WHITE PLAINS, NEW YORK- Entering play today, the (0-4) New York Liberty were hungry and looking for their first win since July 15, 2018. With today’s gritty victory over the (2-2) Las Vegas Aces, they snapped a 17-game losing streak, the longest in franchise history, which was also tied for the third longest in WNBA history. New York upset Las Vegas by a substantial margin: 88-78. Today’s game was one that New York Liberty Head Coach Katie Smith called “our best game since the time I’ve been here as head coach. I’m very proud of our team …. [and] their effort from start to finish.”
Some #wnba action from the Westchester county center….
— Danielle McCartan (@CoachMcCartan) June 9, 2019
The Liberty run out the clock to a standing ovation… they have just defeated the Aces 88-78.
It is their first win since July 15, 2018.
— Danielle McCartan (@CoachMcCartan) June 9, 2019
The Liberty scored the most points since… you guessed it… the last time they won a game. While Las Vegas Aces Head Coach Bill Laimbeer attributed that statistic to “our fast-paced style of play”, Smith talked about benchmark scoring as a team goal. Should fans expect to see this style of play from the Liberty, moving forward? Have they, five games into the season, found their identity as a high-scoring team? In her post-game press conference, Coach Smith said: “We have to score. It’s not even an identity… we have to get it above 85 [points per game]. That’s our goal for the season. If you look at the league and where that’s at, that’s about middle of the pack. That 85 is a number we have to reach.”
New York’s 10-4 run to open the second quarter propelled the team to outscore Las Vegas 45-37 at the conclusion of the first half. They didn’t look back- there were no lead changes after the second half began. The Liberty, at one point, even opened up a 16-point lead over the Aces. Tina Charles led all New York point scorers (15). “Tina Charles is a [former] MVP, herself and she showed that tonight” Aces guard Kayla McBride commented after the game. Head Coach Katie Smith said: “[Tina] does draw a lot of attention and she always needs to be aggressive, but we also need other people to be able to get their own shots [and] to knock down shots when they’re doubling. I thought everyone, including Tina, was able to find other people who got good looks and were able to put them in the hole.” Those ‘other people’ were: Bria Hartley (who added 14 points) and Kia Nurse (who chipped in 12 of her own). Three Liberty players finished in double digits.
The Aces were playing with the 2018 Rookie of the Year (A’Ja Wilson) and recently acquired All-Star center (Liz Cambage)- “two of the best bigs in the world”, as described by Liberty Head Coach Katie Smith today.
In fact, a closer look at the Aces’ lineup reveals the immense talent that Head Coach Bill Laimbeer is working with this season, in terms of the players’ draft position. Below, you will see that every starter from today’s game was drafted either first, second, or third overall.
- Jackie Young: 1st overall (2019)
- A’Ja Wilson: 1st overall (2018)
- Kelsey Plum: 1st overall (2017)
- Kayla McBride: 3rd overall (2014)
- Liz Cambage: 2nd overall (2011)
The Aces are talented and their bench is deep. With preseason expectations high for Las Vegas, and with sitting at 2-3 on the season, I asked Coach Laimbeer if today’s loss to a team that hadn’t won a game since last July 15 was a confidence buster for his team. With a laugh, Laimbeer replied: “You never heard me say we’re going to be… [Laimbeer points to the gathered members of the media] you’ve heard all these people say that.” To me, there is no way the Aces’ level of talent and today’s gross underperformance can be ignored.
So… what went wrong today?
1. Reigning rookie of the year A’ja Wilson was limited to just 5 total points: a career low. Prior to today’s game, her career low was 10 points (July 1, 2018 vs. Los Angeles Sparks). Laimbeer said: “We have to get Aja on track. Tina really took it for her today. Tina was physical with her today and took her out the basketball game. Aja has to work on her individual game. It came so easy for her last year. I told her this season she has to do something different.” Wilson, didn’t shy away from the fact that she needs to better her game, telling me: “I really have to take that accountability on myself to bring a lot more energy, to be that player to create other stuff, and also to get my teammates involved as well.” Wilson did not lead on when I asked about the health of her knee, only five games into the season: “It’s good. It’s alright”.
2. Aces’ Guard McBride (who led all scorers today with 18 points) cited roster changes and “being able to integrate all of the pieces together”. She added, “Once we find our way, the sky is the limit”. When I asked how she hopes they will do that, she responded: “It’s going to take time, number one, in trusting each other. I think we need to be in some of the best shape we can possibly be in because we’re going to be everybody’s best game. We’ve got the MVP runner-up on our already pretty talented team. But, it takes a mental focus and toughness to be able to compete in this league… Once we bring that energy and mental toughness each, and every night, that’s what’s going to be able to build the trust and, ultimately, build the chemistry.” Wilson echoed that sentiment: “We’ve got to continue to grow. We’re still new to this, we’re still getting adjusted to everybody. The pieces to the puzzle are coming together but it’s going to take a lot more and we have to do things a lot quicker. We have to do that by learning, not necessarily the basketball game, but learning each other[‘s tendencies].”
3. Effort was at an all-time low. In fact, both Wilson and Laimbeer talked about the Aces’ lackluster effort:
Wilson: “They just went out there and they were just hungry for a win. We went out there kind of laxidasical and we can’t do that, especially being the team that we are. We can’t do that against anybody in this league so they came out and they were hungry for it, knocking down shots and getting second-chance shots, third efforts- that’s key as well.”
Laimbeer: “We have to learn how to win and tonight was a perfect example. We didn’t show to play for almost two-thirds of the game. That can’t happen, but we’re going to hopefully learn from this. We know if we play as hard as we can, and we push the pace, we’re going to be okay. We didn’t do that tonight until it was too late.”
— Danielle McCartan (@CoachMcCartan) June 10, 2019
Wilson says Las Vegas’ mentality moving forward is to “continue to do us, stay within our system, understand our system, and keep going. We don’t need to look back on anything, we’ve got 24 hours to turn the page and keep working.” Wilson offered: “We know we’re going to get everybody’s best game, that’s probably the biggest difference from last year, but this is definitely a better start than we had last year and it still sucks because we lost three games that we could have won”. True: the Aces found themselves staring at a 1-6 record on June 9, 2018. Maybe it isn’t time to press the panic button just yet.
While the (1-4) Liberty will host the Minnesota Lynx on Wednesday night, the (2-3) Aces’ will enjoy some time off before hosting the Liberty on Friday night at Mandalay Bay Convention Center.
McBride talked a little about the ‘rivalry’ between the teams: “Obviously I thought it was going to be physical, coming to New York. Lot of tension there, I guess: BJ is our assistant coach, Bill’s [our] head coach,…Sugar was here. There’s a lot of, not bad blood, but integration there so, you know you’re going to get New York’s best, especially here. It was a tough game, but give credit to New York, I thought they played great. They needed a win and they got one o their home floor”. Expect another hard-fought game.