Tonight was about answering questions as a few New York Liberty players efforts had left much to be desired. They needed to start finding solutions and they started creating the formulas that allowed them to outlast the young and restless Dallas Wings (3-3). At the top of the list was Kiah Stokes, who awoke from a deep sleep this season to produce a monster game on both ends of the court while the guards by committee were the watchtowers of the offense ignited by the once again volatile Shavonte Zellous in New York’s 93-89 victory at Madison Square Garden.
You can point to Tina Charles as the best tonight as she poured in a career-high 36 points along with ten rebounds, the final one coming in a crucial defensive stand with New York leading by two with 25 seconds remaining followed by two crucial free throws to essentially clinch this contest.
“She’s got a lot of quality games under her belt,” Liberty Head coach Bill Laimbeer said, “It was a win we needed and she willed us down the stretch and made some really big baskets. But that’s her job.”
But Tina doesn’t have the reserve energy to do this without the re-emergence of Kiah Stokes, who from the first entry pass of the game showed the aggression and moxie that fatigue from a just-completed European season and extra poundage sapped from the beginning of her WNBA campaign as the new starting center.
“She lost some weight and was very dominant on the inside,” Laimbeer said, “Tonight was a good example of the work she has been putting in.”
She absorbed all the criticism from coaches and teammates to the media and responded with her best game of the year. She put up a double-double consisting of 13 points and 15 rebounds along with 2 blocked shots. She jump started a favorable first quarter as New York led 23-18 and helped drive the Liberty back from a five-point deficit at the half. But the bigs don’t get the 41 points without an improved feeding system and the Liberty utilized three guards in particular to improve possession and mental decisions which contributed to the solid play that kept New York in contention all night even with five Dallas players hitting double-digits.
“One of the big keys was the post-entry passes which tonight was our best effort,” said Laimbeer.
Shavonte Zellous was her animated self again bringing physicality, verbal intimidation to the enemy and teammates alike. On a down night for the foul plagued Sugar Rodgers, Zellous scored 27 points and had 8 rebounds with 4 assists to give Charles the complementary second scorer needed to win games. She put up important numbers in the third quarter that the Liberty won 26-16 taking a five point lead into the fourth. Her slashing drive to draw a foul from nothing with forty seconds remaining and hitting both free throws opened up an 89-84 lead they never relinquished.
“Zellous was phenomenal. We asked more of her the last couple days in practice,” Laimbeer said, “We needed her to step up and look for her shot and she did and the results proved it.”
Bria Hartley looked great at the point tonight showing her athleticism staying with the Dallas guards including hanging in well with Wing leading scorer Skylar Diggins-Smith who hit for 19 points. Hartley had ten of her own but her two threes indicated signs of a total game that if she continues to show may put her at the starting point permanent.
“Bria had a fine showing also,” Laimbeer said, “She had her confidence shaken the last couple of games but came back and worked hard in practice both individually and for the team.”
Lindsay Allen had the talent and was the final cut of this season’s training camp. But Laimbeer kept her in mind and on the ready and she came in with only two practices to show a quick and smart game that allowed her 17 minutes of playing time that was crucial during periods where New York was just trying to stay above water.
“I thought she did well. She showed herself to be an instinctive vision passer,” Laimbeer said.
All around it was a good team effort as defense once again took center stage with New York out rebounding Dallas 43-18 and holding the Wings to 41 percent shooting. They had five blocked shots and numerous stops especially at all the moments Dallas threatened to take the lead back. The Liberty (3-3) held their ground and defended the home court to the last. After all, it’s all that is asked in New York, results notwithstanding.
“We can practice all we want too, but all players and all teams are defined by the beginning. You have to play the game,” Laimbeer said.
The Liberty host the Phoenix Mercury at Madison Square Garden where Diana Taurasi stopped New York in the one-game playoff last season and just broke the WNBA record with eight three pointers tonight. The game will take place at 3pm Sunday.