Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Development of role players key for Liberty during eight-game win streak

Lindsay Allen may not be Liberty's leading scorer, but Notre Dame alum is one of several integral role players for head coach Bill Laimbeer as New York pushes toward postseason. (Photo by Ray Floriani/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

By Ray Floriani (@rfloriani)

NEW YORK -- Bill Laimbeer would have a restful night Sunday. A 30-point victory will do that, not that the New York Liberty coach expected as much.

Laimbeer believed his team would defeat the Chicago Sky at Madison Square Garden. The expectations, though, were not of a superlative 92-62 dismantling of a team that gave them their last home loss back on July 14. The thing that has Laimbeer in a serene state of mind is the play of his bench.

Laimbeer knows as well as anyone how important bench play becomes as a team attempts to advance through the playoff rounds. Having good players in reserve is a key. Having those players buy into your philosophy and accepting their roles is an undeniably special trait. The Liberty have it.  
In the aftermath of their eighth straight win and 20th overall, Liberty players were asked what they may improve on with the playoffs on the horizon. To a player, they spoke not of offense, understandable after racking up 92 points. Rather, the focus; in typical Laimbeer fashion, was defense and rebounding, how they continue to get better day to day in both areas. The term “lockdown defense” was used quite a bit.

The Liberty players could not help making reference to the bench play that Laimbeer spoke of during his postgame meeting with the media. “The takeaway from today’s game is we can give a lot of people good minutes,” he said. “Every one of our bench players is ready every minute when they get the call.” For the game, the Liberty bench scored 43 of the team’s 92 points. Rebounding-wise, the reserves outdid the starters on the boards by a 30-16 count.

Bria Hartley has been a starter at guard. She has energized an uptempo attack, playing no small part in the team’s recent turnaround and winning streak. Her insertion into the lineup has moved Sugar Rodgers to a reserve role, a role the former Georgetown star relishes and fulfills in an excellent manner. On the afternoon, Rodgers scored seven points, grabbed seven rebounds, and handed out six assists. She played no small part in limiting the Allie Quigley- Courtney Vandersloot backcourt of Chicago to just eight points on 3-of-13 shooting. Kiah Stokes produced a 10-point, 10-rebound double-double. Rebecca Allen added nine while a pair of bigs, Amanda Zahui B. and Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe, added eight and seven, respectively. The contributions are impressive, yet exceed mere numbers.

“Our bench does their weight lifting and condition,” Laimbeer said. “They work hard in practice on a daily basis. It was great to give them minutes today. They genuinely had fun out there and played well.”

The experience could also pay dividends in the WNBA second season.

“Your bench is so important,” Rodgers reiterated. “In the playoffs, someone could get hurt, you could have foul trouble -- a number of things can happen. If you have players that are tested in reserve, that’s big.”

Lindsay Allen, a second-round draft pick out of Notre Dame this spring, scored two points with four assists and two steals in a 16-minute performance. She provides Laimbeer with yet another backcourt option. Allen spoke of sharing the ball on offense, working on defensive assignments, and getting better at the little things. The 5-foot-8 guard agreed on the importance of bench play throughout the season and its vitality in the playoffs. For her part, Allen is just going out, playing hard as she can. The same can be said for all the Liberty players waiting in the wings and enthusiastically answering Laimbeer’s call.

Liberty 92, Sky 62: Ray Floriani's Photo Essay

NEW YORK -- The classic coaching cliche warns us that the season is a marathon, not a sprint.

On Sunday, the New York Liberty thoroughly dominated the Chicago Sky, 92-62. A little over a month ago the Sky, entered the same Madison Square Garden to confidently post a solid ten-point win. That was the last time the Liberty dropped a game on their home floor.
In the course of six weeks, so much has changed for these two teams. Chicago, at 12-19, is hanging on for its playoff life. The Liberty, enjoying an eight-game win streak, are 20-12 with a top four seed in their possession. The recent turnaround has been impressive. In mid-July, New York was struggling for a shot at the playoffs. Now they are being included in the same breath as a championship contender.  

What happened? For one, putting the ball in the hands of Bria Hartley, another former UConn product who has very quietly and efficiently accelerated and energized the Liberty attack. Of almost equal importance is the guidance of coach Bill Laimbeer. A former NBA player, Laimbeer has championship experience on the court and sideline. He realizes that if you adhere to what you do well, in this case defend and keep working hard on a daily basis, things should come around.

That is not always an ironclad guarantee. In New York’s case, that has proven to be the situation. There is excitement in the Garden these days. The Liberty are keeping a good pace as the final miles of this marathon wind down.

Looking north at 8th Avenue outside Madison Square Garden:
Liberty assistant coach Herb Williams, with pregame instructions for Tina Charles:
Under the direction of assistant coach Carlene Mitchell, Chicago runs through pregame shootaround:
A Big East battle revisited, as Bria Hartley defends Cappie Pondexter:
Chicago's Courtney Vandersloot, in deep thought during a free throw:
New York on the attack:
The view from the opposite baseline:
Head coach Bill Laimbeer with some words for the media after the victory:
While all attention right now is on the Liberty, the New York Rangers' locker room is ready for the start of the NHL season:

Monday, August 28, 2017

Liberty 92, Sky 62: Tempo-Free Recap

By Ray Floriani (@rfloriani)

NEW YORK -- The Liberty, winners of seven straight, entertained the Chicago Sky for a Sunday matinee. The last time they were in New York, Chicago pinned a loss on the Liberty. That was back in mid-July, and the last Liberty home loss to date.

