The Liberty have as many wins now as they did through all of last season. So what's behind their success this season? The play of Tina Charles and Kia Nurse.
On a Friday night that featured a star-studded matchup—that included a freaking earthquake suspending play—between the Mystics and the Aces, you’d be forgiven for missing the other late game. But as Washington continued to assert its dominance over the rest of the league, we got a front-row seat to the Tina and Kia Show in Phoenix.
New York started slowly, scoring only 17 points in the first quarter to Phoenix’s 26, but the Liberty quickly recovered in the second quarter before playing the Mercury just about even for the rest of the game before Nurse commanded a double team and dished it to Charles for the bucket that ultimately led to an 80-76 Libs’ victory.
And while we creep ever closer to the middle of the season, one thing has become clear: This team is highly dependent on the play of Tina Charles and Kia Nurse. I wrote a bit about Nurse in this week’s column, the gist of which explained how Nurse has proven this season that she is ready to step into stardom.
Nurse dropped 26 points on 8 of 11 shooting (!!) to lead the Libs in scoring and fell short of only Brittney Griner, who scored 30 points, in terms of leading all scorers for the game. And while Griner got loose quite a bit during the game, the most impressive thing to watch Friday was Charles and Nurse putting the team on their back and taking matters into their own hands.
The second-year player from UConn has been spectacular this season, with her 16.7 points per game good for seventh most in the league so far. Give Nurse more than a of foot of space and the shot is up and likely preparing to fall through the net before defenders get oriented. Her shooting, especially from three—she’s shooting 37.8% from the perimeter—has really helped open up New York’s offense, which is putting up 79.5 points per game.
And while we’re talking about scoring, it’d be negligent to not include the fact that Charles is averaging the second-most points in the league behind only DeWanna Bonner, who had a poor shooting night Friday.
Both team’s premier bigs were getting just about whatever they wanted in the post on Friday but the Mercury’s perimeter players just couldn’t step up when they were needed. Griner and Leilani Mitchell were the only Phoenix players in double digits, with Bonner scoring nine, surprise-starter Sophie Cunningham with two and underwhelming games from Essence Carson and Briann January.
The Mercury had a rough start to the season and could really use Diana Taurasi, who is set to return any game now—no doubt Taurasi would have relished taking a shot in the closing moments Friday, many of which found front rim. But she will likely take some time to get back into a groove and while Phoenix has played the least games in the W so far, it could use a strong run of games to put some room between it and some of the other teams at the bottom.
Meanwhile, New York has as many wins now as it did all of last season and is sitting pretty with the fifth spot in the standings. And much of that success comes down to the incredibly play of Charles and Nurse as well as the flexibility of coach Katie Smith to keep adapting her lineup around missing players.
Where this team goes for the rest of the season isn’t quite clear but there’s potential for Liberty postseason basketball again and it’s looking like New York will have two representatives in Las Vegas for the All-Star Game this year. Not bad for a team that finished with the second-worst record last season.