NEWARK, N.J. — After a slow start, the Atlanta Dream increased their lead late in the first half and then simply ran away from the New York Liberty in the third quarter.
Angel McCoughtry scored 16 points, Erika de Souza had 12 points and 14 rebounds, and the Dream cruised to a 70-57 victory over the Liberty on Friday night.
Tiffany Hayes added 12 points and Alex Bentley had 11 for the Dream (17-13), who won their third straight and moved closer to clinching second place in the Eastern Conference. Atlanta leads Washington, which lost at Connecticut, by three games with four games remaining for both teams.
"It's really important to finish up strong, just to get that momentum for the playoffs and keep the No. 2 spot," McCoughtry said. "We just want to get that confidence going in. We don't want to go in feeling kind of down and losing, so it's really important for that momentum.
After opening the season 12-1, the Dream lost 10 of their next 14. However, Atlanta seems to have straightened things out with its three-game win streak heading into the final stretch that includes a road game against first-place Chicago.
"It's always about the finish," Dream coach Fred Williams said. "The injuries hit us real hard with key players – Armintie Herrington, Tiffany Hayes and Sancho Lyttle, who is not with us. We went through the storms, coveraged through it, stayed in second ... and we're taking that challenge right now to finish strong towards the end."
Kara Braxton scored 17 points before fouling out late in the fourth quarter, Pierson had 12 and Alex Montgomery 10 for New York (11-20), which moved closer to being eliminated from playoff contention.
"It's always the third quarter," Braxton said. "We have trouble with the third quarter. Every time we come out, we come out a little slow. So we're still trying to work on that with the last three games and hopefully we'll correct it and make a playoff push."
After New York pulled within three points on Braxton's layup with 2:20 to go in the second quarter, Le'Coe Willingham and Hayes hit consecutive 3s nearly a minute apart to extend Atlanta's lead to 41-32 with 1:06 remaining.
Aneika Henry's buzzer-beating jumper gave the Dream a 43-36 lead at halftime. McCoughtry then scored six points as Atlanta scored the first 12 points of the third quarter to increase its 19 with 5:20 remaining in the period.
Plenette Pierson's bank shot ended the Liberty's drought 24 seconds later and started New York on an 8-0 run to pull within 11 with 3:20 remaining in the third.
However Atlanta regained control as McCoughtry had a three-point play and Alex Bentley made a jumper to give the Dream a 60-44 lead heading to the fourth quarter. Willingham's jumper in the opening minute of the final period increased Atlanta's lead to 18, and New York got no closer than 11 the rest of the way.
"It was a big win," McCoughtry said. "It's been a long, tough season but this was good to get as we try to get the No. 2 seed. ... (Willingham and Hayes) hit some big 3s to get us some momentum and we got some good shots, but I think mainly our defense was the thing that put us through today.
New York dropped to 3 1/2 games behind both Indiana and Washington for the last two playoff spots in the East. The Liberty needs to win its three remaining games and have either the Fever or Mystics lose their last four to get in the postseason. Both teams play at home against New York in the final days of the season.
"Mathematically we're still in it, but at the same time our straws are running rather thin right now," Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer said. "We're going to go back to practice on Sunday and keep going at it."
The Liberty lost leading scorer Cappie Pondexter to an apparent right knee injury in the opening minute of the second quarter. Pondexter landed awkwardly on a drive to the basket and remained down for several minutes before being helped off the court by trainer Laura Ramus. Pondexter didn't play the rest of the quarter, but returned in the second half.
The Liberty took an early lead, as Braxton had two baskets during a 10-2 run to take a six-point lead with 4:11 to go in the first quarter. The Dream rallied back with a 9-2 spurt to take a 13-4 lead on de Souza's jumper with 2 1/2 minutes left in the period.
After the Liberty tied the score at 15-all on Leilani Mitchell's technical free throw for Atlanta's defensive 3-second violation, the Dream used an 11-3 run to take an eight point lead on Hayes' layup with 7:40 to go in the second quarter.
New York made a push to pull within three points before Atlanta pulled away.