Sunday afternoon was decidedly different.

The Liberty came out strong and never looked back. In July, Chicago was the aggressor. This time around, it was the host New York squad, en route to a convincing 92-62 victory over the Sky to improve to 20-12, while Chicago fell to 12-19.   

The Liberty staked out a 15-7 lead, with Tina Charles leading the way. The standout forward became the WNBA’s 20th all-time leading scorer in these opening minutes. Charles scored seven points on an assortment of moves, first a catch from ten feet out saw her turn and go hard to the hoop. A baseline out of bounds play later left her one-on-one, overpowering her opponent before draining a pair of three-pointers. Chicago, as they did in their last appearance here, opted more for a perimeter game. By halftime, the Liberty owned a 46-29 lead. They held Chicago to just six field goals in the second quarter, only two of which came inside the paint.

NOTES: Any attempt by the Sky to establish an inside game was stopped by the physicality and strength of Charles and Kiah Stokes inside. Stefanie Dolson of the Sky had some success in the paint. For the most part, Dolson was a high post screener and outside shooter.

Normally, Shavonte Zellous is a key secondary scorer for the Liberty. However, she only had two points in the first half. Still, the Liberty led by 17. In very simple terms, the Liberty has a lot more than just one or two options at their disposal.

As much as there is discussed about Bria Hartley’s influence on the Liberty in recent weeks, another former UConn notable cannot be overlooked. Kiah Stokes, of late, has given an inside presence on both ends of the floor, not to mention supplying that proverbial energy the minute she checks into a game.  

In a 61-possession game through three quarters, the Liberty enjoyed a 118-82 edge in offensive efficiency.

Possessions: 83
Offensive efficiency: New York 111, Chicago 75

Effective field goal percentage: New York 46, Chicago 45
Free throw rate: New York 20, Chicago 23
Offensive rebounding rate: New York 44, Chicago 7
Turnover rate: New York 10, Chicago 27

Leading Scorers/Player Efficiency
New York: Tina Charles, 22 points/26
Chicago: Stefanie Dolson, 22 points/22

MISCELLANEOUS: Kiah Stokes led all rebounders with 10, with six of those on the offensive end. Chicago, by comparison, had two on the offensive glass for the entire game. The Sky also committed 23 turnovers for a 27 percent rate, while managing a microscopic seven percent offensive rebounding rate. The Liberty shared the ball with 25 assists on their 36 field goals, good enough for a 69 percent rate. Sugar Rodgers led the way with six helpers. The Sky had only six second half field goals in the paint, three on penetrations by Kahleah Cooper, a Rutgers product with a 17-point performance.

The Liberty put four in double figures as Hartley (11), Epiphanny Prince (11) and Stokes (10) joined Charles. Allie Quigley (two points) and Courtney Vandersloot (six) combined did not reach double figures for Chicago. Credit the Liberty defense on that one.

Final Thoughts
“You hope for a game where you get a chance to give your bench a chance to get minutes. It was a good win, a solid foundation for players working hard every day in practice. We knew Chicago played well against Connecticut and beat us here. This is about us, what we do. Rebounds and play defense, we can win. We clinched the fourth seed today. One is in front of us, but out of our control.” - Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer

“Hey, it’s what we do. Defend and rebound.” - Sugar Rodgers, when told Chicago was held to two offensive rebounds for the game.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Gulf Coast Showcase field revealed, Manhattan to open tournament against UMKC

Steve Masiello and Manhattan begin three-day Gulf Coast Showcase against UMKC on November 20 after eight-team tournament field was released Friday morning. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)

Manhattan's first of two in-season tournaments now has an official field that the Jaspers will now start preparing for.

The eight-team Gulf Coast Showcase announced its participants Friday morning, with the Jaspers leading off the three-day event on Monday, November 20, in an 11 a.m. contest against UMKC. Manhattan will face Georgia Southern or Missouri State the following day, either at 11 a.m. or 5 p.m., depending on the results of the first day of action. All games will be held at Germain Arena in Estero, Florida.

A member of the Summit League, UMKC finished 18-17 last season and competed in the College Basketball Invitational, but must replace all five starters from their 2016-17 roster. Sophomore guard Isaiah Ross, who averaged eight points per game as a freshman, is the top returning scorer for the Kangaroos and head coach Kareem Richardson; who, like Jaspers boss Steve Masiello, was a former Rick Pitino disciple at the University of Louisville before heading out on his own.

Georgia Southern is a much more experienced team should Manhattan see them in the second day of the tournament, as the Eagles return eight of their top nine scorers from an 18-15 team that also reached the CBI, each of whom averaged more than twelve minutes per contest a year ago. Although challenged from a height standpoint, the three-guard attack led by junior point guard Tookie Brown, with fellow junior Ike Smith and senior Mike Hughes alongside, is a formidable and potent scoring unit that will give any team opposing them their share of fits for 40 minutes. Should the Jaspers face Missouri State, they will have their hands full with an imposing front line headed by 7-foot-2 senior center Tanveer Bhullar, who arrives from New Mexico State, where he played alongside his older brother, Sim. Senior forward Alize Johnson is a 6-foot-9 lethal weapon for the Bears, and comes into his final campaign on the heels of averaging a double-double of nearly 15 points and 11 rebounds per game, no easy feat in the physically grueling Missouri Valley Conference. Obediah Church, the third piece of Missouri State's interior protection, is a 6-foot-7 triple threat of scorer, rebounder, and shot blocker all rolled into one, impacting Paul Lusk's Bears in a similar vein to how Rhamel Brown was Manhattan's lifeblood for four years in Riverdale.

