Last year, the New York Liberty won over 20 games, finished first in the Eastern Conference and made the playoffs for the third straight season. But, even after winning 10 straight games to end the regular season, they went one-and-done in the playoffs, again, this time losing 82-68 to the Washington Mystics.
Now, with a new head coach and a new primary home arena, the Liberty are looking toward an Eastern Conference title and their first WNBA Finals appearance since 2002.
“I don’t think we talk about [the playoffs] because we’re trying to build up every day in creating an environment where it’s competitive,” said Katie Smith, the Liberty’s first-year head coach. A two-time WNBA champion and 2018 Hall of Fame inductee, she was the team’s associate head coach under Bill Laimbeer for the last four years.
“Hopefully practice becomes harder than games, and we’re demanding more of them, and they’re going after each other and competing so that we can execute.”
The Liberty return a solid core from last year, led by top-scorer Tina Charles and supported by reigning Sixth Woman of the Year Sugar Rodgers and two-time All-Star Epiphanny Prince. The veteran center Charles, a Queens native, averaged 19.7 points (third in the WNBA) while also averaging 9.4 rebounds (fourth) in 2017. She was named first team All-WNBA and first-team All-Defense last year as well for the fifth and second time in her career, respectively.
Joining Charles in Smith’s defensive-minded Liberty is guard Kia Nurse, the team’s first-round pick out of Connecticut and the 2017-18 WBCA Defensive Player of the Year. Along with her lockdown defense, Nurse has solid range from the perimeter. She averaged 13.5 points as a senior at UConn while shooting 44 percent from beyond the arc. She led the Liberty in scoring (14.5 ppg) in their two preseason games last week.
“There’s a lot of learning going on, a lot of different transitions,” Nurse said after practice Wednesday. “I think for me, personally, I want to just succeed in whatever role the team needs me to do.”
The Liberty open their season at Chicago against the Sky on Sunday. The May 25 home opener against the Minnesota Lynx tops off at their new home, the Westchester County Center in White Plains.