The video tribute rolled overhead after the first quarter ended Saturday at Barclays Center, a montage of highlights followed by a three-word close: "Thank you, Tina."
As in Charles. As in the Liberty’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder. As in the franchise player the franchise dealt to Washington in April of 2020 in order to dive headfirst into its rebuild.
The crowd of 1,615 responded by giving her a nice hand, and the 32-year-old center from Queens smiled, waving in the midst of her first game back in the city since the trade.
But it turned out to be an unhappy homecoming. The Mystics blew a 20-point third-quarter lead. Charles delivered 31 points, 16 rebounds and three blocks, but also had a few bad moments in the last minute. The Liberty rallied for an 82-79 win behind five double-digit scorers, topped by Betnijah Laney with 19.
"I think it shows us what we’re capable of," Laney said.
Back on May 21 in D.C., Charles faced them for the first time since the trade and dominated with 34 points in a 29-point Washington win. She was rather motivated, telling reporters afterward, "Yeah, they fired me on my day off."
This time, while she appreciated the tribute, her emotions were running on low.
"My dream was to play at the Garden, and that’s what I did," said Charles, who’s averaging a WNBA-best 25.8 points per game. "It was different playing here. This is a total new organization, total different people who are here. … Playing against a team that happens to be in New York for me."
Charles helped the Mystics (7-10) build a 55-35 lead early in the third. But the Liberty had that cushion cut in half by the end of the quarter, then opened the fourth with Jazmine Jones scoring five of her 17 in a 7-0 run that sliced it to 66-63.
When Sabrina Ionescu (15 points, five rebounds, five assists) hit a left-wing three, the Liberty (9-9) owned the lead at 76-75. Charles responded with two baskets for a 79-76 Washington lead.
But Ionescu found Reshanda Gray for consecutive layups, giving the Liberty an 80-79 edge.
Then Charles missed two free throws with 52.1 seconds left. But Kylie Shook followed with an offensive foul.
Leilani Mitchell missed a three with 10 seconds left. Charles rebounded it. Shavonte Zellous missed a three with 4.8 seconds left. Charles rebounded it. But she got called for an offensive foul with 2.3 seconds on the clock. Laney made two from the line at 1.6 to set the final margin.
"The defensive intensity, the will and the want-to went up drastically [in the second half]," coach Walt Hopkins said.
Jones showed that in the third when she tried to save a ball and flipped over a rail behind Washington’s bench. She was OK.
"I need to be in Tokyo, doing gymnastics," Jones said. "That’s what my team said. Y’all hear that out there — USA, Tokyo, me."
Notes & quotes: DiDi Richards suffered what the Liberty called a neck sprain in the third. The rookie was helped off. But Ionescu said, "We asked her if she was OK and she said yes."