RELATED: Veteran Jaspers hungry to put last season's bitter end behind them

The Jaspers' final game in the Sunshine State takes place on Wednesday, November 22, and will come against either of four teams, depending on how the brackets play out. Manhattan will meet Penn, Northern Illinois, Towson, or Florida Atlantic in this tilt. The Quakers should be much improved under Steve Donahue this season, returning nine of their top ten players from an Ivy League tournament appearance last year. Sophomore AJ Brodeur will be the focal point for Penn after a promising and efficient rookie campaign that saw the Massachusetts native average just under 14 points per game while shooting 52 percent from the floor. Fellow second-year teammate Ryan Betley will be a force to be reckoned with on the perimeter, having shot 40 percent from three-point range as a late-blooming freshman, and senior point guard Darnell Foreman will look to build on a junior season where he averaged a near-2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Northern Illinois, who astute football fans will recognize as the alma mater of former Atlanta Falcons running back Michael Turner, returns three of their top five scorers from a 15-win team coached by former Tom Izzo assistant Mark Montgomery. Junior forward Jaylen Key is a deceptively strong 6-foot-8 forward whose length and ability to find smart shots will pose a problem for any opponent, whereas sophomore Eugene German and junior Levi Bradley will be counted on to transfer their high productivity off the bench into the starting five for the Huskies this year.

Towson could be a repeat opponent for Manhattan this season, as the Tigers are also participating in December's Belfast Classic, with a potential matchup against the Jaspers in the cards for the Northern Ireland event's finale. A 20-win outfit last season, Towson should be forwardly placed in the Colonial Athletic Association under head coach Pat Skerry, as senior guard Mike Morsell leads the way following a 13-point-per-game average that led the Tigers in scoring a year ago. Senior guard Deshaun Morman, a high-major castoff at Cincinnati, will infuse more offense into the Towson backcourt, but size will be a concern with only three players taller than 6-foot-7. Should the Jaspers meet Florida Atlantic, they will see an Owls team that returns just two starters from a 10-20 squad last year. Point guard Nick Rutherford, who transferred to Monmouth in the offseason, leaves behind a gaping hole that former NBA player and Detroit Pistons head coach Michael Curry will attempt to fill with Payton Hulsey, a fifth-year senior who is using his final season of eligibility after transferring from College of Charleston. Senior Gerdarius Troutman is a dangerous outside shooter the Jaspers will need to contain, having connected on 72 three-point field goals at a 42 percent rate for the Owls a year ago. Up front, seven-foot senior center Ronald Delph arrives from Auburn to bring much-needed size to the front line, while Jailyn Ingram should see his marginal production from last season increase with a greater share of the workload. All in all, whoever Manhattan takes the floor against will be contributing to a furthering of the greater good, as the tournament setting is something the Jaspers' head coach hopes will bring them to a third Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship in five seasons.

"That's why we're doing that, to get this group ready for conference tournament situations, to put them in situations playing on back-to-back nights," Masiello stated when discussing his rationale behind scheduling Manhattan for two tournaments before the start of MAAC play. "I wanted to do that to this team early by design because I want the young guys to know how important they are. And when I say important, I don't mean come in and get 12 points, I mean come in and have our defensive intensity go up, be a spark plug off the bench offensively. I want them to see how beneficial that could be or how costly that could be early in the year."

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

After CIT championship run, Saint Peter's now braces for rebuild

John Dunne took Saint Peter's to CIT championship last season, but must now rebuild Peacocks as he enters his 12th year at helm in Jersey City. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)

John Dunne has been down the road he must travel again this season.

Head coach at Saint Peter's since 2006, the affable 47-year-old Dunne faced a full rebuild six years ago, after the Peacocks emerged from the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament with an automatic NCAA Tournament berth and league championship in their grasp. Hard times soon followed, but the program gradually picked itself back up in a manner similar to the grind-it-out style Dunne's teams employ on the hardwood. And after a similar deep postseason run that culminated with Saint Peter's capturing the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament championship, the program must start over again.

In many instances, a rebuild from a championship season where three starters; including a pair of all-conference talents, have graduated, can be a bear of a challenge. Yet having done this before, Dunne is a calm voice of hope heading into the 2017-18 campaign, and insists that this situation is much better for the Peacocks than the aforementioned 2011-12 overhaul, one that resulted in a 5-26 record at its conclusion.

"I think we're lightyears ahead of where we were for '11-12," he admitted when assessing his roster, one that must replace the immeasurable contributions of point guard Trevis Wyche, imposing post presence Quadir Welton, and MAAC Defensive Player of the Year Chazz Patterson among others. "We had very good role players that season in '11-12 that were an integral part of helping us win that championship, but we lost all our scoring. Even though we lost a ton of scoring with this year's graduating class and even with (Antwon) Portley transferring, we're very confident that we're going to have the ability to put the ball in the basket next year. We know we're not going to have the same experience, we know we're going to have build towards being a good defensive team, but we're confident that we have enough talent in the program."

