New York, NY — The words “Let’s Go Liberty!” echoed over a sea of green, blue, and orange in Madison Square Garden on Saturday night as the New York Liberty took on the Phoenix Mercury in the second round of the WNBA playoffs.
There didn’t seem to be a seat unoccupied by an unwavering enthusiastic, confidently excited, screaming New York fan. And why wouldn’t they be excited? The third player in WNBA history with the highest points scored and rebounds, Tina Charles was on the court playing alongside talented second-year guard, Brittney Boyd was reason enough to be confident.
But, to add just an ounce more of spring in the Liberty fans’ steps, New York would be playing their first game in months with a full roster. Kiah Stokes, Tanisha Wright, and Epiphanny Prince were all focused, intensely energized, and ready to keep New York in the running for the championship.
However, none were more determined than the unstoppable Charles. A WNBA Rookie of the Year, WNBA MVP, and Olympic Gold Medalist, Charles confessed that she “wakes up in the morning dreaming about how she wants a championship,” one of the only things that she hasn’t won in her basketball career.
News of Charles’ hunger had one deterrent that would leave her famished: the Phoenix Mercury. When asked what their goal was for tonight’s game, Mercury players answered simply and unanimously: “Defend Tina!”
However, how would they do it?
As the game went on it became crystal clear that the way to defend Charles would be a stronger offense: Phoenix’s own, Diana Taurasi.
Gutsy, confident, and cool and collected, Taurasi carried the Pheonix Mercury to their 101-94 win over the Liberty. In a nail biting, heart racing, ‘fight to the last second’ game, Taurasi was not afraid to let the fans and every player on the court know that the night would turn into “Taurasi time.”
In one word, she was fearless- physically and emotionally.
She let that fearlessness and confidence show in the fourth quarter. An incredible driver of the ball and a player who shoots so unbelievably quick off of her dribble, Taurasi was not a loss for three-pointers throughout the game, scoring 4 out of 8 to be exact.
However, it was after a stellar three-point shot in the fourth quarter that she mouthed the word, “No!” to the entire arena.
It was clear -- Taurasi would not let her team leave defeated. At that moment, she said ‘no’ to losing an elimination game on the road, ‘no’ to the end of teammate Penny Taylor’s career, and ‘no’ to the end of the season. When asked if she planned on reigning in that emotional intensity, Taurasi answered simply: “No, I’m gonna let it fly. You don’t get this far without being emotional. I’m going to let it fly.”
It would prove that that emotion would take the Mercury even further and one step closer to shocking the world. However, Taurasi can only talk the talk because she does, indeed, walk the walk. She spent the game attacking Liberty’s top defender, Tanisha Wright, a task in and of itself.
Yet, only the third player in WNBA history to score 7,000 points (and the fastest to do it), she did not let that job distract her from her purpose to score and to score big. Taurasi ended the night with 30 points, over 50% from the field, two rebounds, and three assists. In short, she had the Liberty fighting uphill all night long, and they knew it.
The Liberty’s Wright spoke about that uphill battle with Taurasi, saying “Diana is difficult because she is so smart. She can shoot the ball. The best thing you can do is limit her touches and be disruptive. Make her work for everything, tire her down, and be disruptive.”
Unfortunately for Wright, and the rest of New York, Taurasi would not be slowed down, and she certainly would not be disrupted.
The urgency and ‘make it or break it’-ness of single elimination highlighted Taurasi's strengths, as she proved to everyone that crunch time was her time, and Coach Sandy Brondello couldn’t have agreed more: “That’s why I say, she is the best player in the world. She is such an unselfish player, but she’s a player that her determination to win in those big moments exceeds anyone else.
“I’ve been in this game for a long, long time, so she’s special. She wants to take those shots, we want her to take those shots, and she makes those shots.”
Alongside Brittney Griner, another unstoppable force in the game, Penny Taylor, and Candice Dupree, Taurasi and the rest of the Mercury Phoenix showed up and ran amuck for New York.
The Liberty simply had no consistent answer for the team of powerhouse players, who ended up shooting 51% and making 21-of 21-free throws. Even with the hard loss to such a powerful team, the Liberty did not leave the court utterly defeated.
Their leader, the player perhaps the hungriest for the win, Charles, responded saying: “You know, when I play to me success isn’t deemed by the awards you receive, it’s the impact you have on people. I had an impact on this organization and the teammates around me, so to me there was success.
“We did get better, we fought through adversity, and we didn’t make excuses for ourselves so aside from what happened tonight, I can’t cry. I’m going to hold my head up and just try to continue to set the example for others around me.”
Still, in a stadium full of fans bleeding green and blue and against Charles and company, Taurasi's boldness, fearlessness, and nerve carried the Mercury to a well-deserved win. But, for her, the playoff game was just another day in the life.
“It’s just another game. They are fun. You play your best, and you aren’t afraid of the moment.”
Coach Brondello saw it as much more and left the game very proud of her team: “That game had everything, didn’t it? I was a little critical of the knockout games, but I kind of like it right now, since I don’t want to go to war again with New York. It was a hard, competitive game. We just, we could hold on. We had the poise; we have a veteran team. I was very happy.
“Obviously, Diana Taurasi, it’s always good to have her on your team, but we have had contributions from all of the players who played tonight. I am very happy with that, so we will get some rest, and head back to Phoenix and get ready for Minnesota.”