Bill Laimbeer ripped into his players and called out Kiah Stokes in particular after the Liberty’s win over San Antonio on May 13, opening day at the Garden. The coach told the media his third-year center “looked terrible” and was “out of shape.” He got on her behind closed doors, too.
“I obviously didn’t like it,” Stokes said Sunday, “but he expects a lot out of me.”
Now, with gifted guard Epiphanny Prince and backup center Kia Vaughn off prepping for the EuroBasket tournament later this month, Laimbeer really needs a lot out of Stokes and her teammates.
Stokes has taken a large step forward in the first two games without Prince and Vaughn. She scored a career-high 23 points and grabbed 14 rebounds to help power Sunday’s 88-72 win over visiting Phoenix, the Liberty’s second straight victory and Stokes’ second straight double-double, a career first.
Shavonte Zellous also has stepped forward. The ninth-year guard scored 21, giving her back-to-back 20-point games for the first time. She also helped hold Diana Taurasi to 17. Brittney Griner led the Mercury (4-3) with 26.
“If we can keep getting better right now, then you add back in Vaughn, you add back in Epiphanny Prince, that’s what we’re pointing towards,” Laimbeer said after the Liberty (4-3) earned consecutive wins for the first time since last July.
Tina Charles (16 points) said she has been helping Stokes “with her post moves.” Charles also has encouraged her fellow UConn alum. “Just knowing she has confidence, she has faith in me, that helped out a lot,” Stokes said.
Charles scored six points in an 8-2 run that opened a 10-point lead late in the third quarter. It was 72-63 heading into the fourth. Then the Liberty began with a 12-3 burst. After Zellous drove for two and Stokes followed by scoring inside, it was 84-66. The Mercury was falling.
The Liberty pushed the pace and built a 16-9 edge in that final quarter. “I think we did a great job by trying to force the issue,” Charles said.
Stokes was a force inside from the start, scoring 10 points as the Liberty built a 21-7 advantage. The lead was 47-41 at halftime, and she had 17 after tying her previous career high of 13 Friday against Dallas.
“Her best years are ahead of her,” Taurasi said, “but if she plays like that, they’re going to be a hard team to beat.”