Whereas Wyche and Welton split the reins as leaders on the offensive end last season for Saint Peter's, that task now falls into the hands of senior shooting guard Nick Griffin, the George Washington transfer who emerged as not only a lethal outside shooter last year, but also a formidable scoring threat from all ranges. With a year under his belt in the Peacocks' system, the Maryland native is poised to take an even greater jump than he did a year ago.

"Nick is the ultimate teammate," Dunne gushed. "He, more than anybody, sacrificed his game last year for our team, and I think he could have easily been playing 30-plus minutes for us. We expect him to have the same shooting consistency. I think he'll be able to do some more this year when we use some ball screens, and his minutes per game will increase."

Griffin and Nnamdi Enechionyia will be the lone returning starters from last season's 23-win outfit, but as mentioned before, a glut of role players are back in Jersey City for a greater share of the responsibility, which makes Dunne as optimistic as he has been heading into a year where casual observers of the MAAC will consider the Peacocks to be a team firmly positioned in the middle of the pack. Forward Samuel Idowu will be one of many who goes about trying to replace Welton, and Dunne anticipates him being able to play 20 minutes per game in the hopes of becoming "a nice weapon" for the Saint Peter's arsenal. Cameron Jones, who redshirted last season, joins Quinn Taylor and a healthy Mamadou Ndiaye as those who will see additional minutes. At the point guard spot, Dunne admitted losing Wyche will hurt, but he expects junior Davauhnte Turner to step in and fill the void with a seamless transition.

"He sat out last year and he was with the program the entire year," said Dunne of Turner, a redshirt junior. "He actually is a guy that's got a year under his belt with the program, which goes a long way in understanding what it takes at this level. He's also a guy that could play on or off the ball, put it in the basket; a strong, quick, athletic guy. He's got the same size as Trevy, just as strong, just as tough."

A handful newcomers arrive in the program this year, including Julian Powell, a 6-foot-9 Texan praised by Dunne for his athleticism and ability to run the floor, but is also an admitted work in progress. Jeremiah Livingston is a 6-foot-1 guard by way of Odessa Junior College, and is a penetrating combo guard who will be part of the backcourt stable along with Turner and Griffin. Finally, Manny Dixon is a 6-foot-5 wing from Trenton by way of Notre Dame High School who also figures to be part of the mix for a team whose future is brighter than some may suggest, and one whose brand of basketball may undergo a few cosmetic changes, but will remain largely unchanged on the surface.

"I think it'll be more of the same for us," Dunne opined. "We won't be as reliant on throwing the ball into the low post this year as we were with Welton, but we have some forwards that could play out on the perimeter a bit, so the court should open up a little bit more for us. We were efficient offensively, and I think we could score the ball with just about everybody in the league. We proved that even though people knock our style, and I think you'll see the same this year." 

Monday, August 21, 2017

St. John's non-conference schedule: 5 Thoughts

Shamorie Ponds and St. John's are positioned for continued upswing in third season under Chris Mullin, which begins November 10 against New Orleans. (Photo by St. John's University Athletics)

Year two under Chris Mullin saw St. John's complete a six-win improvement from his first season at the helm of his alma mater, as the Red Storm went from 8-24 to 14-19 after the infusion of freshmen Shamorie Ponds and Marcus LoVett into the backcourt to enhance the rebuilding project that the all-time leading scorer on the corner of Union and Utopia began when he was hired to replace Steve Lavin in 2015.

Mullin's third season looks to have the same uptick that last year brought to the hardwood, as evidenced by an early look at St. John's non-conference schedule, released late Monday afternoon, a slate that comprises 13 games that cover both ends of the college basketball spectrum. The Johnnies will also play a yet-to-be-named opponent in an exhibition contest, as well as a closed scrimmage, as per Zach Braziller of the New York Post.

There are obvious highlights, such as the February 3 clash with possible preseason No. 1 in the nation Duke inside Madison Square Garden the day before Super Bowl LII, as well as the obligatory guarantee games against mid-majors the likes of New Orleans and Central Connecticut, the first two opponents on the Red Storm ledger. There are also several neutral-site contests, chief among them the Advocare Invitational in Orlando; the Thanksgiving weekend tournament that Big East rival Seton Hall participated in a year ago, and also including an underrated Mohegan Sun clash against Saint Joseph's, who should see a resurgence in a retooled Atlantic 10 this season.

With less than three months before the ball is tipped at Carnesecca Arena, here are some insights on the first half of the season for the Red Storm, with some matchups to watch as well as other items of interest along the way:

1) This year's non-conference schedule is more conducive to early winning.
With all due respect to the Advocare field, St. John's should; on paper, that is, be good enough to win two games, and hopefully earn a championship date with tournament favorite West Virginia on Sunday, November 26. Even with the trip to Orlando, this year's tuneup for Big East play pales in comparison to the first two non-conference ledgers that Mullin and his Red Storm teams played, schedules that included high-quality opponents in both the Maui Invitational and Battle 4 Atlantis tournaments. If all goes well, a 10-win performance in non-league play should be the expectation, with 9-4 the worst case scenario.

2) A Division II opponent? Don't go getting flashbacks just yet.
Some die-hard fans who want to see St. John's schedule marquee names to raise their RPI and computer rankings before conference play will be dismayed to see Division II Molloy College on the schedule for a November 20 meeting at Carnesecca, but the Lions' place in the season immediately following Nebraska's arrival (more on that later) is a perfect sandwich game in between one high-major and the three Advocare Invitational games that begin against Oregon State on November 23. The skeptics among the Johnnies' fan base need not fear for another St. Thomas Aquinas debacle, as this year's team is mounds more talented and battle-tested, unlike the patchwork group Mullin guided through a baptism by fire in his first season. Molloy will be the perfect opportunity for the Red Storm to work out whatever kinks still remain one week into the year, and also a good in-season exhibition; if such a thing exists, before stepping up to face higher competition.

