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Liberty Fall Short, But Enjoyed A Successful 2015

(Photo by Marlene Amaya-Vazquez / Double G Media)

(Photo by Marlene Amaya-Vazquez / Double G Media)

 

The dream run that the New York Liberty rode in the WNBA ended abruptly last night at Madison Square Garden. Before 10,120 fans, including celebrities like Spike Lee, the Indiana Fever defeated the Liberty 66-51 to advance to the WNBA Finals while New York was left dazed and disappointed.

Upon reflection, the Liberty, led by WNBA Coach of the Year Bill Laimbeer, did something special. They made people care about a women’s professional sports team and by extension garnered respect for the league not seen except in tennis and soccer.

“It is a great learning experience for us,” Laimbeer explained. “It’s a great start.”

Indeed it was.

What made it so different this year?

Start with Laimbeer and Isiah Thomas. There was a problem the last two years. There was a need to upgrade talent but more importantly character. They nearly remade the entire lineup retaining only All-Star forward Tina Charles, Swin Cash, Avery Warley-Talbert and Sugar Rodgers.

“When we started the season it was an adventure,” Laimbeer shared.

They made bold moves exchanging stars by trading an aging Cappie Pondexter to Chicago for Epiphanny Prince. They acquired Carolyn Swords to man the center position. They also got veterans Tanisha Wright and Candice Wiggins, who brought leadership and fire respectively. Essence Carson was back healthy and herself once more.

But the quick progression of this team, the dimension that made them quicker, athletic, and explosive was the two players they drafted. Kiah Stokes, fresh off a national championship with Connecticut, was a great personality smiling often but dominant on court with her shot-blocking highlighting a skill set that grew well ahead of expectations. Brittany Boyd was a lightning bolt. Her speed and toughness gave New York that energy that Laimbeer speaks of often when things tended to get bogged down. Her aggressiveness however led to the fall that injured her wrist four games from the end of the season, which may have cost the Liberty a finals appearance.

Going into this season who could have known that this collection of players would make the playoffs by posting the best record in the WNBA at 23-11? Add to that the Eastern Conference title and advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals to within a game of the WNBA Finals themselves.

They won support with their #burnbright campaign and attracted the famous to come see this exciting team everyone was talking about. Spike Lee and Big Ang, Knick legends Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe, New York Football Giants Prince Amukamara, and even Joe Walsh of the Eagles made appearances at The Garden. The Liberty were being confirmed as something worth watching the further the story unfolded.

As for the game, Indiana was physical and determined while New York saw several easy baskets roll in and out. It was an omen of things to come as the Fever rolled to a 33-22 halftime lead.

“We weren’t scoring,” Tina Charles said. “I don’t know what we shot, but it wasn’t good.”

When you are tripped of your trusted weapons, your team’s soul is exposed. Essence Carson was a blast from the past, hitting a big three to start a comeback that was further ignited by Candice Wiggins. She came off the bench to score 15 points this night. In one stretch she hit two three’s and a soaring layup to bring New York from 18 down to within four.

That was the high watermark. New York could no longer hold off the smart play of Tamika Catchings (14 points) and Marissa Coleman (15 points) who hit five of seven from the three to bury the remaining embers of New York’s fire.

“We’ve had success in this building a long time ago,” Coleman recalled. “I’m just thankful to be here with this group of girls and to be going back to the WNBA Finals.”

A game that the Liberty won on the boards 37-27 could not offset the poor shooting as they hit just 21 of 63 shots. That was not doing to get it done against an experienced team like Indiana, a regular at this stage of the season.

“With more experience and maturity we’ll get better,” Charles summarized.

In the end, New York did learn a lot about themselves and did find they are not far away from the holy grail that New York, a charter member of the WNBA, has been trying to attain.

“The best thing about this season is I gained sisters,” Tina Charles reflected. “This team un-matched to any other team that I’ve ever been on.”

Laimbeer sees this team as one that will make a lot of noise in the years to come. The look into the future began in 2015 and for all the women athletes on the New York roster, we at Double G Sports say, well-played.

For this journalist, it was a more intimate look following a team than I had ever done previously. It started in the cold winter of the off-season with Tina Charles, Teresa Weatherspoon, and Kym Hampton in Brooklyn for Tina’s charity “Hopey’s Heart, where we learned soon later she would donate half her salary. Name another player that ever did that.

Essence Carson, who I got to know when I first covered the Liberty two seasons ago in the Prudential Center and witnessing the knee injury that would take nearly as long to recover from. I got to see her visit children in the Hospital for Special Services where she had her surgery.

I was able to interview Sugar Rodgers, getting to learn more about her incredible road to beating the odds. I found Kiah Stokes always upbeat and enthusiastic. Candice Wiggins took nearly two thirds of a season to interview and it started with a tear filled but determined one after a tough loss to see the heart of a player that won me my admiration for her for the rest of the season. Carolyn Swords was always ready to talk whether after great wins or tough losses. Tina Charles, no matter how many interview you, you can always put a clever spin on every response.

The final event brought me to my old home court in Inwood where Kiah Stokes, Carolyn Swords, and Essence Carson ran a camp for kids in the heat of the summer. But many got autographs and free game tickets as the Liberty proved all year that they were as committed to the community as their games. It made them as special as their play. But their play was special to us all.

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