Teresa Weatherspoon had to make the shot. Otherwise, she and her New York Liberty teammates were going home, WNBA runners-up for the second time.
With 2.4 seconds remaining, time to take just two dribbles down the court, Weatherspoon launched the ball a few steps short of the midcourt line. It sailed through the air with a perfect arc, bounced off the backboard and dropped through the net as the buzzer sounded today to stun the Houston Comets, 68-67, and send the best-of-three WNBA championship series to a deciding third game.
The Compaq Center crowd of 16,285 had been poised to celebrate the Comets' third consecutive league title, and confetti was already falling from the rafters. Instead, the teams will meet again here Sunday afternoon.
"Thank God," Weatherspoon said. "When it left my hands, I knew it was good. I was just praying it would go in."
Next to Charlotte Smith's last-second shot that won the 1994 NCAA title for North Carolina, no three-point basket has held more significance recently in women's basketball. Faced with elimination, the Liberty, which lost in the 1997 WNBA finals to Houston, survived for another game by beating the two-time defending champion on its home court -- a feat no other team has accomplished in the playoffs. In fact, Houston had lost at home just eight times in three seasons.
Weatherspoon's improbable shot capped a furious comeback by the Liberty, which trailed by 18 points at one point. Leading the way was guard Crystal Robinson, who led all scorers with 21 points, including a jumper to tie the game with 16 seconds remaining.
Robinson had been stymied by the iron grip of Houston's defense in Game 1, a 73-60 loss in New York, and was unable to find her shooting touch during the first half of this game. But a halftime pep talk by New York Coach Richie Adubato put the shooter back on track.
"I looked at her in the eyes," Adubato said. "She said, `Coach, I'm not really hitting today.' I said, `Crystal, you are a great shooter. Great shooters never stop shooting.' "
So Robinson shot, single-handedly bringing New York back by scoring 16 points during the Liberty's 19-2 run that started the second half. Her three-point basket with 11 minutes 53 seconds remaining gave New York its first lead of the game at 42-40.
Houston's offense was unable to find its rhythm in the second half. The Comets did not make a field goal until Janeth Arcain's layup tied the score at 42 with 11:41 to play.
Arcain's basket began a 6-0 run by the Comets that gave them back the lead. But New York did not go away. Sue Wicks made a pair of free throws to tie the score at 52 with 6:32 left.
With 28 seconds remaining, Houston forward Tina Thompson made one of two free throws to give Houston a 65-63 lead. New York answered with Robinson's 18-foot jumper to tie it at 65 before Thompson banked in a shot with two seconds left on the clock. Her basket appeared to secure Houston's third straight title until Weatherspoon heaved in her 53-footer.
Houston's star guard Cynthia Cooper, who led the Comets with 29 points in Game 1, was held to just three points in the second half and finished with 12.
"That's one of the things we have to correct," Houston Coach Van Chancellor said. "We have to get her more looks at the basket."
Early on, the Comets appeared to be on their way to continuing as the only WNBA champion in the league's three-year history. Just as in Game 1, the Liberty had no answer for Houston's defense. New York made one field goal the first 10 minutes of the game and didn't reach double figures until Sophia Witherspoon made her second free throw attempt with 6:41 remaining until halftime. By then, the Comets held a 17-4 lead.
Box score on Page D16