3) Nebraska is an early test, but one the Red Storm should pass.
The Cornhuskers come to Carnesecca Arena for a November 16 Gavitt Games matchup, heading to Queens since Madison Square Garden is booked for the 2K Classic that night. Barring a cataclysmic meltdown, St. John's will almost certainly be 2-0 heading into this matchup, and they have the pieces to not only defeat Nebraska, but do so convincingly. Head coach Tim Miles could very well be on the hot seat in Lincoln after a 12-19 season, and returns three starters led by junior guard Glynn Watson Jr., the Huskers' top returning scorer from last season. Graduate transfer Duby Okeke, a 6-foot-8 warrior by way of Winthrop, will make a difference down low, but with only one player taller than 6-foot-8 and only two proven three-point shooters, Nebraska will have their work cut out for them against the Red Storm.

4) Sacred Heart might just be the most important game on the schedule.
Why, you might ask? Because of the sheer fact that it is a home game following the excursion to Florida and preceding the two neutral-site games on the West Coast against Grand Canyon and Arizona State. When Seton Hall competed in the Advocare last season, Kevin Willard smartly scheduled a home game against Columbia before the Pirates' next two contests in Hawaii, and was rewarded with a 95-71 victory that served as an early coming-out party for then-freshman Myles Powell. With two of the more pivotal games in non-conference play coming up immediately after the Pioneers come to Queens for the first time since 2007, the visit from Anthony Latina and Sacred Heart could prove to have the same impact as Columbia did for Seton Hall a year ago.

5) Two quality mid-majors before league play.
No hyperbole is needed to preview the December 17 contest against Iona in the Holiday Festival, the first between the Johnnies and Gaels since 1995. This should be an entertaining 40 minutes, matching the uptempo attack of Tim Cluess and the two-time reigning Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference champions against another like-minded opponent in St. John's that will attempt to get out in transition early and often, returning most of last year's Big East-leading unit in defensive turnover rate. The team that makes the fewest mistakes should emerge victorious in a game where both could reach the 80-point threshold. Three days later, Saint Joseph's takes on the Red Storm for the first time since the 2013 National Invitation Tournament encounter in Philadelphia, one that ended on Sir'Dominic Pointer's baseline jumper at the buzzer. Phil Martelli's Hawks will be refreshed and primed to make up for a lost season last year, with both Pierfrancesco Oliva and Shavar Newkirk both returning from injuries. Lamarr "Fresh" Kimble will once again anchor the St. Joe's offense, a perimeter-oriented attack, in his junior year, with the help of James Demery and Charlie Brown on the wings. The key for the Red Storm in this matchup will be how well they can pound the ball inside to the likes of Kassoum Yakwe, Tariq Owens and Bashir Ahmed, as they will have a noticeable size and athleticism advantage.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Liberty 70, Lynx 61: Ray Floriani's Photo Essay

NEW YORK -- There are times in the game when halftime adjustments are rather simple.

No grease board is needed, no reference to a playbook that may or may not be the size of the Manhattan phone book.

Sometimes the best alterations are simply verbal. Sometimes that is all that is needed to turn things around, exhibit A being the New York Liberty trailing the Minnesota Lynx 33-28 at halftime Sunday afternoon.

Following halftime, the Liberty came out on the Madison Square Garden floor energized, especially on the defensive end. The result saw Minnesota limited to eleven third quarter points as the Liberty went on to post a 70-61 victory.
What transpired at halftime in the Liberty locker room? Simple, no diagramming of plays or major adjustments on the offensive/defensive end, just a subtle reminder or two from head coach Bill Laimbeer, a reminder that his club lacked energy and was out there playing rather than trying to win. For 20 minutes, his team was not who they really are. He probably added a mention that a better effort could take down a Minnesota team that is very much an elite ballclub.

As noted, whatever was said worked. It was all done without diagramming a solitary play during intermission. They tell us this is a simple game, but there are times coaching can be difficult. On this gorgeous Sunday afternoon, Bill Laimbeer had the perfect answer to his situation. The results were proof.

A panoramic Madison Square Garden view as Minnesota goes on the attack:
Official Natalie Sago during a free throw:
One of Ray's personal favorite images, as depicted in the Garden lounge: Mick Jagger meeting the late great Chuck Berry prior to a 1969 concert:
The scorers' table at halftime, with the remnants of some in-game cuisine:
Minnesota's Maya Moore at the free throw line:
The Garden jumbotron after the win:
A visibly satisfied Bill Laimbeer meets the media following Sunday's victory:

Defensive lockdown and strong second half helps Liberty clinch playoff berth, defeat Minnesota

Madison Square Garden scoreboard tells story as Liberty clinched playoff berth win 70-61 victory over Minnesota on Sunday. (Photo by Ray Floriani/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

By Ray Floriani (@rfloriani)

NEW YORK -- As the final buzzer sounded, signifying the New York Liberty having put win No. 17 in the books; with the team on the short end one of the league elite in the Minnesota Lynx, the Madison Square Garden public address announcer proclaimed the 70-61 victory as one that clinched a playoff spot for the Liberty. In the giddiness of the moment the promise of champagne was mentioned.

