Coleman, Liberty hold on to edge Fever, 78-75

Westchester, N.Y.- Marissa Coleman made sure that her former team would not steal a win Sunday, as the New York Liberty edged the Indiana Fever, 78-75, in another late-game thriller.

Coleman’s seven points was not flashy, nor was it her best game. But with 16.8 seconds remaining, she drilled the go-ahead three-pointer to give the Liberty the lead late.

New York guard Sugar Rodgers had her best game of the season, scoring a team-high 16 points on 5-10 shooting from the field. Her touch from behind the arc was dynamite as she knocked down 5-9 from that range.

Rodgers continues to make strides in her return from a early season knee injury. After exiting early in the season opener and missing the games that followed, Rodgers wasted no time trying to find a groove in her return. Her explosion for 16 points almost doubled her overall total points scored for the previous three games (nine points) she’s played in.

It’s a testament to the Liberty’s bench production as of late – something for which leading scorer Tina Charles commends her teammates.

“The team definitely stepped up. I’ve been in situations like that before where the ball is just not going in the rim and it’s frustrating. When you have a team that is playing hard and being very encouraging, it just shows the depth of this team,” Charles said.

“The confidence that [coach] Katie (Smith) has in each and every single one of them to put them in at that time, Sugar Rodgers coming in had a big impact. Bria Hartley being aggressive going to the rim. Marissa Coleman with the big shot. Everyone is capable of being a star in their own role.”

Charles had a relatively quiet night with 13 points and four rebounds. However, four other Liberty players reached double digits: rookie Kia Nurse (10 points), guard Bria Hartley (12 points), Rodgers (16 points) and Shavonte Zellous (10 points).

After scoring the go-ahead bucket but still losing in their last game against the Connecticut Sun, Coleman knew how important this win is.

“It was exciting, especially to be against my former team, to have the opportunity to hit that shot, it was fun. We needed this win after the game-winner hit on us against Connecticut,” Coleman said. “We need to find ways to not be in these close games and not to be in the position where it takes a crazy shot…..or a game-winner for us. We just need to find ways to play with energy and sustain that for four quarters.”

Indiana’s center and point guard combo of Natalie Achonwa (10 points and 10 rebounds) and Kelsey Mitchell (19 points) did everything possible to give the Fever their first win of the season.

The second quarter is where things started to get rocky for the Fever. The Liberty held the Fever to 12.5 percent from behind the arc, as well as 33.3 percent from the field. A major drop off from their first quarter percentages of 41.2 percent from the field and 100 percent from behind the arc.

However, by the end of the game the Fever dominated New York on the boards, outrebounding them 31-22, as well as outscoring the Liberty in the paint, 24-16.

Mitchell started the contest off strong, scoring seven of the team’s 18 first-quarter points. The team’s defense was near perfect as they kept the Liberty to woeful shooting percentages across the board: 29.4 percent from the field and 28.6 percent from behind the arc.

However, after one, the Fever only managed an 18-17 lead, with Zellous carrying the offensive load for the Liberty, as she scored seven of the team’s 17 points after the first.

Indiana’s offense became very stagnant for the remainder of the first half. They shot 37.1 percent from the field as well as 22.2 percent from behind the arc, yet the Liberty were up 38-36 at the half.

The Fever are without six-time WNBA all-star Candice Dupree (left knee injury) and guard Shenise Johnson (ACL rehab). Injuries continue to plague both teams – especially the Fever, who are still seeking their first win of the season.

Achonwa said she and her teammates are trying to step up and fill the void.

“That’s definitely why we are narrowing that gap because we don’t have a turnover. You have the five that are starting and being competitive,” Achonwa said. “And the next people that are coming in are keeping that energy high and keeping that competitiveness and that is what is making those gaps shorter and shorter.”

Hartley continued her strong play of late, motivated by competition for her starting spot from rookie Nurse. In the last 2:06 of regulation, Hartley turned on the heat. After committing the team’s 15th turnover, Hartley buckled down and knew it was time to win.

She knocked down a rainbow from 25 feet, after a two-man in-and-out game with Charles, tying the game at 71-71. With the Fever committing their 18th turnover, Hartley took full advantage of Indiana’s mental mistake and sprinted down the court to finish a tough layup off a Zellous pass to give New York the lead at 73-71.

Newly inducted Women’s Hall of Famer and Liberty coach Katie Smith spoke highly of Hartley’s play late in games.

“I think Bria is really comfortable in those situations and hits big shots for us. She is one of our best drivers and finishers. She can attack the rim and create for others,” Smith said. “So that ability, being able to handle it and go make plays late in the shot clock or late in the game is huge. Tonight, she made some big buckets for us.”

Keeping Charles to 13 points on 4-15 shooting is no easy task, especially for a struggling team like the Fever. Coach Pokey Chatman identified some of those positives including the defense on Charles, especially in the fourth quarter.

“You know she’s the head of the snake. You do a good job. Players are working hard. Things didn’t quite go our way at the end,” Chatman said.

With the Liberty still dealing with injuries, these types of games from Rodgers will ease the scoring load from Charles evening out the pressure from the defense. With the longest stretch of consecutive games of the season underway, the Liberty needed this win no matter who the opponent was.

“It was a big win. Playing a team below us in terms of record, and another on Wednesday, maybe you look at the standings and say they are a team that you should beat, but you have to show up against teams like that,” Smith said. “There are still a bunch of little things we have to correct and they are some of the same things we have been battling with our first five games. We just really want to get better every night and become a much better basketball team.”

With former head coach Bill Lambier coming into town with the Las Vegas Aces this week, Smith knows that every team has to be taken seriously no matter the record.

“It will be great. To have Bill back in New York, I am sure a lot of fans will have fun with him, whether it’s good, bad, or booing,” Smith said. “He embraces all of that. It will be good to see him in a different role, with another team.”

The 3-4 Liberty, 3-4, will host the 1-7 Aces tomorrow night.