Shavonte Zellous has been critical to Liberty's late-season resurgence, and at a most opportune time. (Photo by Ray Floriani/Daly Dose Of Hoops)
By Ray Floriani (@rfloriani)
NEW YORK -- Bill Laimbeer has seen this as a coach, and experienced it firsthand as a player.
When you come off a long road trip, it does not matter if you go 5-0 or 1-4. There is still a bit of a hangover, a trace of staleness and fatigue, the latter the result from travel and being on the go as much as playing the games. That first game back at home finds a team a bit off their mark.
The New York Liberty experienced that hosting the Indiana Fever on Tuesday. In the end, the Liberty were able to battle through, making the plays to ensure a hard fought 81-76 victory at Madison Square Garden.
“I could see in the afternoon shootaround we were not sharp,” Laimbeer said in the aftermath of the win. “We did not play well, but were able to get the win.”
The Liberty led the entire first half, taking a 46-40 lead into the locker room at halftime. Tina Charles setting up on the blocks was an inside force the Fever did not have an answer for. The former UConn star had 18 points in the opening stanza. While Charles was a defensive headache for Indiana head coach Pokey Chatman, a local product was giving the Liberty fits. Erica Wheeler, a guard out of nearby Rutgers, was on fire from the perimeter and keeping the Fever close. Wheeler led all scorers with 20 points in the first half.
“She hit jump shots. She wasn’t blowing by people to get to the rim,” Laimbeer said of Wheeler. “She has a quick release, got open, and hit jump shots. Give her a lot of credit, she shot them into the game.”
The second half saw the Fever respond by placing more help on Charles. On her every catch down low, the Liberty standout was faced with two defenders, resulting in her being limited to eight points after the intermission. On this night, a big reason the Liberty pulled through was the efforts of their bench.
“We played a lot of people,” Laimbeer said. “But that’s why your bench is there. To give you the help.” Prominent among those in relief was Kiah Stokes with a timely 12-point effort. In the fourth quarter, the Liberty finally slowed Wheeler down. Outside of two three-pointers in the last 20 seconds, she was quiet.
“We played Chicago and Indiana twice now recently,” Laimbeer said. “Those teams have you switching on screens. In the fourth quarter, we made an effort to get through those screens aggressively and not give her (Wheeler) room.”
Wheeler finished with a game-high 33 points. The only other Fever player in double digits was Candice Dupree, with 14. Charles led the Liberty with 26, with three teammates; Shavonte Zellous (16), Bria Hartley (13), and Stokes (12) also double-figure scorers.
The Fever fell to 9-18. The Liberty improved to 13-12, one game over .500; and with the playoffs less than a month away, the attitude remains upbeat.
“Things that we did not do well on the road trip are correctable,” Zellous said. “We are studying film and identifying those things, such as playing better transition defense.”
As a group, Zellous lauds the team’s ability to constantly stay together, even when facing adversity. She also echoed Laimbeer’s sentiments summing up the victory.
“We were aggressive on defense in that fourth quarter,” she said. “We responded and want nothing more to carry that over to Friday night when we visit Atlanta.”