Mitchell Marches Liberty Back to .500 With Win Over Comets

The New York Liberty evened their record at 3-3 on Friday night with an inspiring 81-73 victory over the Houston Comets, sparked by a tremendous performance by rookie Leilani Mitchell.

With starting point guard Loree Moore out day-to-day due to back spasms, Mitchell got her first start in just her sixth professional game, and she turned in a remarkable performance.

The diminutive 5-foot-5 guard recorded 18 points, seven assists and three rebounds in over 30:16 of play, the second most minutes of any Liberty player. She shot a perfect 6-for-6 from the field, including three bombs from behind the arc, and ignited the offense

"We really liked her in college and have been following her when she transferred to Utah her senior year," said Head Coach Pat Coyle. "I was impressed by the floor game. She made incredible decisions. The scoring was great, but seven assists and two turnovers were key. She is a true point guard who can also shoot it."

Mitchell said she was grateful for the opportunity to play such a big role on Friday and wanted to make the most of it.

"The coaches have been saying to be ready, because you never know when you’ll get your chance, and tonight I got my chance," said a thrilled Mitchell following the game. "Patty's been saying all year that she believes in my as a rookie, and that gives me confidence that she thinks I’ll do a good job. That lets me go out and have fun.

"I've been trying to stay ready over the course of the season, whether it means just coming in to be a sub for Loree, I just tried to do a good job whenever I got in. It's just a matter of getting your chance and taking advantage of it."

Mitchell was unaware just how well she took advantage of it, not knowing she was perfect from the field until hearing about it after the game.

"I missed a free throw, though!" she said. "That was the easiest shot and I missed."

As happened in their previous game against Seattle, the Liberty jumped out to an early lead, propelled by Cathrine Kraayeveld and Shemeka Christon. They used a 12-0 run to take a commanding 22-6 lead, before Houston went on an 11-3 run, pulling them within nine."

Although the second quarter started off quick for the Liberty, with Mitchell hitting a deep three followed by a jumper just inside the key on their first two possession, New York went ice cold, mustering only 12 points in the frame. Meanwhile, the Comets started to catch fire, going on a 9-0 run, culminating with a Mwadi Mabika three with just over a minute remaining that trimmed New York's lead to three, 34-31.

Still, New York remained unfazed, finishing the half strong with a pair of flashy offensive plays. Janel McCarville used a beautiful move along the baseline, reversing and going up and under the rim for a pretty basket. On the Comets' following possession, Essence Carson stole the ball, drove the length of the court, and after faking a pass, put in a pretty finger roll to give the Liberty a 38-33 entering halftime.

The Liberty carried that late first-half momentum into the third quarter, sparked by Mitchell.

The rookie fed Kraayeveld for a three to give New York its first points of the half, and Kraayeveld returned the favor by finding Mitchell for a three of her own. Mitchell then made a quick, feisty drive to hoop around two players for a layup, extending the Liberty's lead to 46-35.

Houston, led by Tina Thompson, stormed back, going on a 14-2 run to briefly take the lead, although the Liberty finished the quarter up 57-54.

Still, the Comets run was not over, as they followed up with a 7-0 spurt to start the final quarter, giving them a four-point lead at 61-57.

At that point, Mitchell took over.

Re-entering the game with New York needing points, she penetrated and kicked out to Erin Thorn for a three-pointer, cutting the deficit to one. After a defensive stop, she cut through the defense again, dishing to McCarville for a short jumper that gave the Liberty the lead for good. Following another stop, Mitchell recorded her third straight assist, finding Kraayeveld for a three-pointer.

After Thompson hit two free throws followed by a Carson bucket, Mitchell went strong to the hoop herself for a contested bucket. Following yet another defensive stop, she stuck a dagger into the Comets, finding Christon for a three pointer that gave the Liberty an insurmountable 72-64 lead.

In addition to Mitchell, three other Liberty players finished in double figures. Kraayeveld and McCarville netted 12 and 10 points respectively, while Christon finished with a team high 19.

Houston, meanwhile, was led by Thompson, who netted a double-double with 28 points and 10 rebounds. She now has 5,008 points in her career, becoming the second all-time points leader in the WNBA, behind her former USC teammate Lisa Leslie. Michelle Snow chipped in with 13 points of her own, albeit on 5-for-15 shooting.

The loss of Moore meant that Megan Duffy, who signed with New York in the offseason, saw her first action of the season. The third-year guard scored two points and pulled down one board in her Liberty debut.

The night was a special one at The Garden for another reason, as former Rutgers star and Comets rookie Matee Ajavon made her WNBA debut at MSG. The Scarlet Knights' famed coach, C. Vivian Stringer, came out for the special night to see her two pupils, Ajavon and New York's own Carson, face off against each other.

The crowd erupted when Ajavon entered the game with 4:21 remaining in the first quarter, giving her a standing ovation. Those cheers quickly turned to uncomfortable groans, when they realized Ajavon and Carson, long time teammates and dear friends, were guarding one another.

Carson outplayed Ajavon, recording a team high 32:23, and notching seven points, eight boards and one assist. Her former teammate, meanwhile, finished the game with six points and one rebound.

Still, the night belonged to Mitchell, whose seven assists tied Moore for the most by a Liberty player in a single game this season.

"I found out I was starting this afternoon, and Loree came over and told me and I was excited," said Mitchell. "I don't know if I was ready for it, but all year she has given me confidence to go out and not think, just play. Thanks to her I was able to come in relaxed, and just play."

While Mitchell's play might have taken the Comets by surprise, her teammates, especially her mentor, expected the dominating performance.

"That was no surprise,” said a very proud Moore following the game. "I've seen it at practice. I told her that you don't have to worry about anything, not about being a rookie and not about it being her first start. I told her to just play. She's been doing it all her life, and there’s no difference. The level changes, but we go against each other every day, so she was ready. We knew what she could do and she come through for us tonight."

Mitchell and the Liberty will look to make it three in a row, and to move over .500 for the first time this season, when they host the Sacramento Monarchs on Sunday afternoon at The Garden.

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