Charles gets plenty of help as Liberty even series with Mystics

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The thing about New York's double-overtime loss to Washington on Friday is it's not as if the Liberty laid a big egg in their playoff opener. They actually played well enough to win, but ... just didn't.

If you were going to parse it down to the specifics of why, you could point to the kind of "little" errors that on their own don't necessarily seem game-changing. But they added all together...

"A good lesson learned in the last game," New York coach Bill Laimbeer said after Sunday's 86-68 victory over the Mystics that evened their Eastern Conference semifinals series 1-1. "Did we play hard Friday? Yes. Did we play focused? Yes. We did not do the little things that win playoff games.

"[The players] knew it. They watched the film; they saw their defensive mistakes. Saw their not-boxing-out mistakes, saw their unforced turnovers and their missed free throws. They knew they had that game and gave it away."

The Liberty -- who host Game 3 on Tuesday (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET) -- from the tipoff Sunday at Verizon Center seemed to be sending the message of, "We'll see you back in New York." It was what you might call a prototypical Liberty victory for the 2015 season: a lot of people contributing around a star performance by Tina Charles.

Admittedly, Charles didn't have the greatest first half, going 2-of-8 for five points. But her teammates were getting a lot done, giving the Liberty a 44-37 lead at the break.

Take starting center Carolyn Swords for instance. She sat out last season rehabbing a knee injury and then signed as a free agent with the Liberty for 2015. She had 10 points and four rebounds in the first half Sunday.

"Carolyn did a great job of setting the tone for what we wanted to do in the paint," Charles said. "She was diving on the floor; if she didn't get the rebound, she got her hand on the ball. She played amazing."

Swords spent her first three WNBA seasons in Chicago and says she had a pretty big learning curve to navigate to play pro ball. But she has done that. She finished Sunday with 12 points and six rebounds. And although a right foot injury sent her to the bench Sunday and is a concern for Tuesday, Swords has a lot of faith in the Liberty.

"I'm very lucky to be on a team with some incredible scorers and really experienced players," Swords said. "So my job is to fill in and do whatever needs to be done, whether that's rebounding or defending or whatever. It's been a lot of fun coming into this group. We've been very committed from the beginning that we wanted to work together and achieve something together."

It was with that mindset the Liberty took the court Sunday. They didn't at all seem nervous about being on the brink of elimination as the East's No. 1 seed. They were pretty businesslike.

Which is not to say we didn't see the passion the Liberty play with at their best, because we did. We saw it in things such as Sugar Rodgers' 15 points, leading the effort of the reserves, who totaled 32.

"Our bench took a little beating last game," Laimbeer said. "And they came ready to play."

We saw it in starter Tanisha Wright, a veteran in her first season in New York, showing fierce determination to strongly close out the first half. Which she did in the last 50 seconds with a turn-the-corner reverse layup, followed by a nice dish to Swords for a basket.

And, of course we saw it in the third quarter when Charles put on her superhero cape and took over the game. She was 8-of-10 from the field for 17 points in that period alone, which put the game firmly in the Liberty's hands. Charles finished with 22 points.

"Tina just took it upon herself," Laimbeer said. "She got hot, and we said, 'OK.' And then 'OK,' some more. Then, 'Keep going, Tina!'

"When she's like that, she's really unstoppable because she has inside/outside presence. You can just see it: She gets in that zone. She's deadeye."

That is pretty much what Charles expects of herself.

"I just played it like it could be my last game," Charles said. "I wasn't satisfied with my performance in the first half, so I just went out after that and gave it my all. I didn't want D.C. to get any daylight, like with what happened in the first game. I knew in order for us to see Tuesday back home, I needed to do that."

So indeed, the Liberty will get another shot at celebrating a playoff win at Madison Square Garden, but this one would be a series clincher. They will remind themselves of what went wrong Friday.

"I felt like we didn't lock down on defensive schemes," Charles said of the first game. "We just didn't do the things we normally do.

"I think this game today was a thank you to our fans, so we're able to go back. I've received so many messages, calls, things on social media from people saying they love the atmosphere at the Garden, and they want to be back Tuesday night. We want to give an even better performance than we did today."