Hammon Returns to Garden with a Vengeance to Beat Liberty

Playing without the reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week, Janel McCarville, the New York Liberty put forth a solid effort before faltering down the stretch in an 82-76 loss to the San Antonio Silver Stars on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden. The game itself was even closer than the final score indicates.

Former Liberty star Becky Hammon scored 30 points to lead the Silver Stars, who boast the best record in the WNBA (22-10) and have not lost to an Eastern Conference squad this season.

Despite seeing a three-game winning streak come to an end, New York had multiple reasons to be encouraged. Vengeance

First, the game marked the return of leading scorer Shameka Christon, who missed two games with a hamstring issue. She didn’t miss a beat, leading the team in minutes played with just over 31. She also led the Libs with 15 points -- knocking down four shots from behind the arc.

“It felt good,” she said of her return. “I know this game was going to be kind of iffy just coming back and getting back in the flow of things. Like I said, it’s good, but the main thing is, we’ve clinched a playoff spot so there isn’t much pressure.”

New York was also more than pleased by the play of its two young frontcourt players, Jessica Davenport and Erlana Larkins, who both played major minutes in place of the injured McCarville and Tiffany Jackson.

Davenport, a second-year player who missed most of the season with a leg injury, got her first start of the season and was a force all night. The 6-foot-5 center tied Christon for a team-high 15 points to go along with nine boards, a pair of assists and one blocked shot.

“It felt good to be out there and get the start,” said Davenport. “Unfortunately it wasn’t under the best circumstances as Nelly (McCarville) was hurt, but I think that I was prepared. Overall, I feel like my effort was good.”

Meanwhile, rookie Larkins recorded a career-high 13 points in her best performance as a pro, with 12 points coming in the opening half. She also finished with three boards, two assists, a steal and one block in her best performance as a pro.

“I felt OK out there,” she said. “After a while you start to get into the flow. I just felt great going out there and being able to do something in place of this team. Janel is obviously a very important part of this team, and for me and Jessica to come in and step up and play well, it’s important and it felt good.”

Her teammates certainly noticed both her and Davenport’s strong play.

“I want to say by far, we’re the team that has the deepest bench,” said Christon. “You have rookie Erlana Larkins who came in and stepped it up big time for us and played really well. With Janel out, I think Jessica Davenport and those players did an unbelievable job and they stepped up.”

The entire game was a tooth-and-nail battle from the start, with each team unable to pull away from the other. It at first appeared it might be a laugher, as San Antonio raced out to a quick 7-2 lead. After Liberty head coach Patty Coyle wisely called a time out, New York got its act together, led by the dynamic duo of Davenport and Larkins. The two bigs combined to score 10 of New York’s 14 first quarter points as the Liberty trailed 17-14.

While the Liberty still continued to struggle to find their range early in the second quarter, they found their offense midway through the quarter. Down 26-22, Christon hit a three-point shot off a pretty feed from Leilani Mitchell to ignite a 9-0 run that gave New York its first lead of the game. When the buzzer sounded ending the half, the game was tied 35-35, and momentum appeariedto be on the home team’s side.

However, once the second half began, Hammon took over, inspired to put on a show in her old stomping grounds. She scored 23 of her season high 30-points over the final two quarters, including 13 in the third period to give San Antonio a 59-55 lead that they would not squander.

“(She’s a) friend off the court, foe on the court,” laughed Christon.

While the Liberty showed tremendous heart in refusing to back down, as Christon hit two clutch three’s to keep their hopes alive, Hammon knocked down all her free-throws to squelch any hopes New York had for a comeback.

With the high-quality of play both teams have exhibited of late, many left The Garden wondering if they had just witnessed a preview of the WNBA Finals. In fact, in the locker room, many were impressed, but not shocked, to see that they were able to stay with the best in the league despite McCarville’s absence.

“San Antonio is a very good team,” said Christon, “but at the same time, I think we did alright. If we go back and watch film, we’ll see some things we’ve got to correct.”

Although just a rookie, Larkins felt the same way.

“It’s frustrating because you always like to win,” she said. “But at the same time, they are one of the better team’s and we’re right there. We’re right there. I don’t know when we are going to have our breakthrough moment, but we are one of the good teams in the league and we are right there.”

If these two teams do happen to meet again, the Liberty would certainly give the Silver Stars a run in their quest for the title.

Be sure to catch New York’s final regular season tune-up when they face off against the Detroit Shock on Sunday at 4 p.m. for Fan Appreciation Day. If the season ended now, New York would face the Shock in the opening round for the second straight season, so both teams will be looking to gain a psychological edge over the other.

To score tickets, click here to purchase online, visit The Garden Box Office or call 877-WNBA-TIX.

Meanwhile, tickets to the opening round of the 2008 WNBA Playoffs go on sale Friday, September 12 at 10:00am. Tickets available through nyliberty.com, by calling 877-WNBA-TIX or can be purchased in person at The Garden Box Office!