Getting there is job one. The Liberty, though a 17-12 team in the midst of a five-game win streak, are not along for the ride or mention of the postseason on their website. They have bigger things in mind. The first order of the day was withstanding the challenge of the 22-5 Lynx.

In the early going, Minnesota; not concerned about being on the road, was the aggressor. Their transition and perimeter game staked them to an eight-point lead after a quarter. Defensively, they were shutting down the Liberty’s primary option, Tina Charles. The second quarter saw the Liberty step it up a bit on the offensive end, albeit not enough to please Bill Laimbeer. The coach thought his team was fortunate to be in a two-possession game only trailing by five. He spent the better part of halftime not on play calling, but a simple challenge.

“We lacked energy,” Laimbeer said, “like we were here to play a game instead of trying to win one.”

The second half was the turnaround. The Liberty held Minnesota to eleven third quarter points. New York took the lead late in the third quarter and never looked back. It was the best of both defense, a Liberty trademark, and offense. Laimbeer went with a three-guard offense, receiving favorable results. The backcourt opened things up for Charles, who finished with a team-high 19 points.

“Tina is our horse, we know that,” Laimbeer said. “Tonight, I got to play three guards and it gave more opportunity. The extra time helped both (Epiphanny) Prince and Sugar (Rodgers).” Prince scored 15 points, Rodgers added 10, and Bria Hartley; the third of the triumvirate, had nine points while handing out six assists. The defense limited Sylvia Fowles, a 20 point-per-game scorer, to a quiet seven on the afternoon.

“Our defense locked in, especially the second half,” Shavonte Zellous said. Maya Moore of the Lynx was the game-high scorer with 22 points, but as Zellous said, “Maya is Maya. You will not completely shut her down, but we made her work for what she got.” Now the focus is on the playoffs, using the final five regular season games as a springboard.  

“We hope to improve on everything, which is standard coach-speak,” said Laimbeer. “We know who we are. We are solid across the board, have offensive weapons and play good defense. Now, it is mental toughness. We are expected to make the playoffs, now there are bigger things out there. We want to not just make it, but do things in the playoffs. We are in a good spot knowing we can compete home or away. Now, we need to understand how to win mentally. I’ve been down the roads as a player and coach. It becomes a whole ’nother animal. Minnesota wins games due to mental toughness. We are learning.”

“It is a long season,” Rodgers said in the Liberty locker room. “Now, you must keep your focus,” she added in reference to what Laimbeer said. “The playoffs, you have your opponent, you focus on that only. Everything else is blocked out. You are just concentrating on basketball and moving on in the playoffs.”

Zellous also noted about the long season that for many, it starts prior to the WNBA opener.

“For many of us, we compete overseas,” she said. ‘Then you have the WNBA season. It can be very demanding.” She, too, reiterated a lot of the mental gymnastics Laimbeer mentioned. The veteran guard sees a difference this season.

“Last season, we kind of coasted to finish the year,” she said. The Liberty were then eliminated at home by Phoenix in a single-elimination playoff game. “This is a new season. We have a group that is together, and we are competing and getting better every time out.”

An ideal situation for a team with championship aspirations.

Liberty 70, Lynx 61: Tempo-Free Recap

By Ray Floriani (@rfloriani)

NEW YORK -- Ideally, August is the time of the WNBA season where you want to be at your best.

The New York Liberty, winners of four straight; including Friday’s victory at Connecticut, hosted the Minnesota Lynx.  Cheryl Reeve’s group entered Madison Square Garden having won two of their last three. There were few who would doubt Minnesota’s credentials as an elite club, sporting a 22-5 overall record.
In this Sunday matinee, the Liberty were far from their best in the first half. The final half, however, was one they may want to bottle, as they defeated the Lynx by the final of 70-61.

Pregame numbers of note: Minnesota entered with a league-leading 106 offensive efficiency against a defensive metric of 92, another pace-setting figure. The Liberty showed a 99 on offense while having the league’s third-best mark on defense at 98.

The Liberty showed the ability early on to share the ball. Unfortunately, they were not sharing it with Tina Charles. The former UConn standout was fronted down low with very active post defense. New York managed five first quarter field goals with Charles only accounting for one, a 13-footer. Minnesota looked to run, and if available, take the three-pointer. The Lynx hit two of their eight field goals from beyond the arc. In fact, another three field goals were just inside three-point range. Getting out in transition was the key to the Lynx taking the offensive initiative in a 19-11 lead at the end of the opening stanza.

The Liberty still trailed 33-28 at halftime. They did trim the deficit to one possession on several occasions in that second quarter, a good sign for Bill Laimbeer’s group as shots were starting to fall, as they shot 7-of-14 in the second quarter.

With six minutes remaining in the third quarter, the Lynx still had a 38-34 lead. The Liberty missed a few opportunities in the initial two minutes of the half. A bright spot was two of the three New York field goals were made by Charles. Given a rough start, the Liberty standout showed her veteran poise by staying in the flow of the offense and letting the game come to her.

The Liberty closed out the last two minutes of the third quarter on a 6-0 run, giving them a three-point lead entering the final ten minutes. As an added significance, it gave the home five some much-needed momentum. Epiphanny Prince’s offense (15 points) opened things up for penetration and post play. Almost overlooked was the defense on Sylvia Fowles. The Lynx’s leading scorer (20.4 PPG) was hounded defensively all afternoon. She ended the contest with just seven points on 3-o- 4 shooting, but did lead all rebounders with 15 boards.

