Zahui B.’s career night, Nurse free throws lift Liberty over Sparks, 98-92

Amanda Zahui B signals after making one of her seven three-point shots on the night. NBAE/Getty Images photo.
Amanda Zahui B signals after making one of her seven three-point shots on the night. NBAE/Getty Images photo.

Los Angeles – The New York Liberty rebounded from a tough loss the night before to surge past the Los Angeles Sparks Saturday, 98-92, and win the third out of their last four games.

Amanda Zahui B. led New York with a career-high 37 points, including 7-8 shots from the three-point line. Kia Nurse added 26 points – 15 of which came from free throws – including 12 in the fourth quarter alone.

Zahui B. said her team’s defense got better, but credited their offense in the win.

“We really executed, and we stayed locked in and we played together,” she said. “We focused on the small things, and the ball fell in our basket at the right times. We played on our Liberty level that we can play on. We’re building.”

The two teams exchanged baskets throughout the first half, with the Sparks maintaining a two-point lead at the end of each frame. Midway through the third quarter, a Chiney Ogwumike put back layup inflated the Los Angeles lead to 67-60. But buckets from Zahui B., Nurse and rookie Asia Durr, who finished with 11 points, helped tie the score at 72 going into the final 10 minutes.

With 5:48 to go, an Alexis Jones three-pointer put the hosts up, 84-79. But missed Sparks shots and 10 shots at the charity stripe for Nurse gave New York the win. Los Angeles saw seven free throw attempts, while the visitors made the trip 26 times.

Ogwumike scored 26 points and grabbed 14 rebounds, while Nneka Ogwumike had 20 points and Chelsea Gray, 18.

Sparks coach Derek Fisher said his team’s energy didn’t match those of their opponents.

‘I’m still a little confused….they shot almost 20 more free throws than us,” he said. “But that’s how it goes sometimes when the other team looks like they’re moving faster and playing quicker: the whistles tend to go their way.”

Fisher said Los Angeles “didn’t have the discipline at times to move the basketball from one side (of the court) to the other,” but said the team was tired down the stretch.

“They didn’t present any challenges to us that we hadn’t seen before, but they deserve credit for finishing the game,” he said of the visitors.

Both teams played Friday night – the Sparks in Phoenix, and the Liberty in Las Vegas. Los Angeles players arrived by plane at around 11:30 a.m. Saturday, while the New York team traveled by bus, and got to their hotel just after 3 a.m.

“It’s a tough back-to-back, but we’re professionals, and it’s a big part of our job to make sure we’re ready,” Nurse said. “But we have really good (team) leadership….making sure we’re ready to go.”

The challenge was the same on the Sparks’ side.

“It’s tough. When you land at noon and you’re back at 2 p.m., and you have two hours to get ready to run it back, that’s a challenge,” Chiney Ogwumike said. “I think you have to mentally decide there are no excuses.”

Liberty coach Katie Smith said the team’s effort on both sides of the floor got the win.

“Our defense towards the end, our communication on pick and rolls was good,” she said. “We were more locked in on how we wanted to guard them. And then on the other end, we really did execute…and we were able to make our free throws.”

“I thought they battled and came out on both ends and really gave good effort from start to finish, and we were able to sneak out of here.”

New York won the previous Sunday, for the first time since July 11, 2018. They have new faces on the roster this season, and have coped with player absences due to overseas commitments. But Smith sees progress.

“Our season overall….we’ve been building,” she said. “Our energy has been really good. We’ve improved in areas: pushing tempo a little bit more, getting easier opportunities without the (opponent) defense being set. On the defensive end, we’re just trying to get smarter.”

“The energy has to be there, but you also have to be smart on how you guard people. It’s just a daily process.”

The Liberty host the Chicago Sky Wednesday, while the Sparks play the Mystics at home on Tuesday.