NEW YORK, NY — Friday night at Madison Square Garden, the New York Liberty bounced back from Wednesday’s loss against the Seattle Storm by pulling away from the Connecticut Sun in the final few minutes for a 89-82 victory. But with the Liberty already locked into the third seed, the win was far from the most important aspect of tonight’s game.
Ever since she entered the league back in 2010, Epiphanny Prince has been one of the league’s most effective and consistent scorers. So much so, that she’s averaged exactly 15 points per game in each of the last three seasons.
Last year, her first with New York, Prince was instrumental in the Liberty winning a franchise-record 23 regular season games, and making a run to the Eastern Conference Finals. But during the offseason, Prince suffered a torn ACL while playing for Dynamo Kursk in Russia, and didn’t return to the Liberty lineup until after the Olympic break a few weeks ago.
As with anyone returning from an long term injury, Prince looked stiff and rusty as she got re-acclimated to the speed and intensity of a WNBA game. She played about 12 minutes a night, and shot just 6-17 from the field (1-6 from behind the arc) over her first four games.
Friday night, however, was a different story.
After the win, Bill Laimbeer relayed that during shootaround, he told Prince that during the game, “I want you to see you go as hard as you can for as long as you can, and try to get tired. I want to see what you can do on the basketball court, so I can plan going forward.”
What Laimbeer saw was the first glimpse of the real Prince, the confident, clutch-shooting guard the Garden faithful came to love in 2015. The New York native gave him 21 solid minutes, going 3-5 from the field on her way to 13 points, including a three-pointer with 3:21 remaining the put the Liberty up nine, effectively sealing the victory.
Her return to form is a huge x-factor heading into the playoffs, as the Liberty have struggled at times offensively, leaving Friday’s game with a 101.5 offensive rating that puts them at ninth in the league. Prince coming off the bench could give them a big spark to supplement Tina Charles and Sugar Rodgers.
More good news for the Liberty, is that she played this well and isn’t even back to 100 percent yet. Following the win, Prince told WNBA.com she was, “probably like 70-75 percent” of the way there.
She should be fully back to business soon, however, because she also noted that during tonight’s game she made a huge mental breakthrough. “I was talking to Swin [Cash], because in the first half I actually did the move that I tore my ACL with,” Prince said. “And I said after I did that and realized nothing happened, it helped me out a lot.”
That’s great news for Prince and the Liberty, because with elite athletes like Prince, there’s no question they can do the physical work required to return from an ACL tear. The mental aspect of trusting their knee again, however, can linger for long after the knee is fully healed. Prince touched on that aspect of recovery after the game, saying, “I wasn’t going as hard as I could before, because it would hurt me to decelerate. So I was trying to prevent the pain from coming.”
With most of that behind her, however, she should continue to build on her strong performance tonight. “With the mental part fading away, I can go and play and be able to get back in game shape,” Prince concluded. “And I think with all that coming together, I’ll be able to live up to what coach wants.”
Coach Laimbeer isn’t the only one who’s happy to see performances like this from Prince. As her childhood friend, and MVP candidate, Tina Charles put it after the game, “It was great to see her in her stride. I’ve been a big fan of her since we were 12, playing against each other.”
Now, Charles and Prince are playing with each other, and that’s bad news for opponents as the Liberty have a new weapon to unleash in their attempt at another deep playoff run.
“She’s a great player,” Charles reflected. “When she’s playing like that, when she has confidence to take those kind of shots, no one can stop her.”