It started off as a showdown between two former Connecticut Huskies with six NCAA championships between them and former WNBA number one draft picks. Tina Charles (New York Liberty) and Breanna Stewart (Seattle Storm) dueled all night and though Charles was out scored by Stewart, her deputies won the contest while another former Huskie, Kiah Stokes, bounced back from a slow start to hit clutch points down the stretch to help New York (6-3) win 94-86 against the Storm at Madison Square Garden for their fourth straight win.
Tina Charles, the 2010 WNBA number one pick, had to carry the load of two as her rebounding partner, Kiah Stokes numbers dropped dramatically after two straight excellent games. Tina was the go-to force for three quarters. But with 36-year old legend Sue Bird, the last link to the championship years in Seattle, torching New York for 21 points and Breanna Stewart, 2016 WNBA number one pick, with a team-leading 23 points, the Liberty barely held on to a five point lead at the half.
“We made some defensive mistakes throughout the whole game we had to cleanup but we’re getting better,” Liberty Head coach Bill Laimbeer said.
Charles was well on her way to her fourth double-double of the season (21 points, 14 rebounds) but needed more help to off-set this Storm juggernaut who also got 19 points from Jewell Loyd, the 25th straight game she reached 10+ points. Charles got it from four players, Sugar Rodgers, Shavonte Zellous, and Bria Hartley contributing double digit nights. Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe brought her ten point, six rebound effort off the bench making it five players to reach a scoring double. Each one had their moments and they came at random points of the contest. That’s the evidence of a deep and talented team.
“She (Raincock-Ekunwe) has the physical tools to play in this league,” Laimbeer said, “She has a quality shot from the perimeter in practice but in a game she has to be confident so we can use that in our game also. She’s coming into her own.”
“We’re just resilient,” Charles said, “I told everyone to play this game like it was their last. I told them to go out and create good habits.”
A few players responded to this challenge. Sugar Rodgers, tied for the team lead with 21 points with five assists, three steals, two rebounds and three blocked shots, one which closed out the first half. Sugar showed she has many ways to contribute and is working to see that trickle down towards the others.
“We were just able to get defensive stops at the end, we still have a lot of things to work on,” Rodgers said, “Little things like offensive rebounding and boxing out, key things that will get us to the playoffs and to a championship.”
Bria Hartley had a solid game, perhaps her best as a Liberty player scoring ten points along with three assists from the point. Though Bill Laimbeer still feels she passes on too many shots. But with only eight turnovers it may not be a bad thing that she is not over reaching.
“Her (Hartley) overall game is a positive,” Laimbeer said, “She’s a better shooter than she’s showing. Her confidence has to grow.”
Shavonte Zellous can score whenever she puts a mind to it. She tallied 16 points this evening demonstrating once again that she does not need to step in the shadows here. In fact, Laimbeer prefers the scoring Zellous he drafted when he was in Detroit. Her three pointer from the corner that tied the game at 83 with under three minutes to play and transition layup off a Sugar intercept cemented the game throwing off the notion that she is a sidekick only. “
“She’s just never really taken it upon herself over the years,” Laimbeer said, ”For whatever reasons she is always taking a backseat but I think right now she knows that would be detrimental to her team. So she’s contributing mightily.”
But it was Kiah Stokes, who was moribund for most of the game who showed why you never put your head down even if things are not going your way. Her drive to the hole drew the fifth and final foul from Stewart, sitting her down for the remainder of the fourth. Then Stokes put one back in to open a three point gap with around a minute to play as she rallied to finish her score line with eight points, six rebounds and three blocked shots.
“Her primary goal is to play defense and rebound, “ Laimbeer said, “I expect a double-double damn near every night because she plays the majority of the minutes.”
Bill Laimbeer is honest that much has to be done but is happy with the results. A home stand that saw New York take four of five with all wins happening without Epiphanny Prince and Kia Vaughn has to be encouraging.
“I’d take it all day long,” Laimbeer said, “You just don’t know what’s going to happen when you lose players like that.” The Liberty take to the road to play the Connecticut Sun on Wednesday June 14th at Mohegan Sun Arena at 7pm.