NEW YORK – The Atlanta Dream shook off any ill effects of a nine-day layoff and showed why they topped the Eastern Conference for most of the season.
Angel McCoughtry scored 13 of her 21 points in the fourth quarter, leading the Dream to an 81-75 victory over the New York Liberty in the opener of the best-of-three conference finals Sunday night.
"The Atlanta Dream just refused to lose tonight," coach and general manager Marynell Meadors said. "(We) played well. We showed a few of the effects of possibly that layoff between games, but I thought we really fought hard."
Sancho Lyttle had 18 points and 13 rebounds, and Erika DeSouza added 12 points and 11 rebounds for the Dream, who scored the final seven points over the last 45 seconds.
Atlanta, playing for the first time since finishing a first-round sweep of Washington on Aug. 27, led the East before losing six of their last seven and finishing fourth.
"If we had stayed on top, we probably would have played a team that gave us a little bit of trouble at the beginning," Lyttle said. "But we came out, fought and we had a hunger. We needed to get back where we started. We were like 'we can't believe we were first and then we almost didn't make it.'"
Game 2 is Tuesday night in Atlanta, with Game 3, if necessary, back at Madison Square Garden on Thursday. The winner will advance to the WNBA finals against Seattle, which beat Phoenix 91-88 on Sunday to complete a sweep in the West finals.
Atlanta, which led the league in rebounding, finished with a 40-28 edge on the boards against New York. The Dream also outscored the Liberty 50-34 in the paint, and had 22 second-chance points — to just seven for New York.
"We found ways to be big, and I thought Sancho Lyttle was definitely a huge factor in our success tonight," Meadors said. "We have to look back at the way we built the Atlanta Dream. It's built on speed, quickness, depth and balance."
Cappie Pondexter scored eight of her 24 points in the final 4½ minutes, and her two free throws put the Liberty ahead 75-74 with under 55 seconds remaining, but they didn't score again.
Plenette Pierson had 18 points, and Nicole Powell added 15 for New York, which played again without leading rebounder Janel McCarville (sprained left ankle).
"I don't know what our mindset was coming into the game, but I don't think it was aggressive enough," Pondexter said. "Atlanta did a great job of just coming out with energy because sometimes when you have too many days off you come out really flat, but they didn't."
After Pondexter's go-ahead free throws, McCoughtry — who scored 12 straight points for the Dream down the stretch — made two from the line to put Atlanta back ahead by one with 44.2 seconds left.
"Angel is that type of player," Meadors said of the second-year forward who was rookie of the year last season. "She's been that way her entire career, which is short in the WNBA. ... When she was at the University of Louisville, she put them on her back ... and I thought she did a lot of that tonight."
Castro Marques' fastbreak layup made it 78-75 13 seconds later. McCoughtry made 1 of 2 from the line with 25.2 seconds left, Lyttle rebounded her miss on the second shot, was fouled and made both free throws to seal the win.
"We have all these situations (in practice) ... You're down by one point, 20 seconds left, what are you going to do?," Lyttle said. "Tonight it was the same thing. When I looked up and I saw, it was, 'OK, we were (up) by four points, if we get this rebound it's going to be over. That's all you needed to do, just go and get it.' And so it happened it ended up in my hands."
The Dream used a 15-4 run bridging the third and fourth quarters to take a 60-57 lead on Castro Marques' layup in the opening minute of the final period.
Powell's third 3 of the game pulled the Liberty to 64-63 with 7:45 to go.
McCoughtry then made four free throws in a 45-second span to increase Atlanta's lead to five.
Pondexter's three-point play with 3:11 to go cut New York's deficit to one again, 72-71.
Powell hit a 3 in the final minute of the second quarter to start an 11-0 run, capped by a 3 from Leilani Mitchell that gave the Liberty a 47-44 lead with 8:12 to go in the third.
Pierson hit a 3 and then had a layup to make it 52-45.
Lyttle scored six points as the Dream came back slowly the rest of the quarter, outscoring New York 11-4 and tying it at 56 on her layup with 1:12 to go in the third.