact on the Eastern Conference finals.
Actually, we can expand that to the Big East's influence on the East. Three Scarlet Knights -- Cappie Pondexter, Essence Carson and Kia Vaughn -- all were key in Wednesday's fantastic-finish, 77-74 Game 3 victory by the Liberty over Indiana. And a former Louisville star, Angel McCoughtry, was a highlight show all by herself in Atlanta's 2-0 series sweep of Washington.
Stringer's loyalty Wednesday was a little divided, as another former Scarlet Knight, Tammy Sutton-Brown, plays for the Fever. And to an observer not rooting for either side, the game was entertaining, uplifting but inevitably also sad. The Fever, who came close to winning a championship last season but fell in five games to Phoenix, gave quite a noble effort in hostile territory Wednesday, and you had to feel bad for them.
Katie Douglas had one of her best games of the season, with 24 points, four rebounds and four assists. Tamika Catchings, who had an MVP-caliber season, had 21 points and six boards. But rebounding -- a frequent deficiency the Fever have worried about all season -- hurt them, as they lost the board battle 27-22. And point guards Tully Bevilaqua and Briann January combined to have just two assists.
The Fever got nine points and four rebounds from their bench Wednesday. New York got 24 points and nine boards from their bench, which in Game 3 consisted of Vaughn and Carson.
Plenette Pierson was pushed into a starting role with Janel McCarville unfortunately having suffered an ankle injury while doing some "Blues Brothers" dance moves. No, actually, she got hurt at practice. Then, in her "Joliet Jake" duds, J-Mac cheered from the sideline as Vaughn gave her best performance of the season.
The Liberty couldn't have done it without her. And now, provided McCarville can return for Sunday's Game 1 against the Dream in New York, the Liberty should have a stronger post presence -- if Vaughn can carry some of Wednesday's confidence over to the next series.
That will be critical against an Atlanta team that offers strength and depth inside. It should be another entertaining series. And we can be sure what team Stringer will be pulling for in this one. Sorry, Atlanta, but you understand.
New York Liberty: Staying alive
• Hunger/focus: The Liberty's look is very different this year from last, and since the All-Star break, no team has played with such consistent fire and sense of purpose. We say that with a little addendum: Seattle was so far ahead of the raggedy pack in the West that the Storm couldn't have been expected to be in "urgent" mode throughout August the way the Liberty were.
The Liberty's drive paid off with not just a playoff spot but also home-court advantage in the first round. And because No. 1 seed Washington fell to the No. 4 Dream, No. 2 New York has home-court advantage in the East finals as well.
How important is that? Since the beginning of July, the Liberty have lost just once at the Garden -- on July 18 to Indiana.
The Liberty's motivation as a team is supplemented by that of individual players. Pondexter -- so brilliant Wednesday with 30 points, including the winning basket -- is relishing no longer being the oh-so-talented second banana to Diana Taurasi in Phoenix.
The Liberty are Pondexter's team, and everybody on the roster is just fine with that. But players such as Pierson (two), Taj McWilliams-Franklin (one) and Nicole Powell (one) also would like to add to their WNBA title collection.
• Bench: Holy moly! This has changed during the playoffs. Carson, a starter during her first two WNBA seasons, was moved to the bench this year. And for a lot of the summer, she seemed out of sorts. Her only double-digit scoring performance came in the season opener, when she had 11 points against Chicago.
But she has turned it on, big time, in the postseason, scoring 17, 20 and 11 points in the games against Indiana.
Vaughn, as mentioned, had the most important game of her young pro career on Wednesday. With McCarville being the the standard "day-to-day," the need is great for Vaughn to show that her Game 3 performance (13 points, seven rebounds) can be repeated or close to it.
Of course, one of the reasons the bench was so important to the Liberty in this series was that the starters, other than Pondexter, did not provide many points in the second and third games. If that continues, the Liberty will keep needing big minutes from their reserves. Or possibly there could be one more adjustment to the starting lineup.
• Style of play: Whenever the buzzer does sound on the Liberty's final game this season, coach Anne Donovan will say goodbye to the team and move to her new job at Seton Hall.
And what she has done with the Liberty despite her short stay has been very good for Donovan and the franchise. She'll be able to leave the team feeling she gave the Liberty quite a positive boost, which means a great deal to a Jersey girl like Donovan.
She did that in large part by understanding so well how to maximize Pondexter's effectiveness. As soon as the Liberty finalized the deal to get Pondexter from Phoenix, Donovan began to think about all the ways she used to struggle to stop her as an opposing coach.
It also helped that Donovan had coached Pondexter on the 2008 U.S. national team that won Olympic gold. They had already established a trust factor.
The Liberty have been able to get enough contributions from other players that Pondexter hasn't had to feel she's carrying a 50-pound weight every night just some nights.
And in recent weeks, the Liberty have been able to defend well enough to earn some praise from Donovan. But New York will be tested again when it tries to slow down a Dream squad that is champing at the bit to play again.
Atlanta Dream: Fired up again
• Hunger/focus: It's fair to say this is something that has waxed and waned this season for the Dream. Why has that been the case?
Well, it's not that Atlanta lacks very competitive players or leadership. The Dream have those, but they're still a pretty young group. And it's difficult to say how much hunger they can legitimately expect to have.
Only one of the Dream players -- Kelly Miller -- has won a WNBA championship. She did so with Phoenix in 2007. But Miller and her twin, Coco, are also the oldest players on the Dream roster; they'll turn 32 on Monday. So it's not as if there are several Dream players who've had a lot of battle scars and disappointments in the league, the kind of stuff that can make a team more hungry.
That said, McCoughtry has talked a lot about her desire to win a championship, even though she's in just her second season in the league. She went to the NCAA title game with Louisville in 2009, but she doesn't seem to look back at that consolation prize with all that much satisfaction.
The Dream have had stretches this season when they have seemed to have relied on McCoughtry's fierce determination a little too much. That has to come from other sources, too. And in the series sweep of Washington, it did.
Iziane Castro Marques and Sancho Lyttle both played well offensively and defensively. And changes to the starting lineup -- replacing Shalee Lehning and Erika de Souza with Armintie Price and Coco Miller -- ended up breaking down the Mystics.
• Bench: With Kelly battling an ankle sprain -- we'll see whether she'll be able to play on Sunday -- that kept her out of the first round, Coco had to provide all the "Miller time" for the Dream. And she did that very well, with 21 points in the first game against the Mystics and nine in the second.
In the Miller twins and starter Lehning, you have three players who will give maximum effort every second they are on the floor and truly don't let up no matter how much or how little they are asked to do. To have Kelly Miller back in at least some capacity would be very important to the Dream.
Even though she started in the first round, Price was a reserve all season. Regardless of which she does against the Liberty, look to see her provide defensive help and transition-offense contributions.
Also, centers Alison Bales and Yelena Leuchanka will need to come in and help keep the Liberty off the boards as much as possible.
All in all, especially if Kelly Miller is healthy enough to play, the Dream's bench has the ability to really impact this series.
• Style of play: When the Dream have struggled, it has been because Atlanta has inexplicably strayed from its game plan to push the ball or because injuries/foul trouble have forced the team to use its reserves more than coach Marynell Meadors actually wants to.
But in what's expected to be a physical series with New York, it's important that Atlanta has all the reinforcements it can. Atlanta has not been a grind-it-out kind of team, really, but it might be faced with doing that if the Liberty control the pace.
If Atlanta controls it, watch out, New York. The Dream ran over the Mystics even though Washington was the top defensive team during the regular season.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at voepel.wordpress.com.