Playing in their second game in just over 24 hours, the New York Liberty emerged victorious against the Connecticut Sun, 64-57, on Thursday evening at Madison Square Garden.
Led by a double-double from center Tina Charles and a record breaking outing from rookie forward Kiah Stokes, the Liberty (9-5) held off the Sun’s (7-6) throughout the contest in an impressive offensive and defensive showing.
After beating the San Antonio Stars at 11 am on Wednesday, the Liberty faced a quick turnaround for their matchup against the Sun. The effects of the back-to-back, infrequent in the WNBA’s four-month season, could be seen throughout the forty minute contest from the Liberty and certainly played a role in their vigor on the court.
After a back-and-forth first quarter that finished with the Liberty ahead by one, the Sun took complete control of the game in the next period. Connecticut used their full offensive artillery to bombard New York — from three pointers to post-ups to kick and shoots — and held a nine point lead at a few moments in the quarter. The schedule was catching up to the Liberty, evidenced by their lackluster passing and chaotic defense and atrocious shot choice. Still, the Liberty somehow managed to stumble to the end of the half trailing by just five, a Sun lead that could be exacerbated in the second half if immediate changes were not made by the Liberty.
In short, those changes were made. The Liberty returned from the break with a renewed pace that simply did not exist in the previous two quarters, a difference veteran Swin Cash attributed to their mindset.
“I told the players that today was one of those games where you could either make an excuse about it, or you could figure out a way to get it done,” Cash said.
After the half, the Liberty certainly did the latter as it took just a layup, jumper, free-throw attempt, and three-point play to put the Liberty at a 36-33 lead with seven minutes remaining in the quarter. In the three-point play, guard Epiphany Prince reinvigorated the crowd with her slashing layup and one, a play that also drew an impassioned response from her teammates. At that moment, the Liberty looked like a completely different team than the one from the first two quarters.
That momentum only continued through the second half. Players stepped up for the Liberty in big ways, and production came everywhere from starters to the bench. Center Tina Charles was vital to the Liberty’s offense throughout the game, scoring 22 with 10 defensive rebounds out of her total of 12; her sixth double-double of the season. Her back-to-the-basket presence helped the Liberty to 22 points in the paint.
On the flip side of the Liberty’s inside-out offense, guard Epiphany Prince, starting in her third game as a Liberty, chipped in with 10 points on 4-14 shooting. Her shot has yet to fall consistently, a reality the Liberty hope to change soon, but she made several big plays in the game; including the three-point play and a jumper at 5:28 in the fourth that gave the Liberty their biggest lead at 62-54.
But second half help also came from the other side of the court, from a Liberty defense that ranks second in points allowed per game. And on Thursday, the defensive effort was led by eight blocks from rookie Kiah Stokes — five of which came in the fourth quarter. The eight swats, breaking the previous Liberty single-game record by two, accompanied Stokes’ seven points and eight rebounds in 30 minutes off the bench.
“I didn’t know I had eight [blocks] until the coaches told me after the game,” Stokes said. “I thought they were kidding; I thought I had like four.”
Meanwhile, Laimbeer, who developed a reputation as a tough defender during his NBA days with the Detroit Pistons, had high praise for Stokes. “If there’s a better defender in this league, I don’t see it,” he said. “Maybe someone as good as her, but there’s nobody better than her.”
The Sun’s losing streak extended to five games while the Liberty have now won six of their last eight. The next stretch, however, will be a test for the Liberty: they begin a four-game road trip with Phoenix on Saturday, then Seattle, Los Angles, and Indiana.
The Liberty will next return to their Madison Square Garden on August 2nd against Seattle.