The New York Liberty are on a two-game winning streak. While that may not sound like much, these ladies needed to stop the bleeding of a three game losing skid, and stop it before they fly cross-country for a three game road swing. After a convincing win in Tulsa, the Liberty brought their game back to the Garden to take on neighboring rivals, the Connecticut Sun.
The Sun had beaten them in their last meeting up north, and New York was looking to make a statement win at home before departing for California. Did they play four solid quarters of basketball? Well, no, but at least they got their bad one out of the way first and spent the next three making up for lost time.
Before the game, Coach Ann Donovan spoke of the importance of the Tulsa win. "I thought we were very focused against Tulsa," she told us. "There [were] good things in that game; Tulsa is better than their record indicates in terms of how they make you play, so I thought our composure in that game, how we shared the ball in that game were really good signs of us hopefully turning a corner." Focus seemed to be a, well, focus throughout the Connecticut game, and we really got to see how differently the Liberty play when they have it versus when it’s missing.
In the first quarter, New York looked as though they had left everything they had in Oklahoma. They started the game with a quick airball and then a turnover, and Donovan took her first timeout within minutes of the tipoff. The defense looked scrambled, and Tina Charles manhandled the Liberty in the post on both ends of the floor. To be fair, it seems as though the team has been listening to my pleadings about driving to the basket; three of the first four made shots were on lay-ups, and eight of their 17 points in the quarter were made in the paint. Unfortunately, the Liberty’s 17 points looked pathetic next to the Sun’s 30.
Whatever Donovan said, or didn’t say, after the first quarter ended really got into the players’ heads. Cappie Pondexter mentioned that they saw the look in Coach’s eyes and knew they needed to step it up. Coach Donovan said, "We got knocked pretty good in the first. But after that, I thought we really did lock down. Even the second quarter we got more focused - there were not as many open jumpers as there were in the first quarter." There’s that word again: focus. As an example, in the second period, the Liberty had four steals and committed just one turnover. The Sun didn’t shoot a single free throw in the second, and the Liberty won the quarter 17 points to 16.
I would love to have been a fly on the wall in the Liberty locker room during halftime. They went in there down by 13 points, and had another disappointment staring them in the face. When asked about the atmosphere, Taj McWilliams-Franklin said, "Every person came in and said ‘our defense is awful. Our box-outs are awful. Our rotations are awful’. There wasn’t one person that said ‘oh, we did great’…so when you have a team effort and everybody can see each other and what they did wrong and then come out and say ‘do this better’, you’re pretty much gonna have a good game."
And have a good game they did. They really started to click both offensively with extra passes, clean rotations and smarter shot selection, and defensively by shutting down Tina Charles inside and stumping the Sun with full-court press. When asked about what changed with the team in the second half, Coach Donovan told us, "I thought our focus was better, I think our full court pressure forced their offense, and changed their offense in the second half." Starting to notice a theme, here? When the Liberty pay attention, they play well. They finished the game with 12 steals, a tribute to how focused they were on the ball. They had double the rebounds (14 to the Sun’s 7) in the third quarter, which was more evidence that they were focused on every play to the end.
As I said, this wasn’t a perfect game. If they could erase the first quarter from the record, I’m sure the Liberty would happily do so. What it means, however, is that this team is capable of refocusing and recovering from a setback. They’ve already proven in previous games that they have a lot of heart by coming back and making it close, even if they can’t pull out a win. This victory against the Sun showed that the ladies are figuring out how to play as a team, and using each other to gather focus and fix their mistakes. As the eloquent Ann Donovan noted, the Liberty "are scrappy enough, and tough enough, and confident enough to walk away with the win against a very good team." These next three games against three talented Western Conference teams will show just how tough, and focused, they really are.