NEW YORK — Let love win.
Kia Vaughn’s on-court message to her fellow basketball players, teammate and opponent alike, rang loud throughout Madison Square Garden as the New York Liberty and Minnesota Lynx got ready to square off in a crucial game late in the season. Before thoughts turned to either getting closer to securing the league’s best record (Minnesota) or securing a playoff spot (New York), emotions were already elevated before the opening tip, with both of the teams and many fans in the stands locking arms with the person next to them, part of the WNBA’s Unity Game initiative in responding to and standing up against against inequality and racism on the backdrop of the events that occurred in Charlottesville, Va. last weekend.
As for the game itself, New York (17-12) continued its mastery of the league’s best teams, defeating Minnesota 70-61 to notch its fifth consecutive victory – the last three of those coming against the teams ranked third, second and first in the WNBA standings. Today’s win against the league-leading Lynx (22-6) also wrapped up a playoff spot for the Liberty.
Tina Charles continued to be the consistent leader for Liberty during the team’s run, as she led the team with 19 points in helping New York overcome a slow start to the contest.
Liberty head coach Bill Laimbeer said the team knows who they are but they didn’t wake up until the third quarter this afternoon.
“We didn’t come to win the basketball game, we came to play the basketball game,” said Laimbeer about his team’s start, one in which New York scored only 11 points and found itself down by eight after the first 10 minutes.
The Liberty came out with much more energy in the second half, cutting an early seven-point deficit down to one of a number of occasions. Two Sugar Rodgers free throws with 40 seconds remaining in the quarter gave New York its first lead of the second half, 45-44. The Liberty never trailed again after that.
In the fourth, Charles hit a three-pointer with 4:58 remaining to put the Liberty up 12 (60-48) and got the frenzied Liberty supporters out of their seats.
“I think the biggest difference was just the defense that Kiah Stokes and Kia Vaughn did on Sylvia Fowles,” said Charles. Fowles, one of the front-runners for the league’s Most Valuable Player award, was limited to seven points – 13 below her season average – while also committing five turnovers. Fowles did lead all players in the game with a season-high 15 rebounds.
Coach Laimbeer said the game plan was to keep the Lynx to the perimeter, a game plan that definitely paid off; Minnesota only made seven of their 27 three-point attempts in the contest.
“The biggest key was our bigs and the help we gave on Sylvia Fowles,” said Laimbeer.
Former league MVP Maya Moore once again paced the Lynx in the scoring department, scoring 22 points in the defeat.
“We’re used to teams focusing on Sylvia, it’s just a matter of continuing to respond to different team strategies when they bring attention to her”, said Moore, who also made half of her eight three-point attempts.
The Lynx played without two important players this afternoon, as Rebekkah Brunson was out due to a sprained left ankle while Lindsay Whalen is still recovering from a fractured left hand.
New York’s turnaround over the last month could largely be centered on the insertion of Bria Hartley into the starting lineup, as the Liberty are 9-3 since she replaced Sugar Rodgers at the point guard spot. Rodgers said that, at first, it was a mental challenge for her because it felt like a demotion.
“They felt I could get more people involved coming off the bench,” said Rodgers, who scored 10 points and had five rebounds off the bench this afternoon.
After the game, Moore and Charles gave their opinions on Kia Vaughn’s statement at center court before the game. “Anytime we can encourage healing and compassion, it’s always a great thing,” said Moore. Added Charles: “The fact that the [Liberty] has allowed us to speak up and use our platform, it just means the world to us”. Charles and Moore were teammates in college when they played at the University of Connecticut.