There were kids sprouting all over the Garden. More than 10,000 of them filled the arena Wednesday, creating a soundtrack of happy noise between the squeal of their cheers and the banging of their white thunder sticks at an 11 a.m. Liberty game.
It was School Day, a field trip for students who were mostly from middle schools from the city. They swelled the attendance to 14,816 and provided a jolt of energy.
The home team fed off it and put on a good show, constructing a 19-point advantage over Atlanta by midway through the third quarter. The Dream made a run, but the Liberty responded and claimed a 76-61 victory behind 18 points and 15 rebounds from Tina Charles, 16 points from Sugar Rodgers and a career-high 17 rebounds from Kiah Stokes.
“Like I told the players, we’re getting better, but we have a long way to go,” coach Bill Laimbeer said. “We’re in a good place mentally right now.”
They’re 5-3 overall, 3-1 on this season-long five-game home stand and 3-0 since Epiphanny Prince and Kia Vaughn went overseas to prep for the EuroBasket tournament.
“I think everyone knows that they have to step up,” Stokes said. “Kia and Piph and [the injured Brittany] Boyd are key parts of this team.”
The Liberty led 47-29 at the intermission. When Shavonte Zellous (12 points) hit a jumper with 5:35 left in the third, the cushion was 19 at 53-34.
“They’re still going to come out and make it an ugly game, a flashback to Bill Laimbeer’s days with the [Detroit] Bad Boys; he brings that here,” said Atlanta coach Michael Cooper, who used to play against Laimbeer with the Lakers. “The Liberty are a good basketball team.”
The Dream was paced by Tiffany Hayes and Brittney Sykes with 14 apiece but shot just 27.6 percent and were outrebounded 48-35. Still, it trimmed the deficit to 59-51 early in the fourth.
Laimbeer sent in Lindsay Allen with 7:28 remaining and the lead at nine. The rookie point guard scored four of her career-high six in a 7-2 burst that made it 67-53 with 3:41 left. Atlanta only got as close as eight from there.
“It was a lot of fun,” said Allen, a second-rounder who re-signed May 31 after departing in the final cut. “I think in the moment I’m just like, ‘It’s serious. It’s business.’ ”
Charles scored 11 to help the Liberty build a 29-17 advantage after one quarter.
“I actually look forward to these games,” Charles said, “because these are the type of games where young girls are able to look and see us play and maybe aspire to have a dream to play in the WNBA.”