It took all of 19 seconds on Friday for Liberty fans to see that Kiah Stokes was ready to break out.
Off a rare Tina Charles missed jumper, Stokes out-muscled Theresa Plaisance for the weak-side rebound and quickly converted a layup. It went down as two points and one rebound for the third-year center, and it opened what became a thrilling 93-89 home win over the Dallas Wings.
Yet it felt like a whole lot more than that.
Over the Liberty’s first five games, Stokes had struggled mightily. She came into Friday 5-for-17 from the field, averaging fewer than three points per game. She picked up more fouls than points in four out of five games, and had more turnovers than offensive rebounds on the season.
After New York’s season-opening win over San Antonio on May 13, head coach Bill Laimbeer called her out in the postgame press conference for being out of shape. Her teammates got on her as well.
Stokes’ frustrations seemed to boil over this week during practice when, Laimbeer says she hit a low point.
“You could see her head was down,” Laimbeer said in his postgame press conference. “She kept fighting through it and tonight was a great example of the work that she’s been putting in over the last week.”
While Stokes may have been an easy target for blame, the Liberty went through a tough week as a whole. The turning point came in a team meeting, where Laimbeer says the players spoke frankly about what motivates them. They followed that meeting up with two strong practices.
It sounds — actually, it is — cliché, but Stokes says her focus over the last few days in practice was to just get back to having fun. She had been concentrating too much on what was going wrong and on what she needed to do to fix it and it had taken her out of her game.
“I was just thinking too much,” Stokes told The Summitt. “My teammates said, ‘Kiah, forget all that stuff that [Laimbeer] said. Just play how you know how to play.’”
Stokes’ teammates recognize how good she is, and they make sure to tell her.
“We know we can get that out of her,” Tina Charles told reporters after the game. “[I] just wanted her to get back to being Kiah Stokes.”
Stokes’ final line on Friday: 13 points, 15 rebounds, two blocks.
Friday was, without a doubt, the best Stokes has looked all year, but it’s only one game. As a team, the Liberty have struggled with consistency over their first six games. At spurts, they look like they could be the best team in the East, which many thought they were at the beginning of the season. In other stretches, they look disjointed and disengaged. It will take more than just one win at home to convince anyone that they’ve hit their stride. Still, they saw a difference in the end of this game compared to the ends of previous losses to the Storm and Lynx.
“We just stayed together,” Stokes told The Summitt. “That’s one thing we talked about this week. And just staying focused and playing hard.”
It will take a similar effort for the Liberty to follow this up with a win on Sunday against a Mercury team that took them to the wire last week. With Brittney Griner anchoring the Phoenix front court and center Kia Vaughn overseas, Stokes will try to keep it going.
New York will need her newfound confidence more than ever.