Liberty Move On With, 79-74, Win Over Mystics

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The Liberty avoided an upset with a 79-74 win over the Washington Mystics on Tuesday night, securing a spot in the Eastern Conference Finals.

“It’s never easy,” said Bill Laimbeer, the 2015 WNBA Coach of the Year. “I tell our players that no matter what your record is, no matter what your seed is, it’s never easy. We made the right plays at the right time, got some people to step up at the right time, made some shots and won the ballgame. They could’ve easily won the ballgame too. That’s how tight the eastern conference is, that’s how tight the entire league is right now.”

Leading by three in the final seconds, Kiah Stokes got a piece of Ivory Latta’s three-point attempt to save the day. “I wanted to make sure I wasn’t the one that gave up the open three,” Stokes said.

It was fitting that the deciding play came on the defensive end. “That’s who we are. That’s what we talk about,” Laimbeer said. “We score points, yeah we can score some points at times but if we don’t defend then we’re not going to win.”

Stokes scored eight points and collected 13 rebounds in 30 minutes off the bench. It was a nice line after a slow start. “She was a deer in headlights,” Laimbeer said. “She was not existent at all. I was on her, the trainer was on her, the players were on her. She’s a much better player and competitor than she was showing in the first five minutes of that basketball game.”

Stokes, who gave New York the lead with a lay-up with under two minutes to play, grabbed five offensive rebounds. “It’s one thing I could do offensively, if I’m not scoring a lot I can get offensive rebounds. Just because they’re big doesn’t mean that they are going to get rebounds.”

Also helping off the bench were Sugar Rodgers, who scored 20 points including 10 free throws, and Candice Wiggins scored 12 points. “I thought the difference in the game was their bench comes in and basically played better than their starters,” said Washington coach Mike Thibault. “They had 40 points off their bench. Sugar Rodgers is good, Wiggins was good, Kiah Stokes was good.”

Star forward Tina Charles scored 22 points and hauled in 12 rebounds while playing all but four seconds. “Tina thrives in pressure. She loves it. She’ll have her moments in the game where she misses a bunch of shots at times when she loses focus. When it comes down to game on the line, you saw, who got all the big rebounds today? Tina Charles. Who did some great deep rotations to stop some plays? Tina Charles, as well as Stokes, but this is the best that Tina’s played defensive-wise in her whole career.”

Washington led by double-digits in the first quarter, New York came back to take an eight point lead into halftime and then a strong third quarter by the Mystics sent the deciding game into the fourth quarter tied at 57.

On New York’s most important possession, Epiphanny Prince hit a jumper on a broken play with the clock running down to extend the lead to 77-74 with 20 seconds left. It was only the second field goal in 12 attempts for Prince. “She was one-for-11 and she was not looking to shoot, I’m like ‘come on, she has to shoot’”, Laimbeer said. “I don’t care if she’s one-for-20, she’s the best offensive player we’ve got from the perimeter.”

“I didn’t know that the play was broke and I know that when the game is on the line coach wants for me or Tina to shoot the ball,” Prince said. “There was some hesitation but at that point when the game is on the line, I can’t think about that. My coach and my teammates were trying to tell me they had confidence in me and to keep shooting.”

Comparisons are always made between the 1989 Pistons and whatever team Laimbeer is coaching, in this case a New York squad with the league’s best record. “They both have great mental toughness and great internal leadership in the locker room,” Laimbeer said. “Other than that they’re vastly different. Detroit was big and physical and bullied you, this is more of a skill team, they do it by execution. The one thing the two teams have in common: number in defense, number one in rebounding.”

The Liberty will begin the Eastern Conference Finals on Wednesday against Indiana.

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