Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Monday, June 05, 2017

Guru's WNBA Gamer: Liberty Stars Continue to Carve Milestones in NY Win Over Phoenix

By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru

NEW YORK – The way the WNBA New York Liberty are authoring records these days, especially the Uconn alumnae, the charter franchise in its 21st season might want to think about moving some games out of Madison Square Garden here in Manhattan a bit south to Tin Pan Alley.
On Friday night, Tina Charles set her career high with 36 points in New York’s win over Dallas. On Sunday afternoon, third-year pro Kiah Stokes, two games removed from being Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer’s season-long disappointment-of-the-game, edited her individual best to now read 23 points in helping to lead the locals to an 88-72 win over the Phoenix Mercury.

Stokes, who matched her previous high Friday night with 13 points, also grabbed 14 rebounds, one less than her own mark for board work also set against the Wings less than 48 hours ago.

Besides being her first time over 20 points in the WNBA, the native of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, now has her first consecutive set of double doubles and in this one she had 10 points in the first quarter, and 17 at the half along with 10 rebounds for her first-ever double double at the game’s midpoint in regulation.

And former Pittsburgh star Shavonte Zellous, whose 27 Friday night was a high with New York after her earlier years with the Indiana Fever, followed up with 21 points for the first back-to-back 20-plus scoring nights as a pro.

Charles, in her role as team leader, helped the cause with 16 points after her explosion against the Wings.

The outcome equaled both teams’ records at 4-3 and the Liberty are 2-0 on the folks from the Arizona desert and four straight in regular season, topping a previous mark of 2-0 in the history of their 21-year series.

New York edged Phoenix 69-67 in the Southwest on May 23, though the Mercury had the pleasure last fall of short-circuiting the Liberty’s life with a win here in the second round of a one-and-done affair under the revamped playoff structure.

All this couldn’t come at a better time for Laimbeer in the second game of a major roster shortage caused by the recent season-ending injury to  Brittany Boyd with a torn left Achilles tendon and the six-game leave by former Rutgers stars Epiphanny Prince and Kia Vaughn, who are overseas playing in the EuroChampionship for their respective national teams affiliations that come from winter ball when the WNBA is dark.

But don’t think Laimbeer was going to relent quickly on Stokes after Friday night.

Opening his postgame remarks, the former NBA Detroit Piston “Bad Boy,” cited a pregame inquiry from AP national women’s basketball writer Doug Feinberg asking about Stokes by quoting his own response, saying, “I was asked by the esteemed writer from the Associated Press before the game, `What about Stokes?’ and I said, `one game doesn’t mean anything.’”

Moving off of that, Laimbeer continued, “And two games, while it’s a good trend, still, it’s about consistency throughout the whole season. Do I expect this to continue?

“It would be great if it did but I think she’s in a good place and I think she’s shown some great progress, works very hard right now, and the results are showing.”

Stokes on her own performance before a lively Garden crowd of 7,833 said, “I have to give credit to my teammates, they found me when I was open. That helps a lot. I know I can rebound so I tried to get some offensive rebounds in there, too.”

On the start of some consistency for New York with its first back-to-back wins since last July, Stokes observed, “I think we’ve put a lot of effort in practice, that was the biggest thing. We came in focused and went back to having fun.

“We know it’s going to be tough without Kia and Piph and Brittany but practices have been tough and intense. More people have had their confidence go up after these practices because we’ve been working so hard.”

The play of the Mercury ebbed and flowed depending when Brittany Griner, the former Baylor star and No. 1 overall pick of the 2013 WNBA draft, was on and off the court due to foul trouble.

She finished with 26 points and three-point career record-holder Diana Taurasi, another ex-Uconn great, shot 4-of-5 three balls and scored 17 while Danielle Robinson and reserve Leilani Mitchell, a former Liberty mainstay, each scored 10.

But Laimbeer was happy with the defense of the two superstars from Phoenix.

“… neither of those two were able to dominate the game and that was our plan,” he said.

New York, which never trailed, built a 14-point lead near the end of the first quarter, had it reduced to a basket late in the next period before hitting the break in front 47-41.

It then stayed close over the next 10 minutes, the advantage reduced back to two points several times, before the Liberty spurted to a nine-point lead at the close of the third. Then they shut the door in the final stanza 16-9 to run away with it and for the second straight game and just the second time this season ended up outscoring the opposition in the second half.

Laimbeer cited the play of rookie and former Notre Dame star Lindsay Allen, who did not make the opening roster, and Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe, both added to fill the breach caused by the absentees, as providing energy to the attack when things get stagnant during the game.

“But at the same time, down the stretch, Zellous took over and made all the right plays in both that she scored and hit the right people, that’s what she can do and we put her in that position to do today.”

For Phoenix it was the worst performance of the season when a member of the organization did not get married on the eve of a game.

Before Phoenix, which underwent a major roster overhaul in the winer, opened with Dallas on May 14 at home, Taurasi married former teammate and new Mercury executive, Australian Penny Taylor, the previous day but then dropped the opener 68-58.

As for Sunday’s performance, coach Sandy Brondello stated the obvious, “We didn’t play our best game. New York had a more aggressive mentality. Defensively, we didn’t play near where we needed to play to win the game.”

But Brondello also said everything that went wrong for Phoenix could easily be repaired.

Career-wise Taurasi continues to blaze away in affixing herself as one of the all-time stars in the WNBA galaxy. On Thursday in Chicago she attained the No. 1 spot for making treys, passing the retired and New York assistant coach Katie Smith.

In Chicago, Taurasi also passed the newly-retired Tamika Catchings into the No. 2 WNBA career scoring mark and now needs 73 points to top the retired and University of Texas assistant coach Tina Thompson, who finished with 7,488 points in 496 games.

Taurasi, who’s first point Sunday brought her to 7,400, now has 368 games in her WNBA career.

Against Indiana in Game 2, also at home, on May 17, Taurasi, a four-time USA Olympic gold medalist who is a native of Chino, Calif.,  became the first in WNBA history to reach 7,000 points, 1,500 rebounds, and 1,500 assists for a career.

“It’s been a good two weeks for me, personally, and on the basketball side of it,” Taurasi said after Sunday’s game. “Just a lot of good things happening at once and this team is in its early stages coming together, so a lot of good things are happening right now.”

Phoenix next heads to Indiana on Wednesday in a game at Indiana that will be streamed on twitter while New York that morning at 11 will host its first youngsters game here and will host the Atlanta Dream, which had a comeback Sunday in Washington spoiled by the Mystics, specifically the dynamic Elena Delle Donne, at the finish.

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