Comets Playoff Sideline: Time to Regroup – 8/25/00

With a little over seven seconds left in the game, her team about to lose the opening game of the WNBA Championship, Liberty guard Teresa Weatherspoon walked to the bench. Her body language spoke volumes. “Damn,” it seemed to say. “We had our chance, and couldn’t finish the job.”

In this instance, finishing the job meant defeating the Comets on the Liberty’s home court.

The Liberty had been unable to accomplish that last year, and it had become a driving force through the new season. “Unfinished Business” was the theme, winning a WNBA Championship the goal. Every member of the Liberty had acknowledged that the first step – the essential step – in that journey was to win that first game at home.

Battle Royale

The Comets and Liberty waged a defensive battle all night, a battle that wasn’t decided until the last 20 seconds. It was not “pretty” basketball. It was not even a game fans of the WNBA might want non-fans to watch. Who would want to watch a game where the winning team shot 35.5%?

It was, perhaps, a game only a coach could love.

Comet coach Van Chancellor certainly did. Speaking at the post game press conference his first words were about the defense his team played, and the hard-nosed basketball of the Liberty. “Was that ever a great game,” said Chancellor in admiration of both teams’ effort.

He’d witnessed a battle that was almost a statistical dead heat. And yet, somehow, there were the Comets, victorious again on New York’s home court.

They’d faced a smothering Liberty defense and an emotionally charged crowd of 19,563. They endured the replay of the final seconds of last year’s second Championship game, when Weatherspoon sank an improbable 50-footer at the buzzer to take the series to a third and final game. They even endured the Budweiser “Whassup” guys making video appearances throughout the game, exhorting the crowd to “Make some noise!”

And make noise they did.

It was the sound of a crowd that understood what was a stake and reveled in the history of this wonderful rivalry. It was a sound that battered the soul and body and left everyone exhausted. So much so that at times Chancellor couldn’t hear himself think.

Yet in the end, as so many believed they would, the Comets emerged as the winner.

Missed Opportunities

It was a game the Liberty could have won.

Perhaps Adubato had been prophetic in his pre-game press conference. Satisfied with his offensive and defensive planning, he could only release the game into the Liberty player’s hands. “The burden is on my team. They’ve been prepared, they’re motivated, and now they’ve got to carry the ball.”

But he also admitted that he was superstitious. During his team’s last practice, it seen they made every shot, which made him nervous, so he cut the shooting short and let them only shoot foul shots. Why? Because they’d done the same before the first playoff game against Cleveland–and shot miserably during the game.

Tonight it was deja vu all over again. The Liberty shot even worse than the Comets, a dismal 32.1%.

“We fought them tooth and nail, but we just came up short.” said Adubato after the game. “We came up short on clutch baskets when we needed them. All we needed was one call or make one big basket, and we didn’t do it.” His Comet counterpart agreed. “They just couldn’t get their shots to fall at the right time.”

Instead, it was Cooper, the three-time Finals Most Valuable Player who converted a crucial three-point play with 26 seconds left to seal the game.

“She put a knife in our backs when she hit that baseline,” said Liberty guard Becky Hammon.

Now the question for the Liberty is, “How deep did that knife go?”

Let Go and Let’s Play

The Liberty find themselves with their back up against the wall. Again. The same as last season when they were down one game to none twice, against Charlotte and the Comets. The same as they did this past series, down a game against Cleveland.

All three times they were able to battle back and push the series to a third game. But, can they recover emotionally from all they invested into winning this first game? Can they take two games from the Comets in Houston, a venue the Comets have lost in just once in their quest for three Championships?

Weatherspoon, the team’s emotional leader, knows they can’t allow this loss, however disappointing, to get them down. “You do,” she says, “you walk into that arena in Houston, and you’re dead. It didn’t happen, so we gotta go and make it happen. We gotta believe in the impossible, when no one else does.”

Liberty center Tari Phillips, the team’s scoring leader, knows that all season the Liberty has turned stumbling blocks into stepping-stones. As she looks towards Saturday, she is more determined than ever.

“I think I speak for my teammates as well as myself that we are determined to go — it doesn’t matter that we are going to Houston. The court is the same and the baskets are the same. We just don’t have our awesome crowd, but I think they will be there with us in spirit. We are going to go there and just try to take it to them.”

Coach Adubato also tried to strike a positive note.

“We went down there and won last year, so we know we can win down there. Any time you can get a series to a final game, you never know what will happen. If we can win one game down there and take it to the final game you never know. That is why basketball is such a great game.”

It may be a great game, but the Liberty is facing a Comet team, lead by Cynthia Cooper, a player who says she’s on a mission because “that’s what a professional athlete does at this time of the year – elevate her game.”

Whether the Liberty can elevate their game and their heart will be seen this Saturday. Only time will tell if the business of the 2000 WNBA season is done.

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