Long before Epiphanny Prince was drawing defenders to create open looks for Tina Charles on the Madison Square Garden hardwood, the two were clambering over each other for the spotlight on a blacktop court in Greenwich Village.
During their college summers, Prince (Rutgers) and Charles (Connecticut) often would run into one another on the West 4th Street Courts, also commonly known as "The Cage" for its steel-fence enclosure, tight confines and the physical play seen inside. There they experienced for the first time what it was like to share the court as teammates.
"We played together one game and won. We both did pretty well," Prince recalled as she sat hunched over in the Liberty locker room Thursday after she and Charles had just combined for 32 points in the Liberty's 64-57 win over the Connecticut Sun. "But afterward we were kind of like, 'I don't like playing with you.' We both wanted to dominate the ball."
It's at this point that Prince can't help but laugh. Things are much different now.
Saturday's late game at the Phoenix Mercury is the fifth time that Prince, 27, has suited up alongside Charles, 26, as a member of the Liberty. Her presence on the perimeter complements Charles in the paint, and has surged the team from being borderline playoff-worthy to blossoming contenders in the Eastern Conference. With Saturday night's victory in Phoenix, the Liberty (10-5) is in first place in the East, a game in front of the Chicago Sky.
The laughter subsided, and Prince straightened her posture.
"Now," she said, "it's like, when you have somebody who can create and has a big post presence down there like that, and you add my skill set, we're kind of unstoppable."
Prince missed the first 13 games of the season while playing overseas for the Russian national team as it vied and came up short in its bid to qualify for the 2016 Olympics.
The Liberty is 4-1 since her return. Prince, who scored 16 points per game during her last three seasons with Chicago, is averaging 13.2 with the Liberty.
"It's been kind of tough at first," Prince said "because the playbook isn't second nature to me yet. I think once I get more comfortable with the plays, it'll be better."
Coach Bill Laimbeer insists that it's only a matter of time and meshing before she breaks out.
"She's looking a little indecisive still, not sure what her role is," Laimbeer said. "I told her after [Thursday's] game, you're my assassin. I'm running plays for you. She passed up a lot of foul line J's that normally she would take. I want her to shoot more. I don't care if she shoots 5-for-25. That's how our team is structured, especially in the first unit. It's her and Tina as our scorers and we have to take advantage of that."
A BUDDING RIVALRY
Prince, who went to Murry Bergtraum High School in Manhattan, and Charles, a graduate of Christ the King in Queens, had been rivals since they were 12 years old. From hard-fought competition came a mutual respect, and from that was born a friendship that has grown stronger over the years.
"When she was playing with Chicago, when I would go there, she'd pick me up from the airport and I'd hang out with her," Charles said. "And vice versa. When we're home in New York, we'll get lunch, get dinner. Whatever time we had if we were both in the same place, we would always maximize it and always catch up."
Both are gritty players whose physicality has epitomized the identity of this Liberty squad, and their personalities fit well together, too. Prince is quieter and more reserved. Charles is boisterous and quick to open up.
"They're a good pairing in more ways than one," assistant coach Herb Williams said.
The Liberty acquired Charles, the 2010 No. 1 overall pick and 2012 WNBA Most Valuable Player, before the 2014 season. As that year progressed and it became increasingly apparent that she and incumbent leading-scorer Cappie Pondexter -- whose scoring output dropped from 16.9 to 13.2, a career low, upon Charles' arrival -- didn't complement one another, Prince appeared on the team's radar.
"It was clear that it was probably time to move on for everybody," Laimbeer said. "Piph expressed a serious desire to come back and play in the New York market. So all those signs were very positive for us to go out and try to make a deal."
BUILT TO WIN
"Our team is not put together by accident," Laimbeer continued. "We assembled this team with the chemistry in mind first. Yeah, they're good basketball players, but we needed a team that wanted to be together and wanted to play together and you can count on every night."
You could see it during Prince's MSG debut as a member of the Liberty on Wednesday in its 16-point win over the San Antonio Stars. With 20 seconds left in the first half, Prince stutter-stepped into the lane, attracted two defenders and then gave a no-look pass to Charles for an easy bucket. This, on the night when Charles inscribed in sharpie the words "Plays for Piph" on her wrist.
"This had always been a dream for us, since our street ball days," Charles said. "It's come full circle."
Added Prince: "We'd always talk about what it would be like if we could win a championship for our home team. And now, we have this opportunity. For this team, it hasn't been like this for a while. We want to bring some excitement to New York."