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Liberty Sail Into WNBA Finals

The New York Liberty made this first-half knockout stick.

Tari Phillips and Crystal Robinson combined for 18 points during an early 30-2 run as the New York Liberty beat the Cleveland Rockers 81-67 on Monday night to advance to the WNBA finals for the third time in four years.

In Sunday's second game of the Eastern Conference finals, New York jumped out to a 24-7 lead after a 19-0 run, but had to hold on to earn a five-point victory.

"We knew that they could make a comeback," captain Teresa Weatherspoon said. "We didn't want to come out and have the same second half that we had yesterday."

The Liberty will face the Houston Comets for the WNBA title.

"We were very proud of ourselves because of what we had to go through the entire season with nobody believing in us and here we are again," Weatherspoon said. "We're very happy with what we've accomplished, but we haven't accomplished anything yet our ultimate goal."

The best-of-three series opens Thursday night at Madison Square Garden, where the Liberty have won 13 straight games. Game 2 and Game 3, if necessary, will be played in Houston.

The Comets, the only champion in the league's four-year history, beat New York in the one-game final in 1997 and again last year in the last game of a three-game series.

"We began this season with a slogan that we had unfinished business that we had to do because last year we came up short one game," Liberty coach Richie Adubato said. "Now we have an opportunity to continue toward our goal."

After New York's Becky Hammon and Cleveland's Suzie McConnell Serio traded 3-pointers to open the scoring, Phillips scored 10 points and Robinson added eight as the Liberty shot out to a 33-5 lead with 8:57 left in the first half.

"Basketball is made up of a game of runs and the team that is able to stop the runs is the team that wins," said New York forward Tamika Whitmore, who led all scorers with 19 points. "I think they let our run go a little too long. They got in a hole they couldn't dig themselves out."

Vickie Johnson, playing on a sore right ankle that she injured Sunday, added 14 points and 10 assists.

McConnell Serio had 13 points in her final game. The 34-year-old mother of four announced that she would retire following the season. She left with 1:10 remaining and received hugs from her coaches and teammates as the crowd gave her a large ovation.

"I was disappointed that we didn't make it to the finals," McConnell Serio said. "That was my dream of ending my career in the WNBA championship games. I was very proud of this team with the slow start that we had in the first half, we never quit until the final buzzer."

Merlakia Jones also had 13 points for the Rockers.

Chasity Melvin, Cleveland's third-leading scorer in the playoffs, picked up four fouls in the first eight minutes and only had thre points.

Cleveland, which won the opener of the Eastern Conference finals at home, rallied for the second straight game but again couldn't overcome a big deficit.

The Rockers trailed 46-27 at halftime and scored the first six points of the second half to get within 46-33 with 17:04 left. But Whitmore and Johnson had four points each during a 10-0 run as New York extended the lead to 56-33 at 14:12.

McConnell Serio hit a 3-pointer with 5:42 left to make it 67-52 and start another Cleveland run. Rushia Brown followed with a layup and McConnell Serio made another jumper to cut it to 67-56 with 5:07 left.

After Whitmore bulled inside for the Liberty, McConnell Serio hit another 3-pointer to make it 69-59 with 2:59 left. Hammon scored six points in the final three minutes as New York closed out the victory, punctuated by confetti and fireworks.

©2000 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed

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