Trailing by double digits in the fourth quarter, the ball was put in the capable hands of Maya Moore. The Lynx star canned three field goals from long distance in the last five minutes, but it was not enough as the Liberty sealed it from the charity stripe.

Possessions: Minnesota 72, New York 70
Offensive efficiency: Minnesota 85, New York 100

Four Factors
Effective field goal percentage: Minnesota 39, New York 51
Free throw rate: Minnesota 7, New York 24
Offensive rebound rate: Minnesota 33, New York 24
Turnover rate: Minnesota 13, New York 17

Leading Scorers/Player Efficiency
Minnesota: Maya Moore, 22 points/17
New York: Tina Charles, 19 points/20

NOTES: The free throw rate of Minnesota can attest on how they were largely a perimeter team for the afternoon. Outside of Moore’s late charge, the perimeter was not kind to Minnesota, as they shot 7-of-27 from beyond the arc. Offensive rebounding percentage was deceptive. Minnesota fared better while the Liberty came up with a number of possession-extending boards at key junctures. Minnesota is now 22-6. The Liberty improved to 17.12.

Final Thoughts
“We won. Got on them a little at the half. The first half was not who we are. We came to play, not win. No energy or sense of purpose made us fortunate to only be down four. We challenged them to show who we are in the second half. Don’t know if we contained Maya Moore, you are not going to stop her, she is a tremendous player. You want to limit touches and make her work for everything. The biggest difference was defending Sylvia Fowles. We kept them on the perimeter. The free throws showed that. Sylvia is very physical. If you let her dictate, she will score. We beat her to spots, made them swing the ball more, and forced them to be more perimeter overall.” Liberty head coach Bill Laimbeer

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Point guard issue one of many questions Siena hopes to solve this season

Replacing four 1,000-point scorers will be no easy task, but Jimmy Patsos is hopeful that Siena's returning players and new crop of incoming freshmen will keep Saints among MAAC contenders. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)

Siena's run to last season's Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship game was somewhat unexpected, as the Saints relied on Nico Clareth's second half bonanza to upset regular season champion Monmouth and earn a date with Iona for an NCAA Tournament berth, where the Gaels narrowly emerged victorious on Siena's home floor in a fierce overtime battle.

The Saints' quartet of 1,000-point scoring seniors has since graduated, with each signing professional contracts overseas, leaving some uncertainty in the Capital Region as the MAAC landscape has been significantly altered heading into the 2017-18 season. Yet through the question marks, there is still confidence abound at the school that remains one of the league's flagship members.

"Everyone's going to pick us sixth or seventh, and that's fine," head coach Jimmy Patsos remarked as he prepares for his fifth season at the helm of the Saints, whom he guided to a College Basketball Invitational championship in his first campaign as Mitch Buonaguro's successor. "I think that's a good thing for us. On paper, that's where we should be. I'm looking forward to coaching this team. I think we're going to get better as the year goes."

Replacing the likes of Brett Bisping, Lavon Long, Javion Ogunyemi and Marquis Wright will be difficult both on paper and on the floor given their immeasurable contributions to Siena basketball over the past four seasons; five in Bisping's case, but in their place stands an emerging core anchored by the flamboyant and charismatic Clareth that will be counted on to be the next wave of standard-bearers for the Saints, who are still seeking a return to their perch among the MAAC's elite after a 69-68 record over the past four seasons.

"Those guys did a great job," said Patsos of his now-departed senior class. "They never lost faith and they never lost confidence despite our tough start. Hopefully Nico and (Ahsante) Shivers learn from them, Kevin Degnan's got a little experience even though he sat out. One thing about the MAAC is you have to prove it. No one's going to give you anything."

Of the many dilemmas surrounding Siena heading into the year, there is perhaps none bigger than who will be the ultimate successor to Wright at the point guard spot. Roman Penn, who enrolled at the school in January and had the opportunity to practice with the team during the spring semester last year, appears to have the inside track, but incoming freshman Jordan Horn is poised to ensure that there will be another type of race held in the Albany area this season alongside those of the equine variety at nearby Saratoga Race Course.

"The thing about Marquis is he played the whole game, took the most shots, did all that stuff," Patsos recollected with regard to Wright. "We're trying to replace a guy that got us points, assists, great player, great leader, played a ton of minutes. That's tough to replace."

"Roman's hungry," said Patsos of Penn, a 5-foot-11 Indiana native whose early enrollment at Siena afforded him the opportunity to learn the Saints' system from Wright and get a feel for what is to be expected of him as he throws himself into the fire. "That proved to be a valuable thing, just to see the competitiveness of the MAAC. These kids don't know. These incoming freshmen have no idea how hard a league the MAAC is, how above the rim it is, great offensive teams, great coaches. Roman saw it for 17 games. He saw Iona's guards. When he saw Justin Robinson, I remember yelling at him at halftime, saying 'Hey, I told you how good he is! See how good he is now?'"

Penn and Horn will see immediate playing time in the backcourt, where they will join Clareth, Shivers, and Fairfield transfer Kevin Degnan in the starting five, according to Patsos. Evan Fisher and incoming freshman Prince Oduro, who helped Canada win the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup gold medal last month, will round out the Saints' rotation alongside sophomore Khalil Richard, with Sammy Friday and Tom Huerter, Jr. competing for minutes as well. All in all, the potential for growth is there with a team composed of holdovers from a deep run through the MAAC tournament, plus a handful of underclassmen poised to take the next step, a combination that Patsos believes has Siena in a favorable position heading into their three-game tour of Canada at the end of the month, as well as the Saints' opener against College of Charleston in November.

