New York, 5/30: The Liberty started strong against the defending champion Los Angeles Sparks, but ended up falling short, 90-75.
Tina Charles scored 25 points and Epiphanny Prince finished with 18 points and five assists in the loss. High scorers for the Sparks were Candace Parker who finished with a double-double – 20 points and 11 rebounds – and Nneka Ogwumike with 22 points.
Charles didn’t miss a shot until 2:26 left in the first quarter. She was 4-for-4 from the field, responsible for the Liberty’s 9-0 run. She quickly followed her first miss with a three-pointer, finishing the quarter with 14 points and putting New York ahead 21-16.
Prince was the catalyst of a short-lived momentum shift at the end of the third quarter for the Liberty as she knocked down a three, hit a layup and a foul shot.
“I was just trying to be aggressive,” Prince said. “They were being more aggressive than us, being more physical than us and I was just trying to make something happen.”
In the second half, however, the Sparks outscored the Liberty, 54-37. It marked the second game in a row in which the Liberty only scored 11 points in the fourth quarter. Charles said the team needs to do a better job of focusing on the details down the stretch in order to close out games.
“We know how to start games, obviously, we did great in the first half,” Charles said. “Rebounding, pushing it in transition, all that will help us, we just have to do it for forty minutes, we can’t pick and choose.”
Liberty head coach Bill Laimbeer said the detail the Liberty need to focus on is toughness, both physically and mentally: “Every time we seem to face adversity we have to get mentally stronger, we gave them too many easy baskets, second shots, and that can’t happen against a quality team.”
The Sparks finished with 17 fast break points, dwarfing the Liberty’s five. New York got to the foul line 12 times and shot 50%, compared to the Sparks who drilled 23 of 27 attempts.
The Liberty will seek to fine-tune their play without the help of Prince and Kia Vaughn who will be competing in the 2017 Eurobasket Women FIBA World Championship qualifying tournament. Prince will be playing for the Russian national team, while Vaughn will be playing for the Czech Republic. The two are critical to the Liberty’s success and will be gone for just shy of one month -seven games out of the 34-game schedule.
Naturally that might mean that Charles will shoulder more of the scoring responsibility, but she said she doesn’t feel any pressure – that’s her role, and that’s what she’ll do.
“A great man told me that pressure is when someone asks you to do something you can’t do.” Charles said.
That man is Geno Auriemma, her college basketball coach at the University of Connecticut.
Charles wants to give her teammates confidence to compete the same way she plays every night. Her leadership will be even more important with Prince and Vaughn overseas because Laimbeer will use the next month as an opportunity to give younger players the chance to step up.
He said one player in particular is Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe, who will have to try to fill Vaughn’s role.
“She has all the energy in the world, she has quickness and hops, and a desire to compete, a desire to play,” Laimbeer said. “She can make plays happen with energy and that’s something we can really use right now.”
Raincock-Ekunwe has played the last four years in Europe and is ready for the challenge.
“I definitely know I can contribute to this team, it’s just a very exciting opportunity to show what I can do,” she said.
She comes in with more professional experience than a rookie fresh out of college, having played internationally and with the Canadian national team.
Charles’ leadership style has helped ease Raincock-Ekunwe’s transition from international ball to the faster pace of the WNBA.
“She’s a great leader, she’s constantly talking to us in practice, helping us get better,” Raincock-Ekunwe said. “Having her as a role model for us younger players has definitely helped me adjust and come into this league.”
Charles experience as a rookie informs her approach and reflects how veteran player Asjha Jones was patient with Charles when she first came into the league.
“I’m just paying it forward and trying to help her [Raincock-Ekunwe],” Charles said. “She has an impact on us in practice with how hard she goes so I’m just trying to encourage her to make her a great player that I know she can be.”
The next month will be a challenge, but a challenge the entire Liberty squad is looking forward to and gladly accepts.