New York Liberty 60 @ Washington Mystics 68
Lineups: New York stuck with the same five, but Mike Thibault made significant changes to his starting group. Kara Lawson and Monique Currie were both benched, with Tierra Ruffin-Pratt and Jelena Milovanovic coming in on the wings. In Ruffin-Pratt’s case you could see it as a defensive switch, bringing in someone who could cover Cappie Pondexter more effectively than Lawson. Considering Essence Carson isn’t playing well enough for a defense to need to adapt for her, Milovanovic for Currie was a straight coach’s decision. Neither Lawson nor Currie has been playing well enough to really have any complaints.
Story of the Game: Washington were the team on top for most of the first half. Kia Vaughn was their primary offensive weapon in the opening quarter, finding space inside off simple plays for high-low feeds from Emma Meesseman. Then Vaughn started hitting her jumper from the elbow, and even added a layup in transition after running the floor hard. The Mystics were the more active team in general in the first half, more willing to push the ball and look for quick offense, and more attacking in halfcourt sets.
The Liberty managed to stay in touch, largely because Pondexter was having one of her more accurate shooting nights and point guard Anna Cruz was hitting from outside. Their focus on stuffing the ball inside to Tina Charles gets them in trouble sometimes, because the team becomes too focussed on feeding her, which leads to turnovers because the passes are so obvious. They still rarely show evidence of having enough ball movement or perimeter shooting to take advantage of the attention she draws down low. And the Liberty also got destroyed on the glass in the first half, which didn’t help. Charles was being outplayed by the opposing posts.
Washington’s lead hit 12 in the third quarter, before Pondexter led the comeback charge. She was raining jumpers from outside, had a drive-and-kick for a Cruz three, and basically dragged her team back into the game without a lot of help. This was the superstar Cappie we’ve seen too little of in the last couple of years.
The ridiculous Liberty bench unit lacking Pondexter, Charles or Carson was in evidence again at the end of the third. They survived for a couple of minutes, just about.
The fourth quarter stayed tight until the final five minutes, although Pondexter saw little of the ball and Charles remained as ineffective as she’d been all night. Then Ivory Latta took over for the Mystics. She drilled a three, had a couple of driving layups while Cruz just waved her by, and then sealed the game in the final 30 seconds with another step-back three – she fired that last one way too early in the shot clock, but once it went in no one cared.
Key Players: Vaughn early and Latta late was enough for Washington, along with the collective effort throughout. Just like last year, this is going to be the most balanced team across 10 or 11 players all season long, as Thibault uses everyone to get the job done. In many ways that’s the reverse of how the Liberty have been built, but ironically it was the starting center and combo-guard who led the Mystics to victory in this one.