Path to Playoffs Runs Through Prince, Pondexter
NBAE via Getty Images
NEWARK, N.J -- On the court, Chicago’s Epiphanny Prince and New York’s Cappie Pondexter – both listed at 5-foot-9 – look down at nobody.
But, with the Sky and Liberty battling it out for the fourth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, everyone will be looking up at them over the next two weeks to decide which team extends its season.
Prince took a big step in making sure it’s her team that does so on Friday night by scoring a game-high 30 points – including several clutch buckets down the stretch – to steal a 92-83 victory from Pondexter’s Liberty squad at Prudential Center to give the Sky a half-game edge in the standings.
Prince, who recorded a four-point play on Chicago’s first possession of the game, also hit three of her five 3-pointers in the fourth quarter, seemingly stepping up whenever the Liberty were gaining some momentum.
“She was incredible,” Sky guard Courtney Vandersloot said of Prince. “That’s the kind of player Piph is. She can really put us on her back and carry us. She can do a lot for this team on both sides of the floor and she came up big for us tonight.”
Having Prince healthy has been essential to the Sky this year. Chicago started out 7-1 with her in the lineup but she broke her foot in the team’s ninth game and did not play the rest of the season’s first half. In that stretch, including the game in which she got injured and only played eight minutes, the Sky lost eight of nine.
Prince’s play will become even more vital now because Chicago’s star center Sylvia Fowles aggravated a calf injury on Friday night after playing just six minutes and will be out indefinitely. Chicago coach Pokey Chatman said the 6-foot-6 center, fresh of winning a gold medal with Team USA, will not travel with the team for its next game versus Connecticut on Sunday and it is not yet known how long she will be out.
Thankfully, for Chicago (11-16), Prince says her foot is no longer bothering her and she can try to fill Fowles’ large shoes, especially on the offensive end.
Pondexter, while healthy all season, has proven to be just as integral to New York’s success as Prince is to Chicago’s. In seven of the Liberty’s 11 wins, the Rutgers product has scored over 20 points.
“It’s really not fair for her to have so much pressure on her,” Liberty coach John Whisenant said. “She’s played a couple of bad games and we’ve had no shot in those games if she doesn’t play well. So it puts a lot of pressure on a little-bitty guard to go out there and have that much stress on you and she’s aware that if she doesn’t play well it’s really hard for us to score enough points to win without her.”
Pondexter, who is third in the league in scoring with a 20.3 ppg average and who also leads the Liberty in steals and assists, has been the rock on a team that has seen a flurry of injuries and that got off to an 0-5 start after having several players arrive to training camp late because of overseas commitments.
“I’ve been able to play with Cappie for many years in college and here in the pros,” New York guard Essence Carson said. “She’s definitely a great teammate with awesome ability out there. You would die for her to be on your team.”
On Tuesday night, Carson was one of four Liberty players to score in double figures. The Sky also had four players hit double figures and Prince got a big lift from forward Tamera Young who scored 19 points on 8-for-11 shooting.
With a half-game lead, the Sky have what Prince called a “brutal” schedule the rest of the way. In their seven remaining games, the combined records of the teams they face are 102-92 (.526 percent). On the flip side, the Liberty face teams with a combined record of 59-107(.355 percent), taking into account that they play both Tulsa and Washington twice.
But – as we’ve seen too often this year with a flurry of upsets – that doesn’t necessarily mean the Liberty will waltz into postseason.
“You still have to go win the games,” Whisenant said, pointing out Tulsa’s recent upset of L.A. on Aug. 30 and Washington’s near upset of Connecticut on Sept. 4. “We’ve warned our players. We know Chicago has gotta play Minnesota and LA on the road, Seattle on the road and they’ve got some tough games. But that’s the way this league is, they may win the tough ones and you catch someone really playing real well so it’s tough.”
However it shakes out, you can count on Pondexter and Prince being in the middle of it. These teams, after talking to them about the playoff race, have an enormous amount of respect for each other. But the two vertically challenged guards, both of which went to Rutgers and are now the focal parts of their teams, also have a substantial respect for each other.
“She’s a real good player and she just always keeps you on your toes,” Prince said of Pondexter. “She can score in bunches and she’s just always so aggressive.”
Fittingly, one could describe Prince in the same exact manner, but Pondexter, quick to praise her opponent, had this to say about Prince.
“I think she’s a great basketball player that has the ability to a lot of things,” Pondexter said. “When you have a player who can break down a defense, it just gives an edge to your teammates and it makes everyone around her better.”
Chatman called Pondexter the “head of the snake” for New York and the metaphor seems to ring true for both teams if you’re also talking about Prince.
It will likely come down to the season's final days to see who can secure that fourth playoff spot in the East and it will take nothing short of a herculean effort from the equally undersized Prince and Pondexter if it's going to be their team.