Guru's WNBA Report: Pondexter Gives New York Liberty Another Comeback Win
NEWARK, N.J. – A year ago the New York Liberty got off to a dreadful start and in the end slipped into the playoffs mostly due to the Chicago Sky going on a deep slide after former Rutgers star Epiphanny Prince got injured.
Of course, many will say the loser in the race for the final postseason spot may ultimately have been the winner with Chicago landing former Delaware star Elena Delle Donne as the number two overall pick in April’s draft and her play to date propels the Sky into Sunday’s first-place Eastern Conference showdown for the moment when Chicago visits the Atlanta Dream.
Overall, the Eastern crowd is suffering their share of injuries, not that the Western Conference is in perfect health, and on Friday night New York again used a strong finish in another battle of walking wounded to rally from an 11-point deficit in the second half to defeat the defending conference regular-season defending champion Connecticut Sun here at the Prudential Center 78-68.
A week ago New York was struck with a key injury when one of the Liberty’s Rutgers alumnae was lost for the season with the torn ACL suffered by Essence Carson in Atlanta.
But on Sunday the Liberty powered past Atlanta at the finish in a rematch two days later here and with Friday’s rally and two overtime escapes in the building earlier against Tulsa and Indiana New York under new coach Bill Laimbeer finds itself at 4-2.
“The Liberty looked like a team that really got after it in the second half,” new Connecticut coach Anne Donovan said after the Sun fell to 2-4 with a loss to the team she coached several seasons ago. “They had 54 points in the second half. They were just hungry.
“I don’t think we displayed the same kind of intensity. Especially on the road, you got to have that. It doesn’t matter how you’re playing offensively and how you might be struggling you still have to scratch and pull.”
New York is not done in the departed player department with Laimbeer announcing after the game that former All-Star Cheryl Ford, who helped lead his former Detroit Shock to three WNBA crowns, was going to be let go because her knees just won’t allow her to play at what is needed to compete in the league.
Connecticut has been going without reigning sixth-player of the year in former UConn star Renee Montgomery and Tan White, who recently suffered a broken finger.
The short-handed squad won on the road Wednesday against the battered Indiana Fever, the defending WNBA champs, who were honored Friday afternoon at a White House reception hosted by President Obama.
The Sun recently made some quick roster pickups in gaining Iziane Castro Marques and Sydney Carter, though Carter, a member of the 2010 Texas A&M NCAA champions, did not play and Marques saw only five minutes of action.
The travel and compacted schedule, which continues Sunday when Donovan plays another team she coached in the Seattle Storm, who visit Mohegan, has not allowed her to work Marques into the rotation at practice because practice time has been close to nil until next week.
“We needed some practice time to get Izzie into a rotation and to see how she might be able to help us so we were playing a lot of minutes with Kara [Lawson], Alli [Allison Hightower] and Kalana [Greene],” Donovan said.
“(First round draft pick) Kelly [Faris] stepped up and gave us some good minutes but we need to get Izzie into that rotation as well. So we need some practice time to be honest and we get that after Seattle. And I’ll feel better probably at that point to know exactly what we got. “
What she didn’t have was another stellar performance from Tina Charles, the reigning league MVP, who was limited to just under 26 minutes because of foul trouble and had seven points and four rebounds.
What Laimbeer had was a strong surge by former Rutgers All-American Cappie Pondexter, who didn’t get her first points until just before halftime and then had 18 of her overall 20 the rest of the way.
“When Cappie gets on a roll, you’re in trouble,” Donovan said. “We had Kalana [Greene] on her for a long stretch. Then we tried Kelly on her and Ally [Allison Hightower] on her. It’s tough, she’s a tough one to guard no doubt she’s one of the best one on ones in the league. “
The Chicago native said paybacks were in the minds of herself and teammates after the way the Sun had dominated them into last month's season opener in Connecticut.
"Connecticut and New York, it's a rival game," Pondexter said. "They're two hours away. We know every game here in our conference is going to be tough.
"It's important, number one, to win at home, and number two, win our conference games. For us, we felt like we owe them, especially after we lost our season opener there. It's an important win for us."
The Liberty also had a strong performance off the bench with guard Leilani Mitchell getting 16 points, including key arc shooting making 4-o-5 three-pointers, and a career-high nine rebounds.
“Leliani did a great job,” Donovan noted. “She’s that player if you leave her open she’s going to make you pay. In our rotation, we were so concerned with Cappie or Katie [Smith] there was Lei getting open looks. “
When Smith scored her first points of the game on a three-ball she past the retired and legendary Lisa Leslie into second –place on the all-time WNBA scoring list and now has 6,272 points, though her previous time in the former American Basketball League actually makes her the all-time scorer in U.S. pro women’s basketball, thought Seattle’s Tina Thompson is tops in just the WNBA.
Both Smith and Thompson have said this is their last rodeo.
“It’s a lot of pride in the work that you put in and knowing that you’ve been consistently on top of your game or your craft for a long time,” Smith said.
“Some of these young guns will pass us in the future, but it’s been great to be able to play this long and compete.”
Smith, whose role has increased in the wake of Carson’s injury, had 10 points, while Kara Braxton, the primary defender on Charles, had 11 points and 13 rebounds.
Hightower scored 17 for Connecticut and Kara Lawson had 16 points.
“I think our offensive focus was there in the second half, especially with Cappie,” Laimbeer said. “Our defense is a great constant for us. In the first half we made too many turnovers. We got it together finally in the third quarter and it really showed at how special of a ball club we can be.
“(Mitchell) was one of the biggest keys to the game,” Laimbeer observed. “She’s one of the best free throw shooters we have. She was getting every rebound by being engaged and being a smart basketball player. She knew where to be and it really helped us.”
New York has a week off before hosting the San Antonio Silver Stars next Sunday and then hits the road with stops at Chicago and on to the West to visit Seattle, the title-favored Phoenix Mercury, and Los Angeles Sparks.
Connecticut after its week off hosts Atlanta, Phoenix and the Tulsa Shock.
“I think the race for playoff spots is going to be tight all season in this conference and go right down to the wire at the last two or three games,” Smith said.
But the key will be having enough bodies to sustain the pursuit.
The issue of increasing roster sizes is expected to be discussed when the new Collective Bargaining Agreement is negotiated after the season.
“These injuries are killing us around this league,” Pondexter said. “We just have to continue to stay healthy, see the trainer, rely on that. It’s a tough break. Right now we have only nine players with our injuries.
“It’s tough right now. But we’re strong. We’re competitive. We have an edge. We just have to roll with what we have. It’s important to have more players because some days you can’t even practice,” Pondexter said.
“We know it’s something we have to focus on in the CBA but it’s a collective effort. But we can’t worry about it now. We just have to keep pushing until it’s time to negotiate.”
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