Cynthia Cooper backpedaled down the court after her three-pointer swished through the net, raising both arms, extending her left index finger and making a fist with her right hand.

There was no question who was in her heart and on her mind tonight: Kim Perrot, her former teammate who had died of cancer Aug. 19, has been Cooper's inspiration throughout the playoffs.

Once again, Cooper put aside her grief for another night. She scored 29 points to lead the two-time defending champion Houston Comets to a 73-60 win over the New York Liberty before 17,113 at Madison Square Garden in the first game of the WNBA Finals.

"That's why we try to put her hands on the ball," Houston Coach Van Chancellor said. "I'd be dumb if I didn't."

Cooper, the two-time WNBA most valuable player, continued to show how she can dominate a game. She did not win the league's most valuable player award this year -- that honor went to Sacramento's Yolanda Griffith. However, it would be difficult to deny how crucial she is to Houston's success.

After reserve guard Sophia Witherspoon, who led the Liberty with 18 points, sank a three-pointer to cut the Comets' lead to 38-35 with 13 minutes remaining, Cooper was the one who brought Houston back.

Witherspoon's basket capped a 15-3 run by New York, which had been fueled by Liberty Coach Richie Adubato's technical foul. Adubato had complained vehemently about the officiating throughout the game.

Cooper, who has been instrumental in leading Houston toward its third title, sensed her team needed a lift. She scored 10 of the Comets' next 12 points to extend their lead to 51-41. That run essentially broke New York's spirit.

"I felt at that point I needed to step it up offensively," Cooper said. "I really had been trying to pass the ball and get my teammates involved. . . . [When] they came within three points, I felt I had to step it up."

Houston controlled the game from the opening tip, surging to a 12-3 lead. Ironically, as dominant as the Comets have been in the league, they have not fared well at the Garden. They came into tonight's game with a 2-3 all-time record in the building, including a 74-71 loss to the Liberty Aug. 8.

But the Liberty could not overcome its anemic offense in the first half. New York made one field goal in the first eight minutes, and just 25.9 percent of its shots in the first 20 minutes.

"We weren't as aggressive as we were in the Charlotte [Eastern Conference final] series," New York guard Teresa Weatherspoon said. "I think that was a huge difference for us, especially myself. I wasn't as aggressive, going more to the hole."

Much of the Liberty's poor shooting could be attributed to Houston's defense. Comets forward Sheryl Swoopes was particularly aggressive.

"She was more physical tonight than she has been in three years for us defensively," Chancellor said. "I thought tonight we were as strong defensively as I've seen the Comets play in a long, long time."

Witherspoon came off the bench to pump some life into New York's offense in the first half. She broke the Liberty's five-minute scoring drought with a layup to cut Houston's lead to 10-5. She followed Crystal Robinson's only three-pointer of the half with a three-point basket of her own. Her back-to-back layups pulled New York within four points of Houston's 22-18 lead.

Adubato complained after the game that his team had not been given a fair shot by the officials.

"The game would have been a two- or three-point game if we could have gotten any kind of break on the whistle tonight," he said. "When we took the ball to the basket and we pounded it inside, which is what you have to do to counteract that defense, we never, never got a foul shot."

Forward Tamika Whitmore agreed with her coach.

"They were just letting us murder each other out there," she said. "Some of us should probably be doing five to 10 [years] now."

The series shifts to Houston for Game 2 on Saturday. The Comets have never lost a playoff game at Compaq Center and have won 14 consecutive home games.