The way to win in the WNBA is guard play. In particular the point guard. This position has been a point of contention all season with the committee system a proven failure. Someone had to step up and anoint themselves as the quarterback of this inconsistent offense. Bria Hartley came into this Sunday’s afternoon tilt with the intent to be that woman. The results spoke for themselves as Bria led the New York Liberty (9-8) to an impressive thirty-point demolition over the co-leaders of the Eastern Conference, the Washington Mystics 85-55.
The ways the guards set the tempo was established from the start. The Mystics (11-9) came out trapping and triple teaming the New York post players. This opened up the floor for the guards. The ball moved around the perimeter with precision and in creative ways against a Mystic team without Elena Delle Donne and pushing into transition on every opportunity.
“When you push the ball the defense can’t get set so it opens up holes and opportunities to attack,” said Liberty Head coach Bill Laimbeer.
It started with Hartley as she was aggressive in transition as she took rebound after rebound from Liberty towers Tina Charles and Kia Vaughn and with back arched forward darted into the holes to a team leading 15 points. She took jumpers without hesitation hitting 6 of 10 from the field with three triples from behind the line while displaying a bag of tricks we had not seen displayed to this extent. It was her best game here.
This performance was made possible by a game time adjustment when Bill Laimbeer noticed that the placing of Epiphanny Prince at the point and was not going to give New York the dynamic they were looking for at the one especially with Sugar Rodgers moved back the bench as a strategic reinforcement. He inserted Hartley into the one slot and Rodgers came off the pine scoring 14 points with three treys, an area where she has slipped compared to last years record year in this area. She also grabbed four rebounds and added five assists.
“We don’t get easy baskets because Pip (Epiphanny Prince) isn’t a push guard,” Laimbeer said, “We felt we needed to get more easy baskets and quite frankly Lindsay Allen and Bria Hartley will get us into sets quicker and easier.”
In fact this game was very much a team effort with eleven players getting significant minutes. The Liberty controlled the boards from starters on down. The bench reasserted itself with its old gusto. Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe was back to making impossible shots possible with eight points and four boards. Kiah Stokes looked like her vintage self with ten rebounds and three blocked shots. The Lindsay Allen put on the moves with four points and four assists. Rebecca Allen hit two treys to tally eight points of her own.
The Liberty, on the other hand, did not overlook perimeter defense. Knowing the Mystics like to go for transition threes the New York guards were physical and relentless all night holding Washington to 26% shooting and keeping them from making any kind of run. They harassed Ivory Latta and Kristi Toliver to below-average performances for them.
“They are an unbelievable three ball shooting team especially coming in transition. So it is important that we got in their face at all times,” Laimbeer said, “They are very good front runners. They start draining shots it fuels their fire.”
“We are an elite defensive team. We are number one in field goal percentage against and number one in rebounding,” Laimbeer said, “Those are historically the two statistics you measure yourself by in defense.”
The Liberty are inching up closer to the Eastern leaders nudging Washington and Wednesday morning they face the Connecticut Sun, now leaders of the Eastern Conference. The All-Star game follows as the season has nearly reached its halfway point and despite all the problems New York has encountered, they have hung around.
“We know we have Connecticut staring us in the face and they are playing well,” Laimbeer said, “This was an important win. We need to make a statement that we’re here and not going away.”