Saturday, September 3, 2011

Lynx clinch best record, Liberty secures playoff berth


The atmosphere at Target Center Friday night had an unusual vibe for the Minnesota Lynx contest against the New York Liberty.

Minnesota could not find their shooting form, making 33.8 percent of their field goals in a 78-62 loss. New York's Leilani Mitchell scored a season-high 24 points, banking six three-pointers. Seimone Augustus led Minnesota with 17 points.

"(Minnesota) was worried about Cappie (Pondexter) and Nicole (Powell) and left Leilani open. She's a good shooter," said Liberty head coach John Whisenant.

"We made their defense shift and work. They were so focused on helping the inside, they left our guards to shoot their shots," said Liberty forward Plenette Pierson, who scored 13 points.

From the start, New York (18-13) played with a sense of urgency knowing a win would secure a playoff berth in the Eastern Conference. For Minnesota, a victory or Indiana loss would lock up the first overall playoff seed.

Minnesota (24-7) fought well despite their shooting woes, going up by three with 3:53 remaining in the third quarter, but New York answered with a 15-4 run and never looked back. During that quarter, the public address announcer informed the 8,929 in attendance of Connecticut's 83-55 win over Indiana, giving Minnesota home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.

Knowing the Lynx clinched the best record in the league, combined with a 12-point New York lead with 5:32 in the fourth, head coach Cheryl Reeve took out lone starter Augustus and sent Candice Wiggins in her place. The Lynx reserves played the remainder of the game, giving the impression they were willing to concede a victory to avoid a needless injury among the starters and prepare the bench for the post-season. Throughout the year, Minnesota's reserves were considered a weakness for their inconsistency.

"It was a conscious decision to give them some opportunities to play in a hard game and see what they can do," Reeve said.

Another sporadic talking point among critics this season is Minnesota's perimeter defense. New York made 13 of 26 three-point attempts, finding an open Mitchell or Powell early and often.

"I've been struggling all season, so they keep telling me to keep shooting," Mitchell said

"I thought I brought her backwards. I'm glad to see she's back shooting," Whisenant said.

Reeve described how difficult it was to tell her players their regular season games no longer matter. Minnesota has never faced this scenario in franchise history, and the team was no less dejected about having their six-game winning streak snapped. Clearly, the Lynx would like to win the last three games for confidence, but their aim may be tempered by the long-term outlook as they have already accomplished their regular season goal.

"All the other long-term goals depend on how we play together, so we have to bounce back and put our focus on Sunday," said Lynx forward Maya Moore, who scored 16 points.

While the Liberty can now breathe after punching a post-season ticket, where they will be seeded is far from certain. New York is 1.5 games behind Eastern Conference leader Indiana, one game behind Connecticut for the second seed and one game ahead of Atlanta for the third seed.

"Everybody wants to win, so all the games are going to be intense," Mitchell said.

The Lynx and Liberty meet again Sunday afternoon at Prudential Center.

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