If the New York Liberty salvage their best-of-three playoff series with the Miami Sol, they can chalk up their victory to having conquered or at least compensated for the one weakness no amount of practice can cure. Simply put, they’re short.
Madison Square Garden got a glimpse of the WNBA future on Sunday as the Sol filled the paint and barricaded the perimeter with the predatory reach of forward Elena Baranova and center Ruth Riley, each 6-5. They held New York’s 6-2 center Tari Phillips to 11 points and forced Liberty coach Richie Adubato to run his front court through a revolving door. His experienced reserve forward Sue Wicks, who at 6-3 was tall enough to slow Riley, put in almost as much time as starting center Tamika Whitmore, who at 6-2 all but offered the rookie a free pass to the hoop.
With Wicks chucking bricks and the sweet-firing Whitmore on the bench, the Liberty’s eight-point lead disappeared in a whirl of missed shots and low-post turnovers. In the closing seconds, the Liberty had a chance to tie with a three-pointer from 5-10 forward Crystal Robinson. Then Baranova slid out to the arc, arms spread. “She’s a big, long person who’s hard to shoot the ball over,” Robinson would say after the game. “I could barely see the rim, but I had to get the shot off.” The ball bounced away, and the horn sounded on a 53-50 Miami win.
Left unused that day, as for most of the season, were the Liberty’s tallest players. Rookie center Camille Cooper (6-4) hasn’t yet proven playoff-ready, former star forward Rebecca Lobo (6-4) was back on the injured list, and the Yugoslavian mystery center Hadjana Radunovic (6-3) has spent much of the season on the suspended list and is now playing for her national squad.
Shorthanded or not, the Liberty remain the favorite in Tuesday night’s deciding game, especially if they regain their shooting touch—they had shot nearly 52 percent in their opening rout of the Sol. The next round promises to be a giant headache as well. The Liberty would face the Charlotte Sting, starring the 6-4 Tammy Sutton-Brown and the 6-6 Summer Erb.