By DOUG FEINBERG,
AP Basketball Writer
NEW YORK (AP) -- Bill Laimbeer and his New York Liberty are in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff chase.
With only a few games separating second and sixth place, every game is important. So the veteran coach knows that any loss could be devastating to the team's playoff chances.
New York looked to be cruising to an easy win before a 15-point third quarter lead evaporated and the Liberty had to scramble to hold off Washington 80-76 in overtime in Tuesday night.
"For the win itself, it was a very big win for our franchise," Laimbeer said. "We're trying to catch anybody and everybody in front of us. ... Every win we can get, especially home wins are so important. It would have been very disappointing for us to lose this game."
Sugar Rodgers was a big reason why the Liberty (11-14) were able to pull off the victory. Trailing 73-71 in the extra period, Plenette Pierson made a tying jumper with 2 1/2 minutes left. Rodgers then scored five straight, hitting a deep 3-pointer and a runner to put New York up 78-73 with 1:02 to go.
Bria Hartley, who sent the game into OT with a tying layup with 0.6 seconds remaining in regulation, made a 3 with 56 seconds to go. After Pierson made two free throws with 9.9 seconds left, the Mystics had one more chance. But there was Rodgers, forcing two jump balls in the final seconds to seal the victory.
"We know Sugar can play defense," Laimbeer said. "There's no question about that -- she's a very solid defender and I had her in down the stretch because she's a solid defender."
Tina Charles scored 23 points to lead New York, which has won four of its past five games and now heads out for a key three-game road trip -- all against Eastern Conference teams.
"These games are all important, but we'll take them one at a time," Charles said.
New York looked to be cruising to an easy win. The Liberty led 56-41 with 1:24 left in the third quarter before the Mystics got it going. Ivory Latta hit a 3-pointer to start a 25-10 run and Stefanie Dolson tied the score at 66 with 1:55 remaining. Charles answered with a runner in the lane to give New York the lead. After Washington came up empty on its possession, Anna Cruz hit a jumper from the corner to make it 70-66.
Washington wasn't done as Kara Lawson converted a three-point play with 22.7 seconds left. After New York turned over the inbounds pass, Rodgers stripped Monique Currie and hit a free throw to make it 71-69, setting up Hartley's game-tying shot.
Kia Vaughn had 12 points and 12 rebounds to lead the Mystics (13-14), who saw their four-game winning streak end.
"I hope we learn from it, if we lose this game and learn from it and it makes us better, great," Washington coach Mike Thibault said. "If it doesn't make us smarter, it's a waste."
Washington is still in second place in the Eastern Conference, but with all the teams so tight anything can happen down the stretch.
"Our running joke is that you could not play for three days and go up or down three places in the standings," Thibault said.