Both teams got what they were looking for.
Leilani Mitchell scored 24 points, hitting six 3-pointers, and New York clinched a playoff spot with a 78-62 win over Minnesota on Friday night.
Cappie Pondexter added 13 points and seven assists for the Liberty (18-13), who sit in third place in the crowded Eastern Conference standings. Plenette Pierson scored 13 points and grabbed seven rebounds in helping New York break the Lynx’s six-game win streak.
“We’ve been fighting for a playoff spot since the season started,” Pierson said. “For us, this is just another game. We just need to go out and play our game and not worry about the race.”
Minnesota clinched the WNBA’s best record despite the loss. Connecticut beat East-leading Indiana 83-55 earlier, meaning the Lynx (24-7) will have home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
“It’s a dejected locker room,” Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve said. “Kind of weird. You know, you clinch the best overall record and get No. 1, and I’ve got towels over heads and we’re dejected. That’s a great sign because they want to win every game they play. They’ve got a great deal of pride. It was hard to tell them the game didn’t matter because it mattered a lot to them.”
Mitchell hit four 3-pointers in the first half and scored 14 points, helping New York take a 38-33 lead at the break.
As they’ve done all season, the Lynx started their comeback in the third period with Moore giving Minnesota the lead, but New York didn’t fade.
Pierson hit a pair of jumpers and Pondexter added a 3-pointer as the Liberty ended the third on a 15-4 run and eventually led by as many as 18 points in the fourth.
The third quarter has been Minnesota’s best period this season, with the Lynx averaging 25.1 points and outscoring opponents by 4.9 points. Friday night marked only the fourth time this season the Lynx trailed entering the fourth quarter.
Pondexter shot just 4 of 17 from the field, but made sure there would be no second-half comeback for Minnesota.
She scored eight of her 13 points in the second half for New York, which is one game behind second-place Connecticut (19-12) and one game ahead of Atlanta (17-14) in the East.
“I don’t know that the East is the toughest, but its certainly the most compact,” Liberty coach John Whisenant said. “It’s just according to which night they play who’s the best team. It’s been that way nearly all year. I can see it being that way in the playoffs. There’s somebody not going to be make it, but it’s not going to be us.”
Mitchell’s big game might be just what the Liberty need as they fight for playoff position. Mitchell led the league in 3-point shooting last season at 48.6 percent, but she had struggled to find her shooting stroke recently. In the past five games, she was just 4 of 19 from beyond the arc and 4 of 24 total.
“My teammates are always behind me and telling me, ‘Keep shooting. They’ll fall,”’ Mitchell said. “That kind of loosens me up and gets me to keep firing away. So I was glad to help out that way today.”
The Lynx shot 33.8 percent despite entering the game shooting 46.0 percent, the second-highest mark in the WNBA.
The teams are playing a home-and-home series this weekend and will shift to Newark, N.J., for a game Sunday.
“We want to win every game we play in,” Reeve said. “It’s hard to tell your players that a game you’re going to play in doesn’t matter, but it doesn’t matter. … When you clinch with games remaining it is difficult because you risk kind of losing that rhythm, that bounce in your step.
“At the same time, the playoffs are what matters.”