The WNBA and its constituents watched in awe as Teaira McCowan put an exclamation point on 2019’s opening night.
The New York Liberty were not among those impressed.
McCowan’s miracle, extraordinary as it was to the naked eye of the basketball fan, doomed the Liberty to an 0-1 start. It marks New York’s 14th straight loss dating back to last season.
“We came out and played hard. We jumped on them but then we died down a bit,” Liberty star Tina Charles noted in defeat. “The turnovers hurt us; I think they had 16 points off turnovers. Then us just boxing out, (Teaira) McCowan did a really good job of getting offensive rebounds.”
Charles willed New York back into the game with a double-double performance. Her 2019 debut featured 32 points (including the would-be heroic pair that was the game-winner before McCowan’s heroics) and 12 rebounds.
Despite the loss, New York is able to glean several positives (beyond the usual Charles happenings) that could help the Liberty soon return to the victorious norms that the franchise is used to.
1. International Guard
The Liberty went with a bit of a smaller starting lineup on Friday, which could become the norm while they wait for Kiah Stokes to return from Turkish commitments and Han Xu to adjust to the WNBA game. Brittany Boyd, Kia Nurse, and Rebecca Allen played alongside Tina Charles and Amanda Zahui B. Boyd was mostly neutralized and sat out a majority of the second half. But the international pairing of the Canadian Nurse and the Australian Allen provided a huge spark for New York.
The pair put on typical guard antics, taking shots from the outside all evening. Allen came up particularly huge with a tying three-pointer in the penultimate minute. However, the duo’s interior work impressed more than their shooting. Nurse had an off-night, going 3-10 from the field. But she still reached double figures with a pair of perfect trips to the foul line. She recently wrapped up a preseason that saw her average 17.3 points, good for fourth in the league. Part of her tally was thanks to an uptick in free throw shooting, going to the line 26 times in four games. She only averaged two free throw attempts per game in her rookie season.
“She wants to be a consistent scorer and defender,” Liberty head coach Katie Smith said of Nurse’s newly found interior prowess. “She doesn’t mind the contact, she’s able to get in there and finish.”
The Liberty get an instant shot at redemption on Saturday, as they have a rematch with the 1-1 Fever at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Saturday (7:00 p.m. ET, WNBA League Pass/WNDY). Last season, Nurse formally introduced herself to the WNBA scene with a 34-point performance in a Liberty overtime win.
Allen struggled to find minutes in Smith’s first year at the helm, but impressed as a defender after injuries decimated the roster. A strong preseason was rewarded with her first start since September 2016. Allen did a little bit of everything in 19 minutes, earning six points, five rebounds, two blocks, and two steals.
Brought back as a free agent this offseason, Allen was part of the New York core that won 66 games from 2015 to 2017. Thus, she knows this group is capable of winning.
“We know how to win. We’ve experienced it. I think it’s just turning this one-point loss the other way around. We’ve done it before, we know how to do it. It’s just making it happen,” she said. “We have to make sure we keep playing hard the whole game. Play the whole 40 minutes.”
2. Gray Skies
Interior option and Sixth Woman of the Year candidate Amanda Zahui B. struggled in an increased role. She missed all four attempts from the field in addition to picking up five fouls and turnovers each. However, the Liberty were redeemed by a diamond in the rough performance from reserve forward Reshanda Gray.
Friday marked Gray’s first appearance in a WNBA regular-season game since 2016. She and the Liberty previously worked together last preseason, when she filled out the spring roster. Welcomed back for another go at it, Gray rose to the occasion in the preseason and training camp. Prior to the opener, Smith told W-Insidr that the final roster spot on the Liberty roster came down to Gray’s interior competition with Avery Warley-Talbert. Gray prevailed.
She let the Liberty know how appreciative she was of the regular season invite with 10 points and eight rebounds in the opener. Six of her points came via second-chance opportunities in the third quarter as part of the Liberty’s efforts to make up a 12-point deficit. Smith was “really happy” with Gray’s performance, labeling her work as “effort plays”.
Only time will tell if Gray is simply keeping a roster spot warm for Stokes. But if Gray keeps it up, the Liberty could have themselves a valuable hidden gem coming off the bench.
3. Ahead of Her Time
The turning point in Asia Durr’s WNBA career may very have come before her first game.
The second overall pick out of Louisville had struggled in her unofficial first steps. Over her first three preseason games, she was shooting just 24 percent from the field and passing up opportunities. After a hard-fought exhibition against Atlanta, Smith administered some tough love toward the rookie.
“I need her to constantly think: my first option is me. She’ll always make the right read. But I need her to have that mindset,” Smith said. “If it’s one-on-one, we need her to go, that’s her job, to be a scorer. We need her to look to score, that needs to be her mindset. Overall, she’s a smart defender, isn’t a liability, but I know we can challenge her a little bit.”
Durr seemed to take Smith’s words to heart. She ended the preseason with a 16-point performance in Albany and registered eight points, two assists, and a block in 25 minutes on Friday. Durr spoke like a veteran after the tough loss, keeping New York’s situation in perspective.
“You can’t really hope for it all right now. This is a process,” she said. “We have to continue to play hard, play strong, play as a team.”
She went on to express her belief that the team is “most definitely” making progress. Smith has praised Durr for rising to the occasion.
“We need her to stay aggressive. Was pleased with what she did on her first night as pro,” Smith said. “She knows how to score. She’s an option out there. Makes the right reads, a very good passer. She’s not going to jack shot. She’s very comfortable handling the basketball.”
On Twitter @GeoffMags5490