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After three straight seasons atop the conference, Liberty aims for more

Liberty guard Shavonte Zellous during practice on

Liberty guard Shavonte Zellous during practice on May 16, 2018. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Every few weeks, Shavonte Zellous would shoot off a message from across the globe, asking if the New York Liberty still was the New York Liberty.

Scattered across Europe in their various EuroLeague assignments, members of the team were united in wondering about the uncertain future of their WNBA team during the offseason.

Coming off a successful 2017 regular season (first in the Eastern Conference again), followed by a stunning loss to Washington in a single-elimination playoff game, the Liberty had to contend with news that the team was up for sale.

And though the sale hasn’t happened, Madison Square Garden Company still is looking for a new owner, the company said. So the Liberty moved from the Garden to the Westchester County Center, which presently has a 2,300 capacity for basketball, expandable to 4,500. The team will return to the Garden for two games, one in June and one in August.

“Every two weeks I think I was talking to [the coaching staff], like, ‘What’s going on? Did you hear anything? Who’s buying us? Are we staying the same?’ ” said Zellous, a nine-year WNBA veteran in her third season with the Liberty. “I think it was challenging, especially for most of us that were overseas in Europe, not knowing the possibility of whether we were staying in New York or we were leaving, going into a new city.

“I think having our core group back with me, Tina [Charles], Epiphanny [Prince], Sugar [Rodgers], Kia [Vaughn], it makes the transition a lot easier.”

Whatever they feel about the uncertainty, everyone can agree that it’s been one very strange, very eventful offseason.

Longtime coach Bill Laimbeer left to coach the Las Vegas Aces and associate head coach Katie Smith took his place. Frustration ran high after back-to-back years of single-elimination playoff losses, center Kiah Stokes said, adding they were “sick of that.”

Despite finishing first in the Eastern Conference for three years running, the Liberty continues to be something of an afterthought to the Minnesota Lynx and Los Angeles Sparks, both of whom were listed ahead of the Liberty in The Associated Press’ preseason power rankings.

The proverbial chip on their shoulder is boulder-sized at this point.

“We’ve gotta get some guts, some heart,” said Zellous, a guard. “We tend to relax and we tend to lose focus a little bit. When other teams are at their peak, we’re kinda going down. We’ve got to continue to stay at our peak no matter what part of the season we’re in. That’s what’s going to get us over this year.”

Defense always was a point of emphasis under Laimbeer, and that should continue to be a strength this season with the addition of rookie Kia Nurse, the Liberty’s first-round pick and the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association defensive player of the year in her final season at the University of Connecticut.

But Smith also is championing a very fluid, more run-and-gun type of offense. Charles, who averaged 19.7 points last year (third in the league), still will be a key, just not the only one.

“We’re open now,” Zellous said. “It’s more free . . . It’s going to be fun to watch, and it’s not just going to be standing and passing it to Tina and watch Tina work.”

The hope, Smith said, is to make sure “everybody is a threat.”

“Everybody is a scorer,” she said. “Everybody needs to be able to handle the basketball. Everybody needs to be involved, whether you’re playing or not . . . We have some main threats that are going to carry the load . . . but we need everybody to have that scorer’s mentality. They’re ready at every moment to knock down big shots and make big plays.”

And no matter what the future holds off the court, the Liberty wants to make sure it controls its own destiny on it. Part of that is going to be playing for the first or second seed in the playoffs, which could very well mean shocking a WNBA community that is very used to the Liberty being very good but not quite good enough.

“We’re just preparing, and whatever happens happens,” Zellous said. “We still have to go out and perform [whether] the stands are empty or the stands are full.”

SCHEDULE

Home games at Westchester County Center unless noted

All times p.m. unless noted

MAY

20 at Chicago, 7

May 25 Minnesota, 7:30

29 Dallas, 7

JUNE

2 at Indiana, 7

5 Phoenix at MSG, 11 a.m.

7 Conneticut, 7

10 Indiana 3

13 Las Vegas, 7

16 at Minnesota, 8

19 Atlanta, 7

22 at Las Vegas, 10

24 at Los Angeles, 5

26 Phoenix, 7

28 at Washington, 7

29 Chicago, 7:30

JULY

1 at Chicago, 6

3 Seattle, 7

5 at Washington, 7

8 Dallas, 3

11 Connecticut, 11:30 a.m.

15 Chicago, 3

17 at Dallas, 1

19 at Atlanta, 7

21 Washington, 3

24 at Minnesota, 8

AUGUST

1 at Connecticut, 7

4 Indiana, 3

6 Seattle at MSG, 11 a.m.

8 Los Angeles, 7

12 Atlanta, 2:30

14 at Los Angeles, 10:30

15 at Las Vegas, 10

17 at Seattle, 10

19 at Phoenix, 6

SCHEDULE

Home games at Westchester County Center unless noted

All times p.m. unless noted

MAY

20 at Chicago, 7

May 25 Minnesota, 7:30

29 Dallas, 7

JUNE

2 at Indiana, 7

5 Phoenix at MSG, 11 a.m.

7 Conneticut, 7

10 Indiana 3

13 Las Vegas, 7

16 at Minnesota, 8

19 Atlanta, 7

22 at Las Vegas, 10

24 at Los Angeles, 5

26 Phoenix, 7

28 at Washington, 7

29 Chicago, 7:30

JULY

1 at Chicago, 6

3 Seattle, 7

5 at Washington, 7

8 Dallas, 3

11 Connecticut, 11:30 a.m.

15 Chicago, 3

17 at Dallas, 1

19 at Atlanta, 7

21 Washington, 3

24 at Minnesota, 8

AUGUST

1 at Connecticut, 7

4 Indiana, 3

6 Seattle at MSG, 11 a.m.

8 Los Angeles, 7

12 Atlanta, 2:30

14 at Los Angeles, 10:30

15 at Las Vegas, 10

17 at Seattle, 10

19 at Phoenix, 6

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