Sun 77

(15-15, 7-9 away)

Liberty 66

(14-15, 8-6 home)

    7:30 PM ET, September 10, 2004

    Madison Square Garden, New York, NY

    1 2 3 4 T
    CONN 42 35 77
    NY 31 35 66

    Liberty slip to a half-game back

    NEW YORK (AP) -- Rookie Lindsay Whalen upstaged the New York Liberty at Radio City Music Hall.

    Whalen had a career-high 21 points on 8-of-9 shooting and the Connecticut Sun moved into a tie for first place in the Eastern Conference with a 77-66 victory over the Liberty on Friday night.

    The Sun (15-15) are tied with Charlotte for the top spot. Indiana, which was tied for first, lost to San Antonio and dropped into a tie for third with New York.

    "We all know it's the last week and every game is huge for us," Whalen said. "We've got to treat these like playoff games."

    Nykesha Sales added 19 points and six rebounds for Connecticut, which shot 53 percent.

    Becky Hammon scored 17 points, and Crystal Robinson added 16 points as the Liberty (14-15) fell out of a tie for the conference lead with their third straight loss.

    It marked New York's first loss in four games at the famed music hall.

    The Sun's record against conference opponents is 12-5.

    "We own the tiebreaker over every team except Charlotte," Connecticut coach Mike Thibault said. "We have the tiebreaker over New York now, which is huge."

    New York, which trailed 42-31 at the break, used five straight points by Hammon to close within 50-49 with just under 15 minutes left. With the Liberty trailing 56-53, Robinson was called for a flagrant foul on Whalen, sending her sprawling under the basket after a fastbreak layup attempt.

    "It was a hard foul, but she went for the ball," Whalen said. "I landed on my ribs and got the wind knocked out of me."

    Whalen converted 1-of-2 free throws and had a brief stint on the bench with 11:08 left. Jumpers by Taj McWilliams-Franklin and Debbie Black pushed the Sun's lead to 61-53.

    Hammon's layup pulled New York within seven points with eight minutes left, but a 3-pointer by Whalen two minutes later extended the lead to 68-58.

    Thibault liked the composure of Whalen, the No. 3 pick in the draft.

    "When she was laying on the floor, I said, 'Welcome to playoff basketball.' She showed great poise at the end."

    New York never got closer than seven points in the final minutes. The Liberty had 17 turnovers, which the Sun converted into 21 points.

    "Defensively, we're not executing the way we know we can," Hammon said. Turnovers down the stretch hurt us. We were in a position to comeback, and we let it slip away."

    Midway through the first half, the Sun went on a 9-0 run, capped by Asjha Jones' turnaround jumper, to take a 21-19 lead. After two free throws by Elena Baranova, the Sun went on an 8-0 run that included four points by reserve Le'coe Willingham and extended the lead to 29-21 with 5:19 left.

    Robinson's 3-pointer stopped the 17-2 outburst.

    Hammon dropped in a fastbreak layup to pull the Liberty within 32-28, but the Sun closed the half with a 10-3 run.

    Connecticut shot 59 percent in the first half. Whalen had 12 first-half points on 5-for-6 shooting.

    Playing their second game in as many nights, the Liberty shot 42 percent and were outscored 40-28 in the paint.

    Only 1½ games separate the last-place team from the first-place team in the East.

    "This race is far from over," New York coach Patty Coyle said. "One day you can be in first and one day you can be in last. We just have to regroup and we will."

    Copyright by STATS LLC and The Associated Press