Preseason Behind Them, Liberty Ready for the Real Thing

You won’t find Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer smiling after many losses.

Certainly not after a 22-point loss in a game that might not have been that close.

Definitely not after a loss in which his team failed to match the physicality of the opponent.

That is a heinous violation of Laimbeer Ball.

But Laimbeer has been around this game long enough to know that the loss, a 79-57 preseason setback to the Connecticut Sun on Sunday at Columbia University, provided him with much of the final pieces of information needed to prepare for Saturday’s season-opener against the San Antonio Stars in The Garden (3 p.m.; MSG Network).

In part 1 of Lenn Robbins' exclusive one-on-one interview with Bill Laimbeer, the Liberty head coach gives his thoughts on the strengths of the team, Tina Charles' leadership and this season's expectations.

Most importantly, the Liberty came out the preseason schedule injury-free.

Laimbeer came out of the game with a pretty clear idea of what his 12-player roster will look like. He likely faces a tough decision at small forward where Rebecca Allen, Cierra Burdick and perhaps rookie Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe, are tightly bunched.

He knows he has to determine the best use of his point guards, who were the main culprits in a game that saw the Liberty have just three assists and 13 turnovers at halftime. The Liberty (1-2) finished with 10 assists and 23 turnovers, which led to 25 Connecticut points.

Most of all, Laimbeer knows he doesn’t have to tell his players that not playing physical in this league just won’t fly. The Sun did it for him.

“I believe you need to get smacked around sometimes to wake up,’’ star Tina Charles said after the game.

Charles was one of the few Liberty players doing some smacking of her own. She scored 20 of the Liberty’s 57 points, grabbed nine of the team’s 35 rebounds and had two of the squad’s 10 assists.

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Had Charles not played, Levien Gymnasium might have been quieter than Butler Library during finals week.

“The intensity was OK,’’ said Laimbeer. “The physicality bothered us. They were a very physical basketball team tonight. We didn’t match that. And that’s the way the league is moving.’’

The Liberty will add a lot of physicality this week as Epiphanny Prince begins to practice in earnest. Amanda Zahui B. who played against the Sun (four points on 2-of-10 shooting; five rebounds, three assists in a team-high 31 minutes) will begin her first full week of practice.

Shavonte Zellous and Kiah Stokes are expected back from Europe this week. Laimbeer said he expects to have the entire roster available for practice on Wednesday.

That gives the Liberty three full practice days before Saturday’s opener against the Stars. The emphasis those days will be on offensive structure and how to target certain player’s offensive strengths.

“Some of the other players will come in, they have a veteran sense about them and they’re a little [more] physical basketball players,’’ said Laimbeer. “Some of our tougher players aren’t here, mentally and physically, but that’s still no excuse.

“Collectively, we have to pull it together a little bit more than we have so far in the preseason. I like the intensity factor, just when the physicality starts we don’t seem to step up and match that.’’

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Kia Vaughn, who did not play against the Sun, is as talented and physical a big as there in the league. Stokes and Zellous also possess those traits and Prince is as tough a guard as you’ll find.

As for motivation? The Liberty found that Sunday afternoon.

“We got punched, we pretty much got punched first,’’ said point guard Brittany Boyd. “We kind of let them run over us.

“Tina tried…she pretty much told us this is unacceptable, and I think that gave us some energy and you know we tried to come out and play New York basketball and do what we do, but we can’t allow people to hit us first.”

Laimbeer said after the game that he has a pretty good idea of the final roster. He met with his staff after the game and they will meet again Monday morning.

Laimbeer said Boyd has been the hardest worker in training camp, which may give her an edge for the starting point guard spot. Bria Hartley, who gave birth in January and is working her way back into top shape, showed flashes, hitting the team’s only 3. Rookie Lindsay Allen clearly has tremendous upside.

Realistically, there isn’t enough practice time for the Liberty to emerge as a finely tuned offensive machine for the opener. But as Charles mentioned, sometimes you need a big loss like the one to Connecticut to wake up. Expect the Liberty to be wide awake come 3 p.m. on Saturday.