Now that the Olympics are over and the WNBA’s biggest American stars back on U.S. soil with gold medals around their necks, the New York Liberty are set to resume their conquest of the Eastern Conference.
The Liberty (18-8), having last played on July 21, return to the Madison Square Garden court on Friday when they host the San Antonio Stars (5-18). With a 4 1⁄2-game lead over the Atlanta Dream in the East and just eight regular season games to go, the Liberty have all but locked up the top seed.
Much of their success comes as a direct result of Tina Charles’ historic season. The Rio Olympian, who earlier this season became the first in league history to win six Player of the Week honors in a season, leads the league in scoring (21.4) and rebounding (9.6) average. No player in WNBA history has led in both categories in a single season.
While Charles has had help from teammates Sugar Rodgers (14.7 ppg), Shavonte Zellous (9.3 ppg) and Kiah Stokes (7.1 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 1.5 bpg), the Liberty should see a big boost from the return of Epiphanny Prince. The two-time All-Star has been sidelined while recovering from a torn ACL while playing professionally in Russia last November, but could return as soon as Friday.
Even as the presumptive favorites in the East, the Liberty have room to improve if they hope to bring the franchise its first championship. They’re last as a team with 14 turnovers per game.
Worse, the Liberty have struggled against West powers the Los Angeles Sparks and Minnesota Lynx. The Liberty lost five of six meetings against the two teams. The return of Prince could be an X-factor if the they face either the Sparks or Lynx in the WNBA Finals.
Fortunately, the Liberty have time to jell as a team with Prince in the fold before any of that happens.