New York achieved balance on both sides of the ball in what Smith calls the “best game” of her coaching career
WHITE PLAINS— At the end of regulation at the Westchester County Center on Sunday afternoon, the speakers blared Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ “Empire State of Mind.” Tina Charles fired off t-shirts into the upper deck. The Lady Liberty green flag flew down the sidelines again. Maddie the canine mascot has waited eight home games for this moment, a win.
This is what the New York Liberty’s first win of the 2019 season looked like against their former coach Bill Laimbeer, defeating the Las Vegas Aces handily 88-78.
For head coach Katie Smith, this was a game of bests. In a season and five games, she believed her team delivered its best effort, best energy, and best collective performance. The entire team, the starters and the bench were “locked in” for 40 minutes.
“It’s a good one,” Kia Nurse, who scored 15 points in the victory, said inside the Liberty locker room after the game. “Obviously, it’s a bit of a tough start to the season and we were right there for a lot of games. We could compete with every team we played against. I think today it was continuing to have that belief in ourselves and continuing to play our basketball and we all kind stepped up in our own little ways.”
After New York’s loss to Washington just a day and a half before on Friday, I asked a few questions. At the time, I was only able to answer the last one confidently— and to report, Han Xu’s emerging home crowd fan club was alive and well on Sunday afternoon. But, the Liberty answered the other two immediately against the Aces.
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Let’s start with turnovers and personal fouls, which against Las Vegas declined drastically. According to Tina Charles, coming into the matchup against her former coach, her team was averaging around 16-17 TOs a game. Yesterday they finished with ten.
“It’s crucial,” Katie Smith said. “We look at the stats. We look at what we need. We have goals. Our goal is 13 turnovers and we had only 10 today with the loose ball one.”
The Liberty chiseled down their 25 personals down to 19, which included Kia Nurse reducing her foul totals against the Aces. Nurse attributed this improved metric to becoming a little bit more vertical on the defensive side.
“She’s somebody we are always going to rely on the defensive end, and keep challenging her to also get better at it depending on who she’s guarding,” Smith said. “I thought she was solid, she flies around, she’s gonna always compete and at the end of the day we love that.”
I asked Charles if she saw any signs of improvement based on any action in practice. Was the win foreshadowed?
“Actually, no!”, she said. Charles chuckled and continued: “We definitely took it slow yesterday because we were coming off of a game. I think just us knowing the energy we bring in, I knew that all of our first quarters have been really great. It’s just about putting it together for 40 minutes and I think we were able to do that.”
Bria Hartley gave it everything she’s got
Hartley’s start was surprising initially. But considering she scored 14 points against Washington, Coach Smith’s decision made a bit more sense. Later we learned Asia Durr was sidelined at game time for an illness, but regardless Hartley brought the same intensity that we saw on Friday and more.
She scored 17 points, and for the second contest in a row, she finished second in total points, falling behind only Charles. In addition to putting 17 points on the board herself, Hartley amassed six assists, including setting up two of Nurse’s three balls.
Hartley was efficient as she protected the ball and outplayed the guards she matched up against on defense. Kelsey Plum and rookie Jackie Young couldn’t keep up. Playing aggressively on both sides of the ball was her M.O. as she got into a ball-handling battle with Sydney Colson.
This team is going to miss their gritty and nimble guard, who leaves for the Eurobasket tournament today. Smith made that clear in her post-game presser, highlighting that not only Hartley will be missing in action, but Amanda Zahui B will take off to play on her native Sweden on June 20.
Tanisha Wright is the “OG”
So, how did New York do against a “Laimbeerian system”? Just ask Tanisha Wright, the 12-year veteran, who had been waiting in the wings. After not playing a minute against Washington and Los Angeles, she was ready to strike.
While Wright scored 8 points, dished out four helpers and collected four boards, her 18-minute presence was felt from within the Liberty’s interior more than seen by a casual fan.
Her ability to control and manipulate the tempo on the court changed the Liberty attack. Wright set up Hartley on a fast break and the ability to connect with her teammate was clear.
Tina Charles, who played with Wright previously on New York, spoke of her omnipresence on this young Liberty team. Wright never stops communicating.
“She was the MVP of our team in the 2015 season,” Charles said. “Just because of her professionalism, the basketball IQ that she has, the experience that she has, knowing what to say in all of the huddles, knowing when to slow up the game, knowing how to control the pace. And even when she didn’t play the last two games, she was very much involved with us just being very vocal in the huddles with us and on the bench.”
First-year GM Jonathan Kolb traded for Wright for just that reason. He wanted to bring a virtuoso back to the Liberty. He knew Wright would play and contribute with a lot at stake and care for this franchise and her native New York.
“T is a great leader on and off the court,” Zahui B said. “We feel her when she’s on the bench. We feel her in practice. We feel her on the court. Just a great all-around leader. We call her OG for a reason.”
And for the folks who don’t know the slang, here’s the translation, Wright’s an original, old-school and authentic.
New York’s three bigs battled with a simple mindset
All anyone wanted to know initially about this matchup against the Aces was who would win the battle of the bigs? Who would rise and who would fall? Against a fit Liz Cambage and a former rookie of the year in A’ja Wilson, many thought this was out of reach for New York.
But their game plan was simple according to Reshanda Gray. “Our game plan was to make them earn it and just alter their shots and test them,” she said. Amanda Zahui B had a total of five blocks, two of which came on Wilson.
The combined stylings of Charles, Gray and Zahui B shocked everyone except for Smith.
“They had to do their work early,” Smith said. “They had to not only individually do their jobs, but also as a unit be able to clog whenever. Try to get hands on rebounds and just as a team effort. I thought our bigs Zahui, Tina, Gray all did an excellent job of making them earn shots and trying to keep them off the boards as best as possible.”
New York state of mind fueled by energy
The Liberty longed for the victory as the Aces didn’t play their hand properly on Sunday afternoon. According to former New York Head Coach Bill Laimbeer, it just wasn’t in the cards for his Vegas Aces.
“They needed this win more than we wanted it,” he said. “That was the bottom line. We didn’t come out with the energy and the intensity in this game from the start.”
Laimbeer also had some words of praise for his former team, noting that Charles took charge in her matchup with Wilson. But he’ll look to find a way how to stop New York’s young shooting core when the Liberty face the Aces in Sin City later this week.
“They’ve got some shooters,” he said. “Nurse is a capable shooter from the perimeter. Didn’t see Durr tonight. I don’t know what that was about. Overall Zahui is coming in her own and getting an opportunity to play, which is what she always wanted.”
Katie Smith left the County Center walking with a spring in her step. She flipped her water bottle and caught it. A sign of relief and joy.
“We’re literally right there,” she said. “It feels good. It feels good for them, it gives us some excitement to get back after it on Wednesday against Minnesota who started the season very well. But we also know that this means nothing.”
Zahui B knows this as well. She knows this feels good, but her only focus now is practice on Tuesday.
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