Since the WNBA abandoned its conference format when it restructured its postseason last year it no longer matters who is in first place in the Eastern or Western Conference. But the Connecticut Sun have enjoyed riding on top of their old Eastern Conference rivals this season, probably because they haven't been the playoffs since 2012 and any title, even an imaginary one, is a good title.
On Wednesday at Madison Square Garden, a morning game that brought a loud collection of campers to the world's most famous arena, the Sun hoped to continue their conference dominance against the New York Liberty.
But it didn't end up well. The Liberty used an explosive third quarter to break open a tight game and hand the Sun a 96-80 loss.
"We always talk about being the aggressor. And they hurt us," Sun coach Curt Miller said. "They pushed tempo and they hurt us in transition. When we got our defense set against their half-court offense we were OK."
Tina Charles led the Liberty (10-9) with 28 points and 17 rebounds, Shavonte Zellous added 16 points, six assists and five rebounds, shooting 11 of 11 from the free throw line. The Liberty were 25 of 26.
The Liberty outrebounded the Sun 48-24, dominating the offensive boards.
"They just didn't let us get to the boards," Sun center Jonquel Jones said. "That was the biggest thing. And we didn't make the shots we usually make. It's been awhile since we played a game like this and we won't read too deeply into it. It's another game, we learn from it, move on and get better. And the next time we step on the court we'll be able to compete."
Jones had 14 points and 10 rebounds for the Sun. Lynetta Kizer added 11 points and Alyssa Thomas scored 10.
And so ends the first half of the season for the Sun (12-9). The WNBA All-Star Game is next in Seattle, where the Sun will send their coaching staff and three players: starters Jones and Jasmine Thomas and reserve Alyssa Thomas.
Jones is one of the top frontcourt players in the league. She and Minnesota's Sylvia Fowles are the only players in the league to average a double-double. Jones is averaging 15.9 points, 11.8 rebounds.
Miller and his staff were named Eastern Conference coaches Wednesday, replacing New York's Bill Laimbeer, whose wife is ill.
The regular season resumes Tuesday when the Sun host Chicago at the Mohegan Sun Arena.
The Liberty carried a 45-41 lead into the second half and used a 13-0 run to expand it to 64-47 with 2:45 to play in the third quarter with eight points from Charles and six from Epiphanny Prince.
The lead grew to 22 (74-52) as nothing the Sun tried in the third quarter seemed to work. With most of their second string on the floor, the Sun did manage to cut the lead to 13 in the fourth. But there wasn't enough time.
"We got to take this little break and regroup and come out strong in the second half," Alyssa Thomas said. "We're playing a tough Chicago team when we get back. "We can't dwell on this. It was a tough shooting night for us from the arc (6 of 20). New York had a good defensive game plan against us. But we'll get back on track.
The Liberty had returned to .500 with an 85-55 victory over the Washington Mystics on Sunday at The Garden. Charles scored just six points with seven rebounds, but the Liberty, averaging just 15 bench points, got 41 from the bench in a season-high 30-point margin of victory.
Point guard Bria Hartley, the former UConn star, helped New York with 15 points on a season-high three three-pointers. Hartley was inserted into the starting lineup at point guard on Sunday, sliding Prince to shooting guard. She had another 10 points on Wednesday.
New York also limited Washington to 27.7 percent shooting, the second time this season the Liberty have held an opponent under 30.0 percent from the field. New York continues to lead the league in defensive field goal percentage (.403).
The Sun had already defeated the Liberty 96-76 at home on June 14 and at the Garden on June 23, 94-89.