NEW YORK — Tina Charles had 18 points, nine assists and seven rebounds to lead the New York Liberty to an 84-67 victory over the Indiana Fever on Wednesday night in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Playing a day after they advanced out of the first round for the first time in five years, the Liberty didn’t show any signs of fatigue. They scored nine of the first 13 points and never trailed.
Epiphanny Prince, who was just 2 for 12 on Tuesday night, had 17 points against Indiana. Just like in their victory over Washington on Tuesday night, New York’s reserves provided a spark. Rookie Kiah Stokes scored a career-best 21 points, hitting 9 of 11 shots, and Sugar Rodgers added 14 points.
The Liberty had to play back-to-back games because of the Pope’s visit to New York. He’s performing Mass at the Garden on Friday and the building is closed Thursday to prepare for it.
“I don’t like it, but I understand it,” New York coach Bill Laimbeer said about having to play back-to-back. “(It’s the) Pope. … arena availability is tough sometimes.”
Game 2 is Sunday in Indianapolis.
Behind Stokes, Rodgers and Prince, the Liberty built a 26-18 lead after the first quarter. Rodgers capped the period with back-to-back 3-pointers bringing the crowd to its feet. Having less than 24 hours to sell tickets caused New York to have a smaller crowd then the opening round when the team averaged nearly 9,700 fans. Still the group that was at the Garden was loud and supportive.
Indiana hung around in the second quarter as Tamika Catchings, who was scoreless in the opening period had seven points. New York led 48-42 at the half.
The Liberty used their league-best defense to take control of the game in the third quarter. New York held Indiana to just seven points in the period as the Fever made only two baskets. On the offensive end, Rodgers and Prince hit 3-pointers while Charles kept finding Stokes for open lay-ins.
New York led 65-49 heading to the fourth quarter and Stokes and Prince stifled any chance of an Indiana rally. Ahead 68-51, Prince drove in for a layup and went crashing to the floor on a foul by Catchings. Prince made the free throw and gave New York a 20-point lead. Indiana couldn’t get much closer the rest of the way. Charles, who played nearly 40 minutes Tuesday night, left with 3:30 left and the game well in hand.
Shenise Johnson scored 12 points to lead the Fever.
Losing Game 1 is nothing new to Indiana, which dropped the opener of its series with Chicago before winning the next two games.
Indiana was playing in the conference finals for the fifth straight year, matching the WNBA record set by Los Angeles (1999-03) and equaled by Minnesota this season also. New York was making its first appearance in the Eastern Conference finals since 2010.
Carolyn Swords returned to New York’s starting lineup after missing Game 3 with a right foot injury. Laimbeer had said they would be cautious with her and not rush her back. But after taking part in warmups, Swords was back in the lineup and made an immediate impact. She had an offensive tip that led to an easy basket. The 6-foot-6 former Boston College star then had her own layup followed by a cross-court pass that led to a 3-pointer by Prince.
Follow Doug on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/dougfeinberg