Unlikely stars help lift Liberty, Silver Stars to conference finals

We know Essence Carson's story well, of course: A top scholar, a music virtuoso, her late grandmother's golden child, the voice of immeasurable dignity for Rutgers in the circus that program had to endure after the 2007 Final Four. But what about Edwige Lawson-Wade? Oh, dear. We don't know much.

But they are alike in this: The playoffs are the time when players can unexpectedly become MVPs for a game when it really matters most. And both Carson and Lawson-Wade did that Monday when two of the first-round series came to exciting ends as New York and San Antonio won and will advance.

New York, which nearly closed out its series against Connecticut on Saturday, did not allow its second chance to pass by. The Liberty won 66-62 at Connecticut, playing strong defense and making the clutch plays that the Sun didn't.

One of the biggest plays came from Carson, who looked so confident by the fourth quarter that it was no surprise at all to see the ball in her hands late. With 23 seconds left, she drove from the top of the key and scored, giving the Liberty a 63-60 edge. Carson finished with 15 points on 7-for-9 shooting. Shameka Christon (13 points) and Janel McCarville (12) also were essential parts of the Liberty's victory.

As for San Antonio, which had the league's best regular-season record, sloppy play at the end of regulation almost cost the Silver Stars dearly. But they got it together in overtime, beating Sacramento 86-81.

Sophia Young had a monster game inside, scoring 27 points for the Silver Stars. But San Antonio wouldn't have been able to escape the Monarchs without the 13 points, six rebounds and four assists that Lawson-Wade provided in nearly 30 minutes off the bench.

It so happened I was chatting with a prominent coach Monday morning who said, "You know, a lot for San Antonio tonight might come down to, um … oh, you know. The guard with two last names. Hold on, it will come to me. You know who, right?"

Then the coach suddenly remembered: "Yes! Lawson-Wade!"

I confess when I think of her, I'm reminded of the old "Saturday Night Live" skits about the Coneheads, in which the actors would say in their robotic monotone, "We're from France."

Because that's one thing we do know: Lawson-Wade is from France.

She's also 29 years old, has played many seasons overseas -- starting her professional career when she was a teenager -- has made appearances for the Liberty, Comets and Storm, has provided a much-needed boost for the Silver Stars at times this season … and is the only person named "Edwige" I can ever remember hearing about. Well, I think that about exhausts my readily-available ELW stash of information.

At any rate, the Silver Stars needed a perimeter player other than Becky Hammon to do some damage Monday, and Lawson-Wade obliged. San Antonio avoided what would have been a tough-to-live-with loss by regaining control in the overtime.

The Silver Stars almost saw the game slip away despite holding a 7-point lead with 1 minute, 49 seconds left. The lowlight play was Vickie Johnson and Hammon getting mixed up on an inbounds pass which Ticha Penicheiro snared for an easy layup. Everyone had to be wondering how on earth such a ding-a-ling mistake could happen to VJ and Hammon, of all people, considering they've been pro teammates for centuries now.

But it did, and it forced the Silver Stars to get their heads together for the overtime. Still, some major praise goes to coach Jenny Boucek and the Monarchs, who almost won this series despite having their top post player, Rebekkah Brunson, out with an injury.

The Silver Stars have a few days now to try to get everyone in the same urgent mind-set for the Western Conference finals, which is necessary because it didn't seem like San Antonio was really playing with as much fire as the Monarchs did -- until it was almost too late.

As for Carson, like most rookies she had some adjustment difficulties earlier in the season. But Monday, she looked like the player who so often took control of things for Rutgers.

The Liberty are a young team, but they are also a group that has some very sharp basketball minds no matter their age. You get the feeling, when watching New York, that everyone really understands where they are supposed to be all the time, what the best passing angles are, what to give up on defense, etc.

As for Connecticut, I think the Sun overachieved to get to the position of being disappointed by a first-round exit. Coach Mike Thibault wouldn't say that, of course, but consider how many changes from last year on this team he had to deal with, and that he also had Olympic duties as an assistant coach for the U.S. team.

Throughout the game, the Sun seemed uncomfortable on offense. Connecticut ended up shooting just 33.8 percent from the field and a horrid 15 percent (3 of 20) from behind the arc.

This contest also was a case of a team really benefiting from experience. Last year, the Liberty had two very good chances to beat Detroit on the road and win that series, but couldn't make big plays at the ends of those games. This year, though, the Liberty did.

Carson said afterward the win-or-be-done nature of Game 3 obviously reminded her of the NCAA Tournament experiences she has had. Sure enough, the game had that March Madness kind of feel to it, and it was easy to imagine Scarlet Knights fans smiling and yelling through it all.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.