The final regular season game of the New York Liberty 2017 WNBA season was also “Fan Appreciation Night.” This game was a recipe for an upset. The San Antonio Stars (7-26) on paper was easy pickings. There are those who by their absence implied that with a playoff spot and bye secured that this was just another game, not as important as say, the U.S. Tennis Open currently playing a borough away. Luckily the Liberty (21-12) didn’t feel this way as they took this as a “Plum” assignment. They now take a nine-game winning streak into Dallas to close matters before getting some well-earned rest before their September 10th playoff game with a workmanlike 81-69 win.
Say what you will about the Liberty deficiencies which were reflected in their losses, but there are reasons why the New York fans cheer John Starks and Larry Johnson, formerly of the New York Knicks, who never won a championship and were in attendance. There is a reason Tina Charles charity Hopey’s Heart Foundation, which incidentally she donates half her salary to, is cheered with every success story. It’s because they care and play and live to the limits and New York responds to that.
It’s how the Liberty turned a lost season into another twenty- plus win season and playoff appearance. It was a defensive tenacity borne from the heart and when the offense is off its game like tonight, they make up for it by holding teams down to a 37% percent shooting during the streak. Tonight was different as San Antonio did better (41%) with former Liberty Alex Montgomery and 2017 WNBA number-one pick Kelsey Plum in the lineup. New York showed again why they led the league in shooting defense and rebounding.
“We play defense. It’s where we hang our hat, and rebounding collectively as a group,” said Liberty Head Coach Bill Laimbeer.
Plum, though having problems being integrated properly in the lineup but leading all rookies in assists and free throw percentage, was a problem throughout as she hit for 18 points and four assists which kept the Stars in shouting range all night. But the Stars appeared to ignore her late in the game.
Having a target on your back. It’s been difficult but I think it’s going to make me a stronger player and person,” Plum said.
But it was the Liberty big three veterans who were the architects of another win.
Tina Charles started heating up. A player who collects 27 Eastern Conference player of week awards in a career and six this year while ranking second in WNBA in scoring is an automatic bet to start smoking the basket which she did to the tune of 16 points along with eight rebounds.
Playing the sensational sidekick to Charles was Epiphanny Prince, whose averaging 13 points while hitting half her threes continued filing the nets tonight with 16 points, six boards and four assists. It’s not been an easy road for Prince in 2017.
“It’s been an up and down year for her (Prince). She came in late and then went away,” Laimbeer said, “Trying to run the one and split time with Sugar. She’s looking to be more aggressive offensively, is comfortable with her shot, and playing good defense. Overall it’s been a good situation for her.”
Shavonte Zellous rounds out the big three as the team‘s second leading scorer while enjoying career highs in rebounding and assists with a double-digit scoring night as all three where sufficient to hold off Plum.
“There’s not a player on this team that’s living in a selfish moment,” Zellous said, “Each and every game you can look at the box score and see someone else scoring.”
And often it’s the Liberty bench that is scoring from various sources. The group who is termed “The White team” in practice dominated the Stars bench 27-11. The play of former starters Kiah Stokes (three blocked shots) and Sugar Rodgers (7 pts.) has led the way making the second team a viable force during this run and tonight notwithstanding.
“They knew they were going to get minutes and they were prepared,” Laimbeer said, “They had great practices, understanding each other and pushing the starters. It showed tonight.”
Kia Vaughn in her second stint has been the calming presence at starting center and her solid play continues to impress as she posted a ten point and six rebound night. The Liberty took all season to find themselves and now they know very well who they are, a playoff team and legitimate championship contender.
“We will take a couple days off, focus on ourselves the first day because we don’t know who we are playing with until Wednesday,” Laimbeer said, “Then it’s just a matter of honing on what they do and try to take things away.”