Tina Charles has been the most important player on the Liberty all season. Hard to believe as it may be, she is even more important right now. And she played like it Saturday night.
Starting point guard Tanisha Wright has a knee injury and might make it back before the end of the regular season. Second-leading rebounder Kiah Stokes hurt her hip and will not return during the regular season. Key reserve Shoni Schimmel is sidelined with a concussion and there is no timetable for a return.
With all that dogging the Liberty, Charles stepped up and set the tone in a 92-70 blowout of Phoenix before 10,026 at the Garden Saturday night. She scored 19 of her 23 points in the first quarter, when the Liberty opened a big lead that never was threatened. She also finished with 15 rebounds and three assists.
Her final point of the first half was the 4,000th of her career. Among the 29 players to hit that mark, she is the sixth fastest and third youngest.
But she isn’t interested in the milestone. She wants to lock up the third seed and a home playoff game, something the Liberty (20-9) can clinch with one more victory.
“Before the game, I spoke with her about what a dominant player she is. She really doesn’t know how dominant she can be,” coach Bill Laimbeer said. “And she went out there in the first half and said ‘I’ll give it a try’ and — Whoa! — look what happened.”
Considered a consummate team player, Charles was asked about being made the focal point and replied, “I earned it.”
“I put work in from my UConn days. It’s nothing that’s new to me,” she said. “I’ve worked on my game. I have the most confidence in myself. I see how I can score and create for others, how I can set the example.”
Brittany Boyd moved into the starting lineup at point guard and shined, contributing 19 points, six assists and one turnover in 25 minutes. Sugar Rodgers also had 19 points for the Liberty. DeWanna Bonner scored 16 to lead the Mercury (13-16), which got only 10 points from Diana Taurasi and two from Brittney Griner.
“They have a saying that hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard,” Charles said. “We were out there after every loose ball. The effort? You could see the different extremes. When they play hard, they are a deadly weapon, but we threw the first punch.”
The Liberty’s blueprint had Epiphanny Prince as the second scoring option, but she missed the first 26 games after surgery for a torn right ACL. Charles picked up much of the slack, is having her best scoring season and is a leading contender for MVP honors.
Laimbeer said the Liberty needs Charles to keep it up, and he thinks she will.
“We feel she is the best post player in the world, men or women,” he said. “She is that consistent. She’s that dominant. And there’s a lot more to her than we can even see right now.”