NEW YORK- The sports axiom that has become a popular go-to in terms of water cooler conversations goes that a team wants to be playing its best right before the start of the playoffs. That said, there may be no more dangerous team heading towards the end of the WNBA season than the New York Liberty.
Tina Charles and Epiphanny Prince each scored 20 points and the Liberty defense allowed only six points in the fourth quarter as they defeated the Washington Mystics 74-66, New York’s seventh consecutive win as well its sixth straight at home. The win also gives the Liberty their longest win streak since the team piled up 10 consecutive victories back in the 2010 season.
Both teams came in tied in the loss column for the fourth seed in the WNBA Playoff race – which comes with a first-round bye – and the winner of the game would own the tiebreaker over the other as the team’s split their first two matchups. Spanning the end of the third quarter and into the fourth, New York went on a 13-2 run to turn a two-point deficit into a comfortable victory in the end. Defensively, the Liberty held the Mystics to just two points in the first 8:58 of the fourth.
”I know that this [tiebreaker] really gave us a good leg up for the four seed,” said New York Liberty head coach Bill Laimbeer in the post game press conference. “We have a long way to go. Right now the three seed is in question and our magic number now is two with three games to play and [the Mystics] have four games to play.”
New York’s winning streak and its stellar play since the end of July has coincided with the addition of Bria Hartley into the starting lineup as point guard, with the Liberty now 10-3 since that insertion.
“Pace of play,” Laimbeer started when asked what Hartley has brought to the team since the change. “I think we’re getting better at ball movement. She pushes the ball better for us and we get easier baskets in transition. She hounds the ball well.”
In the previous two meetings with the Mystics, Charles shot a combined 6-for-25, scoring just 14 points total. On Friday night, Charles scored more points in the first half (17) than she did in those first two games combined against Washington, hitting eight of her 13 shots in the first half. Prince also scored in double figures in the first half with 13, and back-to-back threes from Hartley and Prince to end the third quarter and to begin the fourth sparked the game-changing run.
The run was also sparked by the defense, with New York making life tough for the Mystics from the three-point line, where Washington was 3-for-18 from beyond the arc – only hitting one out of their 10 three-point attempts in the second half.
“Tonight was really huge playing against a really great team,” said Charles, who tied fellow Christ the King High School alum and women’s basketball great Chamique Holdsclaw for 20th all-time on the WNBA’s career scoring list. “[Defense is] our identity. We’re so used to making teams uncomfortable and shooting a low percentage so I’m happy we were able to shut them down on that.”
The bright spot for the Mystics tonight was seeing the return of leading scorer and 2015 WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne, who missed the last six games while recovering from surgery to repair a torn ligament in her left thumb. In her first game back, she played 34 minutes and scored 15 points on 6-of-11 shooting. She also added four rebounds and four assists.
“It’s sore, but taping it up and going with the flow,” said Delle Donne about how she felt being back out on the court. “I had to get out there to get a feel for things and test the thumb out. It’s always tough getting back into the flow of things and figuring stuff out, and knowing when to attack. Definitely good to get back and get a couple of games under our belt before playoffs come.”
New York’s magic number to clinch at least the No. 4 seed in the WNBA playoffs is two, and it can do its part in getting closer to securing that seeding when they play host to Chicago on Sunday.