The Heart of a Champion
They dominated Game 1. They fought back from 17 down in Game 2. And they had the Detroit Shock, the WNBA’s best team in the regular season, on the ropes in the decisive Game 3 Tuesday night. The Liberty led by 10 at halftime, by six after three quarters and still by five with 1:59 left in overtime.
But it wasn’t enough to take the heart of a champion.
Certainly not Deanna Nolan’s. She shot 26 times when her team couldn’t generate any offense and came through with a game-high 22 points and six assists, playing all 45 minutes.
Not Cheryl Ford’s. She was perfect when her team needed her to be, shooting 5-for-5 in the first half. And then continued to be there even when medical reasoning screamed otherwise, playing 39 minutes for 17 points and 10 rebounds on a throbbing left knee.
Not Katie Smith’s. She was enduring yet another awful shooting night against New York: 2-for-9 through the first three quarters. She staring at the prospect of ending her worst-shooting season with her worst playoff series ever. But Smith made two 3-pointers that saved Detroit’s season, one that gave the Shock its largest lead of the game – 60-55 in the fourth quarter – and another in overtime that cut the five-point deficit to 69-67.
Not Plenette Pierson’s. The WNBA’s inaugural Sixth Woman of the Year didn’t have her best game, perhaps distracted by the pregame ceremony and definitely bothered by late foul trouble, but made the pass heard around the WNBA, finding Swin Cash right down the middle for what turned out to be the game-winning score with 5.8 seconds left.
It’s cliché, and Shock head coach Bill Laimbeer knows it, but the 71-70 overtime victory at The Palace was a testament to his team’s fortitude. And he doesn’t mind it one bit as he now prepares for his second consecutive appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals, which begin Friday in Indianapolis.
“You can call it championship poise, you can call it strong will, you can call it tough mindedness, you can call it all of the above, all the clichés, all of the adjectives you want to put on it,” Laimbeer said. “We are just hard-nosed basketball players. From the coaching staff to the players to our trainer, it’s a hard-nosed team that refuses to die.”
The Shock trailed 8-2 out of the gate, and the deficit was 33-23 by halftime. Detroit’s 23 first-half points were the fewest all season – they had 23 in the second quarter alone in the Game 2 victory.
The previous low was the 25 points Detroit scored in the first half of Game 1 at New York, a statistic that says it all about the Liberty and the threat they posed to the Shock’s championship reign. The Liberty didn’t show a crack in their armor until the end, when they kept the door open by shooting 5-for-8 (62.5 percent) from the foul line in the fourth quarter. In overtime, forward Janel McCarville missed the second of two free throws with 3.7 seconds left that ultimately proved to be New York’s undoing. One missed free throw – that was the margin for error in this series. And the Shock made them pay for it.
The home-court advantage that Laimbeer drove his team toward all summer, paid tremendous dividends as The Palace crowd kept his team’s spirits alive down the stretch.
“I think any time you play at home, the crowd is a bonus, especially when they get loud like they did and big plays are happening on both sides of the ball,” Laimbeer said. “…They kept Cheryl going in the game when she was really starting to fatigue and wear down, she hasn’t played very much at all and her knee’s bothering her. And push Nolan to take shots. It’s just one of those things that’s fun to have at home.”
Ford played 10 scoreless minutes in Game 1, and produced a double-double in 26 minutes in Game 2. But none of that prepared anyone to see her take the leap she took Tuesday night, battling several Liberty players in the paint on every possession.
“The horse of the day and the biggest heart that you’re ever going to see if you knew what was going on behind the scenes, was Cheryl Ford today,” Laimbeer said. “I played her 39 minutes – in my wildest dreams I would not have played her 39 minutes. But she said, ‘I’m okay, I’m going to go.’ And the heart she had to perform the way she did today was phenomenal.”
Ford, who days ago was still limited to rehab and private workouts, has been delighted just to be playing again. She'd call it heart before she called it heroics.
“I think this is all about our personality,” Ford said. “Everybody on our team has been through hard times and we all know how to come through adversity. We just have to play together and stick together. It’s one team and one goal.”