It must have looked daunting on the schedule. After two hard-fought, exhausting victories — an overtime win over the Fever and a double-overtime win over the Dream — the Liberty was set to face one of the best players in the league in Elena Delle Donne and one of its longtime leaders in former Liberty star Cappie Pondexter.
But that’s the thing about gutsy victories: After a while, nothing much intimidates you anymore.
Led by Tina Charles’ 21 points and 13 rebounds, the Liberty survived another gut-churning finish, defeating the Chicago Sky, 80-79, at Madison Square Garden on Friday night. Delle Donne scored 31 points, but even that wasn’t enough to neutralize a complete team performance in which 10 Liberty players scored. It’s the Liberty’s first six-game winning streak since 2010 and the first time it has been 10-4 since 2001.
“We’re tired,” coach Bill Laimbeer said of the victory, a wry smile playing on his face. “We’re just trying to grind out as many wins as possible . . . We really have no time off until the break. I think it was a good win for us, no question about it.”
The Sky, which trailed from the first quarter on, got within one on Delle Donne’s jumper with 2:22 left and appeared primed to take the lead before heavy inside pressure from Swin Cash led to a Sky shot-clock violation with 53 seconds left. Sugar Rodgers’ layup on the next possession put the Liberty up 80-77 with 39.5 seconds left.
Delle Donne hit a jumper with 30.6 seconds left to get it to one point. Charles missed a hook shot with 6.8 seconds left, but Delle Donne’s jumper as time expired bounced off the rim.
The Eastern Conference-leading Liberty is 1 1⁄2 games ahead of Atlanta. What’s more, after a middling start to the season, this streak has proved that the Liberty — even with some new faces — is in decent shape to finish what it started last year: namely, establishing dominance in an attempt to capture the championship that has eluded the team for two decades.
The Liberty took an 18-16 lead on Charles’ free throws with 1:07 left in the first quarter and seemed to be reminded of the powerhouse it is capable of being.
The Liberty scored nine straight points — a span that lasted until about a minute into the second quarter, when Pondexter nailed a driving layup — and took a 51-40 advantage into halftime. The Liberty hit all 11 of its free throws in the first half and shot 47.4 percent from the field.
And though aware that players of the caliber of Delle Donne and Pondexter couldn’t completely be shut down, the Liberty had its way with the rest of the Sky. Only two other players — Courtney Vandersloot and Cheyenne Parker — scored in the first half, for a grand total of 10 points.
Pondexter — still a dangerous scorer — had 20 points.
“Elena Della Donne did everything she could,” Laimbeer said. “We got tired [in the fourth quarter, when the Liberty was outscored 22-18] . . . I think everyone saw it . . . But sometimes you’re going to have games like that and hopefully, you can weather the storm.”