It was back in prehistoric times where the Tyrannosaurus Rex and Triceratops engaged in their classic wars of survival to determine who was king and who was dinner. At Madison Square Garden, before 10, 068 hungry fans, the modern version of this battle was renewed in the black painted area, the trenches where only mastodons cruise. Tina Charles was determined to be the alpha female of this land and went after Candice Dupree with a primeval intensity which carried New York to an 81-76 win and a peek above .500.
There is a reason why Charles collects WNBA Eastern Conference Player of the Month awards. She scores points in bunches and collects rebounds with the same gusto. She specializes in double-doubles and she looked like she wanted to make an example of Dupree backing in violently, employing swift spin moves in the post that ended in hooks or short jumpers which included the outside as her game opening three from the corner attested too. She would collect 26 points and seven boards. Dupree (14 points) didn’t back down though hitting long-range bombs from the key providing her answer often.
But when the big dinosaurs wear out, the smaller and swifter prey will play. This was symbolized by Erica Wheeler, who played for the Liberty in 2015 as a rookie, and had the game of her life hitting for a personal high of 33 points. It took a few adjustments for New York to finally hone in on her in the fourth by abandoning the switching strategy they over emphasized and was taken advantage of by Wheeler who shot the lights out earlier but soon saw her assigned defenders stay with her step for step.
“She’s quick and she was shooting the ball so fast it was hard to recover to her, they set a lot of screens and also a lot of switching out there,” said Liberty Head coach Bill Laimbeer, “Our guards get in the habit of switching up too much. They fought over the top quicker and squared quicker.”
The Fever (9-18) made an adjustment as well that finally slowed down Charles by packing in the box with triple teams taking her out of the offense. Charles made the right reads looking to feed cutters but New York did not convert off of these. It caused New York to see a six point halftime lead reduced to one after three quarters and cause them to fall behind Indiana for the first time all game.
“They really condensed the paint in the second half. They took Tina out of the game for a large section there,” said Laimbeer.
It was going to have to be solo playmakers that would decide this outcome and that’s where Shavonte Zellous and Epiphanny Prince thrive. Zellous was pounded to the hard court often by her former team but she made them pay by converting 10 of 11 from the line and finishing with 26 points and eight rebounds. Prince struggled with he shot but she was very active off the dribble and finally in the waning moments of a tie game she hit the money shot that put the Liberty ahead.
Energy. Intent. Desire. These were in full supply as the Liberty (13-12) came out like this game meant the world. Especially the bench who covered for Charles while she rested to fight even (16-16), 13 of which came from Kiah Stokes who finished off every ball that found her.
“I took Tina out early because she was tired. That’s where the bench has to come in and get us quality minutes,” Laimbeer said, “We didn’t play great but we played with enough energy to win the game.”
It was the difference. A look at a 24-year old newbie mother is a portrait of such qualities. Add the word confidence to this set. Though Bria Hartley (13 points) is in excellent condition physically, being in prime basketball shape is another story and any time away keeps an athlete away from peak performance. Hartley is overcoming this as the second act of this season plays on.
“A new team, a new coach, jumping in and out of the starting lineup you fold quickly. Confidence was down” said Laimbeer “Now she’s in tune with what her responsibilities are now and she knows she is going to play quality minutes which takes a load off a athlete’s mind.”
The game however was clinched when the ball was back in Charles hands, up by two and hitting two free throws and grabbing a crucial rebound between three enemy combatants to set the table for the winning run established that she is far from extinct. The total team effort was a surprise to their coach who knew they were coming off a long layoff and poor practices. But now New York will look to build on this going to Atlanta this Friday followed by a Sunday afternoon return to the garden against the defending WNBA Champion Los Angeles Sparks.