Depth Goes a Long Way for Liberty

As the New York Liberty prepare for their ninth postseason appearance in the 12-year history of the WNBA, Head Coach Patty Coyle realizes there is one key reason her team is poised for a deep title run: depth.

"Right from the start of training camp, I absolutely expected us to be this deep," said Coyle. "With people getting injured, we've had people come off the bench and really play well for us. I think we can play 13 deep if we really need to, and really, that depth is paying off for us down the stretch. I really mean it when I say we have a lot of character on this team." Recent injuries to Shameka Christon, Janel McCarville and Tiffany Jackson has given the Liberty bench a chance to shine, and a core group of players, including Lisa Willis, Erin Thorn, Ashley Battle, Jessica Davenport, Erlana Larkins and Leilani Mitchell.

"We were deep early on with all the veterans," said Thorn, the longest tenured Liberty player. "Last year we were really young so we didn't have a whole lot of depth, but now we have most everybody back so we know how to play together and each other's strengths. Plus, the rookies have been really good. They are tremendous groups who has really gotten a chance to play because of injuries and have stepped up." "It's definitely a different role," said continued, noting how she switched to the bench starting early in the season due to the rapid emergence of Essence Carson. "Coming off the bench, to be honest, there's sometimes more pressure. If the starters aren't doing well, you're expected to jump right in and pick up the slack. If that's the case, you are most likely in a hole so it is a challenge. And when the starters are playing well, they usually give you a lead and you are expected to go in and keep it going. So it's definitely a different role, one where you've got to be prepared for everything from not playing to being the first one off the bench or even being a spot starter."

Sharpshooter Willis agrees it is imperative for subs to come in and maintain a strong level of play.

"You don't want there to be any drop off when you come in. You take it personally. If anything, you want to be a spark off the bench and be a positive difference the second you step on the court." "It feels great to know Patty feels the way she does about us," she continued "A lot of teams have a strong five, but we like to think that our bench is deep and is what separates us from the rest of the league."

As expected, Battle shares the same sentiments as the rest of her teammates.

"The way I look at it is that you want to come in, bring some energy onto the court and the fans when we are playing at home, and just try to make a difference," se said. "Personally, I want to take it to the other team and let them know that even if you are going up against a reserve, you are going to get the same intensity, effort and impact that you had going against the starters. The fact is, we have a very deep team. Because of that, you are basically going to have line changes like in hockey. People will come in and out with new groups of people, almost in units, and that's basically what we have here. We come at you in waves."

The tone of the team's resiliency in the face of adversity, and the quality of the team's depth, was set early on in the year when Loree Moore went down for five games, forcing Mitchell into the starting line-up.

"Patty has said all season long we are good because of our numbers,," she said. "When people have gotten hurt, someone else has come in and really stepped up and made a difference."

The rookie responded tremendously in her first start, scoring a career-high 18 points and eight assists in just her sixth professional game.

"As a rookie, the thing is to just be confident and consistent," said Mitchell. "When the coach is confident in you, it makes you feel good and helps bring your game to another level. It lets you know you are important to the team."

In the process, Mitchell became an immediate fan favorite whose jersey can be seen everywhere around The Garden.

"It's really crazy, but it makes me feel good inside that people enjoy watching me play," she said. "It's nice to hear them cheer when I get ready to come into the game. It's also kind of cool to see someone wearing your jersey. That's new to me! But it's cool to know they appreciate what I do and that they think I make a difference on this team.

In addition to these supersubs, the now injured Jackson played so well off the pine before she got hurt, Coyle believes she had a legit chance to be the WNBA's Sixth Woman of the Year.

"I think Tiffany was absolutely magnificent for us," said Coyle. "I thought she was having an unbelievable year until she got hurt and should be recognized as one of the league's best at coming off of the bench."

Equally important to the coach recognizing the team's depth is the support the bench players receive from the starters.

"I want to say by far, we're the team that has the deepest bench," boasted a very proud Christon.

Fellow starter Cathrine Kraayeveld agrees with her.

"We all have confidence in each other and for other individuals to step up when needed to. That's always been one of our biggest strengths; our ability to rely on each other. For me as a starter, it's nice to know that no matter who's number gets called, that person can come in and is possible of making an impact and helping the team. It takes the pressure off. We have total confidence in them. At the same time, the players who come in off the bench certainly push me because I know they are capable of starting as well. So it's a good thing."

In fact, Kraayeveld is so proud of her teammates that she couldn't stop bragging about what they mean to the team.

"Every person on our team is important," she said. "It sounds like a cliché, and for many teams it is and they just say it, but for us, it's really true. We wouldn't be where we are with all the injuries we've had if it wasn't for how deep we are as a team. We don't relay on one person to do well, we rely on everyone, and that's important to us."

With so much success and talent, it is a struggle sometimes for Coyle to find minutes for all her players.

"Every night, even for those who aren't struggling, you only have X amount of minutes to play them," she said. "Sometimes its not fair for others who can't get in, It's not because they are struggling, but it's just because someone else is really playing well. And the players all understand that because we've understood all along what kind of depth we have. It depends on matchups, who's playing well and who has the hot hand. But for the most part, matchups have a lot to do with it."

Perhaps a major reason for the bench's success is that everyone understands that there are games when it's their time to shine and times when it's someone else's.

"We just take it game by game and whatever happens, happens. It's not personal. Everyone here really does help the team in their own way. You can't sit back and think 'I'm not getting minutes, I'm not getting minutes, I'm not getting minutes.' You have to be prepared, and when your time comes, you have got to produce and do that to the best of your abilities."

Perhaps no other bench player has had as big of a roller-coaster ride as Davenport, Davenport, who came back midseason following a stress fracture in her leg she injured overseas. The talented center admits it was difficult to find her niche and reacclimate herself to a team that had been so successful without her.

"I was happy to see the team do well, but it was kind of hard to find my way back," she said. "I didn't know what my role was since they were doing well when I was hurt."

Still, she credits her coaches for keeping her confidence up and getting her back into the flow of things, since she is currently flourishing now that she is healthy and given an opportunity.

"I'm not happy anyone got hurt, but it did give me a chance to prove my worth, " Davenport said. "Once I got my chance, the coaches really kept me in good spirits so I was able to help produce and win.

Hopefully when Janel and everyone comes back I have proven I deserve minutes. I feel healthy and I want to contribute."

Even when they are on the bench, the Liberty are their own biggest and best cheerleaders, taking tremendous pride in supporting their friends, teammates and sisters-in-arms.

"The games where you don't play too much, you have to be supportive and cheer your teammates on," said Willis. "I take a lot of pride in my cheering abilities. I like to see my teammates go off so I can jump up off that bench and cheer them on. If they struggle, then I sit there, but I am still supportive. But all of us, we really have a lot of fun seeing each other succeed and celebrating that success. I mean, I'd rather be playing, but I am here to support them whether they play good, bad or in between. We have a good time on the bench. They are my friends out there, and my job an the rest of us who are on the bench, our job is to cheer them on and take them up another level, make them feel good and it snowballs from there. Like against Chicago the other day, we had each others back and we went on a 15-0 run and that got us the win. That was awesome. I was on the bench at that was awesome."

With the playoffs on the horizon, the Liberty's tremendous depth could be a major reason why they hoist their first WNBA Championship trophy.

"We had some shortcomings last year," said Battle, "and I think that showed in the playoffs. But with the depth we have now and the way we gelled and addition of these rookies, we have a chance to do well. I think it's definitely taken us to another level."