Kiah Stokes was viewed by many on the outside as nothing more than a role player at UConn. But Bill Laimbeer saw something much more, and now, the rest of the WNBA is finding that out as well.
NEW YORK CITY – The halftime deficit was five points. Truth be told, everyone in that locker room knew it could have been worse. The New York Liberty had just played 20 minutes of unspectacular offensive basketball. They were very fortunate the Connecticut Sun, with only one road loss, did not own a double-digit lead.
Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer approached halftime with a message for his team. No rah-rah Knute Rockne type speech (though Laimbeer did play at Notre Dame). The grease board presentation was kept to a minimum. Laimbeer’s message was short and profound ‘come out and raise the energy level’.
“I know it was tough,” the coach confessed. “We played yesterday (a win over San Antonio) and back to back games are difficult. I went through them as a player, the legs seem to go the next night.” Still, to win this game the Liberty had to take a deep breath and dig deep down and find a way. They did as they upended the Sun 64-57 on Thursday at Madison Square Garden.
You can point to another solid Tina Charles performance, 22 points and 12 rebounds both game highs. You can look to the defense of the team (24 points by the Sun the final half) and Kiah Stokes, in particular, a franchise record 8 blocks along with seven points and eight rebounds.
For Laimbeer, everyone who was given minutes contributed. The coach was especially pleased with Tanisha Wright. She scored just four points at the guard spot but set the tone.
“Tanisha (Wright) drove the club,” Laimbeer said. “She set a precedent with her defense and constantly encouraged everyone to keep fighting through fatigue, keep the energy level going.”
Still, conversation reverted to Stokes. And with good reason.
“She (Stokes) is starting to look for shots which is only good for us,” Laimbeer said. “I’ll tell you if there is a better defender I haven’t seen her.”
Sun coach Anne Donovan, who rejected more than a few shots in her outstanding career, also praised the Liberty rookie.
“She’s not Britney (Griner),” Donovan said. Her remark was not meant as a negative but a contrast. “Stokes has phenomenal timing and seems to come from almost out of nowhere to block the shot. Also, she does not foul which is so important for someone blocking shots.”
Stokes was pleased with the franchise record but spoke more about the team improving. “We need to take care of the ball better,” she said. “We also must improve our offensive rebounding and execute our offense. There’s a lot to do. At 9-5, the Liberty may have work to do but currently are in a good situation. Last year seems like ages ago.
“A year ago we lose this game by ten points,” Laimbeer said. “We would have folded without a doubt.”
The Sun entered the Garden with a four-game losing streak. They still were a dangerous team and of greater significance, a division rival. “This is the type of game that doesn’t seem big now but can be later,” Laimbeer said. “You can be playing near the end of the season and this type of win can be one that gets you in the playoffs or gets you home-court advantage.”
Laimbeer may not have pointed that out during intermission of the Sun contest. There probably wasn’t a need to serve this as a reminder. This is a Liberty team with great chemistry and sense of purpose. They put all that out there the final twenty minutes on Thursday.