WHITE PLAINS, N.Y.- It was Las Vegas Aces’ head coach Bill Laimbeer’s first (and only) regular-season return to the Big Apple. After coaching the Liberty to three playoff births in five seasons, he bequeathed the team to one of his assistant coaches, a WNBA legend: Katie Smith. It was a matchup that pitted mentor (Laimbeer) against mentee (Smith). Ultimately, the mentor prevailed.
Speaking on the level of familiarity between the two teams, Smith, in her post-game conference, told reporters: “We [knew] what they [were] running, they [knew] what we [were] running, we [knew] where their bread and butter [was] at.”
During the course of the game, I spoke with New York Knicks’ center Kyle O’Quinn, who was in attendance to support the Liberty. He said: “Me personally, I’ve got a big-time thing for Tina Charles. I grew up watching her as a superstar in the area, so any time I get to watch her play, it puts me in ‘little kid mode’ again. She’s that big in the community. She’s a superstar to us.”
When I asked for his in-game analysis, he responded: “Tina Charles doing Tina Charles things. As soon as I walked in, she knocked down a jumper.” Despite Charles’ game-high 19 points, Smith indicated that the Liberty just “couldn’t get into an offensive flow or knock down shots with any consistency” in the contest.
Unfortunately for the Liberty, the Aces surrendered only 63 points, the least amount of points they’ve given up to an opponent all season. 22 of those points came off turnovers. In his return to New York, Laimbeer told me: “It was a game I’d like to win, obviously…. We only come here once this year and so I made that clear to our players … to go out and play hard, and they did”.
The Aces put together a mentally-tough, forty minute game. A’ja Wilson told me that playing a complete game “is something we’ve been really harping on in the locker room. We have glimpses of it at times where we’re there, we’re in the game, and then we always let the team come back.” The Aces lead the Liberty at the end of each quarter, shutting the door on them for good as the final buzzer sounded. “That was our main goal today”, said Wilson.
With the win over the Liberty, the Aces established the first winning streak in their brief history. Laimbeer, with a laugh, told me: “That’s what my wife said tonight after the game!” He added: It’s not about me, its’ about the players. I’ve been there, done that in many facets but this is about their their growing experience and their learning experience. That’s what I’m preaching: they’re so young, they’re talented, but they’re young and they need to learn professional basketball and how to win.” Wilson added: “We’re really coming around. I think we’re really coming around at a good time for us, it’s [almost] midseason, so for us to do that, and, when [Coach Laimbeer] gives us a challenge, we always step up to it and that’s always good….He wanted to see growth and I think he did see that in us today”.
The Aces seem to be on the precipice of turning their season around. Wilson has a tempered point of view: “We can only control what we can control.” One of those areas is their defense. After giving up 100 points to the Connecticut Sun (loss), and the Seattle Storm twice (both losses), Laimbeer had seen enough. He issued his team a challenge to tighten up their defense. “We’ve been working better at defense over the last five games. We started off pretty slowly because none of our players were here for training camp, but we’re picking it up. We have some good defenders on this basketball team and I think that over the course of time, we’re going to be an excellent defensive team. Now, can we score? Yeah. We can score, too”.
With a perennial playoff contending team lead by a solid core of veterans, why did Laimbeer leave New York? “I think to build something. I like building things. I went to Detroit and built a good basketball team. I came to New York and I think I built a good basketball team for them, and unfortunately we couldn’t get over the hump and win the championship. Now I have a new challenge. MGM [has] been very supportive of the organization. They really want to be successful and it’s Las Vegas, might as well give it a whack.”
The Aces (3-7) look to extend their winning streak to three games against the Dallas Wings (4-4) tomorrow night at 8pm. The Liberty (3-5) will travel to Minneapolis to take on the Minnesota Lynx (3-6) at 7pm.
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