If Madison Square Garden existed in a bubble for most of Wednesday night, it would be virtually impossible to tell which Liberty player was inching toward history, and which was contemplating retirement last year.
Was it Tina Charles, with her 18 points? Or perhaps Tanisha Wright, scoring 18 points with five assists against the team she called her own for the first 10 years of her career?
When you survive a late-game surge by the Storm for your ninth win in 11 games, it probably doesn’t matter that much. Led by Charles, Wright and Sugar Rodgers, the Liberty managed to outlast the Storm, 78-74 at the Garden. The victory was a fitting end of another very good day for Charles, who Wednesday was named Eastern Conference player of the year for the fifth time this season, matching a single-season WNBA record. The Liberty continued its stronghold on the conference at 13-6.
The Storm scored 20 points in the fourth quarter and drew to within a point on Breanna Stewart’s three from the top of the key and Sue Bird’s free throw with 4.9 seconds left, but Bird — a career 86 percent shooter from the line — missed the second. Wright made both of her free throws with 1.9 second to go, and Rodgers (14 points) hit another for the final margin. Stewart, unstoppable, scored 24 points with 16 rebounds, and nearly erased a Liberty lead that was as large as 18 in the second quarter.
“Sometimes, it’s just mental,” Wright said. “You see the scoreboard, you look at it, you see your situation and you kind of relax a little bit. We want to be one of the best teams in this league and mentally to do that, we’ve got to be able to keep our poise, keep our composure and we’ve got to be able to withstand people running.”
Wright was pivotal in that. Every time the Liberty looked about to lose its lead, Wright was right there. When Ramu Tokashiki hit a fadeaway jumper with 8:54 left in the game to draw the Storm within six, it was Wright’s feed to Shavonte Zellous inside that led to a pivotal three-point play. When the Storm responded with back-to-back threes, putting them to within 67-64, it was Wright who scored the next four, on a jumper and a layup.
“She holds all of us accountable and that’s what you need,” Charles said. “I actually sat back and thought about everything she said in every huddle. We’re not a mediocre team. We don’t want to be that. We want to be great.”
Speaking of Charles, though she “didn’t have her best game in the world,” as coach Bill Laimbeer said, that’s hardly saying much when it comes to the Liberty center. The player of the week accolades were the 19th of her career, and her contributions this year have been unmistakable.
“I don’t [put any stock in the awards] at all,” Charles said. “I know a big percentage of the team success lies on my shoulders and I carry that weight and whatever is necessary for us to be successful this season, I want to take part in that.”