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Sugar Rodgers’ team-first attitude helps Liberty as it chases WNBA title

Liberty center Kiah Stokes, left, and center Tina

Liberty center Kiah Stokes, left, and center Tina Charles greet guard Sugar Rodgers as she comes out of a game on Sunday, June 4, 2017. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Sugar Rodgers knows exactly what kind of teammate and person she wants to be.

And just in case she forgets, the Liberty All-Star guard keeps a photo on her iPhone as a reminder. It’s a shot of Rodgers on the bench during a game against Minnesota in July, shortly after she had been taken out of the starting lineup. Rodgers looks unhappy, disengaged and lost in her own thoughts.

“I saw that picture pop up on the screen and I was like, ‘That is not who you are,’ ” Rodgers said earlier this week. “I know how to fit in. I know how to get people involved. After that game, that’s when I started to get my mind around what was going on.”

What was going on is this: Rodgers was being asked to make a big sacrifice for the benefit of her team. The fact that she has been able to do so, the fact that she has been instrumental in turning the worst bench in the WNBA into one of the strongest, is a big reason the Liberty has turned what was a mediocre season into quite possibly a championship run.

The Liberty opens the playoffs Sunday against the Washington Mystics at Madison Square Garden with a legitimate chance of becoming the first New York- area basketball team to win a title since the Nets won the ABA crown in 1976. And the first New York team in any sport to win it all since the Giants did in 2012.

The Liberty (22-12) has the third-best record in the league and, more importantly, is peaking at the right time. It has not lost a game since Aug. 4 and enters the postseason on a 10-game winning streak. That ties a franchise best and is the most consecutive wins any WNBA team has ever had to close out a season.

Not bad for a team that started 8-9, featured a struggling low-octane offense and had a bench that was scoring a league-low 14.8 points per game. After that mediocre 17-game start, coach Bill Laimbeer knew he needed to shake things up. He decided to start the speedy Bria Hartley at point guard and shift Epiphanny Prince back to her natural position at the two. He then told Rodgers, who was about to head off to play in her first All-Star Game after starting at shooting guard all season, that she would have to come off the bench.

“To be honest, it felt like a demotion,” Rodgers said. “I had worked so hard to be in this position and I felt like I was going backward. But then I wrapped my head around it and saw this is about me being a team player and trying to reach the ultimate goal. Somebody has to give up something.”

Since the change, the Liberty is 14-3 and averaging 24 bench points. “Everybody just started to accept their roles,” Rodgers said. “With the second unit, I had to start thinking about how to build them up. It forced me to think outside myself. I had to start thinking how am I going to get them to keep their confidence level up? Help them produce and knowing that I’m the go-to person on the bench if they have questions.”

Rodgers is starting to see some individual rewards for her unselfishness. She was voted the sixth woman of the year. “It just comes down to sacrifice,” center Tina Charles said. “Our journey has been different than a lot of teams that were able to click right away. We had to figure things out. We had individuals who made a sacrifice like Sugar Rodgers. It helped us and I think it’s also helped her as coming into her own as a leader.”

As a leader, a person and a teammate, Rodgers believes she has grown tremendously. In case she forgets, she has that photo to remind her of how far she’s come. Said Rodgers: “The whole experience has really built some character.”

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