"It's one thing to be the sixth option, the fourth option, third option," he said. "It's one thing to play 24 minutes. Now you have to be the guys, and I think it's going to be very interesting for us this year. That's why we'll be picked sixth or seventh, but the league's wide open. I think Iona, everybody's going to concede that they're the No. 1 team, but after that, I'm interested to see. There's a lot of room for growth, a lot of opportunities for some guys that didn't play."

"What do I think? Nico and Shivers, they'll be exciting, but we might be a little more balanced," Patsos intimated. "I think we're going to be a lot better in December and January than we are in November, and we hope to be better in February and March, clearly. There's a lot of positive energy. We have a very hungry look. Some guys want to prove some stuff. Not one guy's going to have the ball in his hands all the time, and that's what makes me nervous. But we stay positive, and the future's bright."

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Veteran Jaspers hungry to put last season's bitter end behind them

Rich Williams returns from injury this season to give Manhattan four seniors looking to atone for recent downturn as Jaspers seek third MAAC championship in five seasons. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)

Manhattan's season came to a heartbreaking end last March, befallen by a last-second three-pointer against Rider and betrayed by a game clock that had reached all zeroes less than a second before Zavier Turner appeared to have gotten what would have been a game-winning layup to fall, leaving an enduring reminder of what could have been during a 10-22 campaign whose curtain was dropped in the opening round of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament.

Five months later, the Jaspers have reemerged, bearing the scars of last season's disappointment as they enter a season in which their four returning starters and cadre of experience places them among the projected top tier of the MAAC in what those inside the program are hoping will be a year of resurgence and redemption.

"I think anytime you go through a year like last year, where you have injuries and you have a tough year, you have to find a positive in it," head coach Steve Masiello said when summarizing the climax of a season that did not go as planned for Manhattan, one in which Rich Williams; the Jaspers' second-leading scorer in 2015-16, was lost before it even began, having suffered a torn meniscus. "You have to embrace some of the things you went through, some of the embarrassment you went through, the long bus rides you went through, and really ask yourself: Do you want this to happen again? Do you want to be back in this situation again? What can you do to change that?"

"You discuss those things as a family, as a team, and you put that into action in your offseason," he continued. "I think so far, the guys have done a good job in that area."

In some ways, last season's final act seems reminiscent of the end of the 2012-13 season, one in which the Jaspers finished 14-18, but fell three points short of a MAAC championship, losing to Iona in the conference title game. In a coincidental, yet similar, vein, Manhattan navigated both of those seasons without the services of a star player; as Williams was out for the entire season last year, while George Beamon missed all but four games five years ago with a high ankle sprain that was aggravated when he tried to return in December. Fueled by the near-miss, the Jaspers went through practices the following summer and fall eager to claim what they felt was theirs, even displaying the 60-57 final score of the Iona loss on the Draddy Gymnasium scoreboard in every drill and intrasquad scrimmage. The tactic paid off handsomely the following March, as Manhattan knocked off the Gaels for their first of two straight MAAC titles, the fourth and fifth overall in school history. And although last year's frustration was not at the level of coming so close to a championship and subsequent NCAA Tournament berth as the Jaspers did in 2013, Masiello still sees the shared parallel in the two tales.

"I think there's some similarities there, without a doubt," he admitted. "I don't think this team had as much as a heartbreak. That team was three points away from getting to the dance, this team wasn't that close. I always feel the further you go, the more invested you become, the bigger the heartbreak is as well. I think this team definitely has some heartbreak with that. I wouldn't say it was to the level of that year, but I think the similarities are the same in the sense of we had a tough year, guys felt it, we had a very good player sitting out that we needed, and we have a lot of players returning. In those areas, I think there were a lot of similarities, so I'm curious to see how these guys respond to it, but I think we're set up to better ourselves."

This season, Williams returns as a fifth-year senior with the experience of playing a role in both of Manhattan's NCAA Tournament runs under Masiello. The Brooklyn native joins fellow seniors Zavier Turner, Zane Waterman and Calvin Crawford in what shapes up as one of the more experienced rosters not only in Riverdale, but in the MAAC as well, setting up what could be a fitting high note for the quartet to go out upon should the Jaspers hear their name in the field of 68 for the third time in five seasons.

"I think we're looking at a senior class that could, potentially, have four 1,000-point scorers," Masiello said, citing the accomplishments and upside of his veteran leaders. "There's a lot of experience, I think there's a lot of guys that have some great moments, some bad moments. More than anything else, they've seen just about anything you can see, and I don't mean that by arenas. I mean that by they've tried it their way, they've tried it my way, they've tried other coaches' ways. They've tried everything, and I think they understand what works and what doesn't. I think at this point in their careers, all these guys care about is winning, and I don't think you can say that when guys are younger."

"Certain guys care about getting their points, certain guys care about making their parents happy," he elaborated. "These four seniors, I can say, are committed to winning right now for the program. That's what's important about a senior class, because if your senior class isn't committed to that, it can be a problem. But when you have seniors committed to the cause, and we keep talking about this, keep the main thing the main thing; and that's our third (championship) in five (years), that's a great thing to have."