and by Jim Clark
Westchester, N.Y. – The New York Liberty overcame a slow start with a momentous finish Tuesday to vault past the Dallas Wings, 94-89, and grab their first win of the season.
Tina Charles scored 18 of her game-high 34 points in the fourth quarter to lead the Liberty, along with ten rebounds. Shavonte Zellous scored 19 points and dished nine assists. It was also the first career win for new head coach Katie Smith.
Charles said getting the inaugural win for Smith was gratifying, but most meaningful was the team effort involved.
“What was more important than getting the first win of the season was that we came back, because this is something that we are always going to remember,” Charles said. “When we are down 15 or 16 points – hopefully we are not in that situation again – but anyone can get hot.”
The Wings threw the first punch, going on a 12-0 run to begin the game on the strength of perfect three-point shooting from Skylar Diggins-Smith. Center Liz Cambage, who finished with 28 points and 16 rebounds, dominated the paint to lead a Dallas defensive effort that kept New York on its heels for the next two quarters. Trailing by as much as 17, the Liberty entered the fourth period down by 11 points.
It was then that Charles exploded, scoring in every possible way. She was 6-8 from the field, including three shots from behind the arc. She snatched five rebounds, and she hit a fadeaway jumper with Cambage’s hand in her face.
At the same time, the Liberty defense came alive. With three guards (Brittany Boyd, Epiphanny Prince and Sugar Rodgers) on the injury list, and with Bria Hartley and Kia Nurse in foul trouble, Smith brought little-used wing Rebecca Allen off the bench for most of the second half. Although not reflected in the box score, Allen responded with one of the best outings of her career. She hit a three to bring the Liberty within four at 67-71, then two plays later blocked a Diggins-Smith three that threatened to stop New York’s momentum. The 6-2 Allen also harassed Diggins-Smith on the perimeter, helping to hold her to just four points in the second half.
The Liberty trailed for the entire game until under four minutes remained. They pulled even in a sequence in which Kia Nurse stole the ball from Cambage, was fouled, and made both free throws to bring New York within two, 74-76. Charles then stole the ball from Diggins-Smith and fed Zellous downcourt for a layup that tied the game for the first time with 3:58 remaining.
Dallas would not go away, but neither would Charles. The Wings took the lead twice more, but Charles reclaimed the lead for the Liberty each time.
With the score tied again at 86 with just under a minute remaining, Diggins-Smith tied up Charles in the paint with just six seconds on the shot clock. The ensuing jump ball was corralled by Allen, who fed Zellous for an off balance 25-footer to give the Liberty the lead for good, 89-86.
Time remained for Dallas with 34 seconds, as they took a timeout to advance the ball to the front court. But an offensive foul by Diggins-Smith against Kia Nurse turned the ball over, and the Wings were forced to foul. Charles hit four free throws on either side of a Diggins-Smith three, and Zellous made two more to bring the Liberty the victory, 94-89.
New York outscored Dallas 35-21 in the fourth quarter to complete the unexpected comeback.
Diggins-Smith finished with 20 points, while Kayla Thornton and Karima Christmas-Kelly each added 12 points for the visitors.
Charles said she took a different mindset into the last frame after hearing from director of player development Teresa Weatherspoon and Rodgers.
“My mentality was not necessarily to take charge but I wanted to be aggressive,” she said. “I was very passive and ‘Spoon and Sugar Rodgers were telling me that. They are very transparent, and they know I want to be great. Once I am playing at a certain level it makes the game easier for my teammates.”
Dallas coach Fred Williams said New York took them out of their game plan.
“Just too many turnovers in the second half,” he said of his team’s effort. “I thought that we got away from the things we were doing well in the first half, such as taking good percentage shots, and getting the ball inside. The momentum shifted in the middle of the third, when New York went on a run and hit a couple threes. We just never really recovered from it.”
Smith acknowledged a bit of relief in getting the win.
“We’re really happy for them to get this thing done today and the monkey off our back a little bit,” she said. “I’m super proud of them of digging out of that hole that we put ourselves in and playing so hard. Everybody made plays and were ready to go.”
The Liberty, now 1-2, travel to Indiana Saturday to take on the Fever, while the 2-3 Wings are at home, hosting the Seattle Storm.