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WNBA / MIKE TERRY

Liberty Rising Above Parity

June 10, 2004|MIKE TERRY

Nearly a month into the season, the balance so widely predicted for the WNBA appears to be fact.

After the first week of play, every team had lost at least once.

Last year's finalists, the champion Detroit Shock (3-3) and the Sparks (4-4), are struggling.

Teams were winning only 51.2% of their home games, which, if the trend continued, would easily be the lowest home winning percentage in the league's eight-year history.

None of which explains the emergence of the 6-1 New York Liberty, off to its best start since 1997, when the team won its first seven games in the league's inaugural season.

New York lost its season opener against Indiana, and has not lost since.

More impressive, the Liberty is 4-0 against the Western Conference, having beaten Houston twice, Minnesota and San Antonio.

Why the turnaround for a team that last year had its first losing record (16-18) and missed the playoffs for the first time?

The Liberty isn't running opponents out of the gym. New York ranks seventh in the league in scoring at 66.14 points and has broken 70 points only once. But the Liberty tops the league in shooting at 46.6%, and is giving up the fewest points among the 13 teams, 59.86 a game.

Rookie forward DeTrina White is the team's second-best rebounder at 6.7 a game, and leads the Liberty in offensive rebounds with 18. More heralded rookie Shameka Christon is averaging 7.9 points, playing sparingly.

Elana Baranova is giving New York a big lift in the middle. The 6-foot-5 Russian center, in her seventh season, is averaging 11.6 points, shooting 53.5%, and is the WNBA's leading shot blocker, at 2.86 a game.

She's taking pressure off Tari Phillips, who no longer has to battle the league's biggest players as a 6-1 center. And Coach Richie Adubato can turn to the 6-4 Ann Wauters if Baranova is not having a productive night.

It's too early to tell if the Liberty can keep this up. Among its next 10 games, New York plays Seattle, Sacramento and the Sparks twice each.

But if New York is even .500 through that stretch it will be a successful one. And then the Liberty's story becomes more engrossing.

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Spark center Lisa Leslie will receive her master's degree in business administration from the University of Phoenix on Saturday. The graduation ceremony will be at the Forum, and Leslie will be the commencement speaker.

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Milestones: Minnesota's Katie Smith needs six points to become the fourth WNBA player to score 3,000, joining Leslie, Houston's Tina Thompson and Charlotte's Andrea Stinson. Smith also scored 1,431 points in the ABL, making her the leading scorer in U.S. women's pro basketball history.

Leslie, the first WNBA player with2,000 rebounds, needs 17 blocked shots to reach 500. San Antonio's Margo Dydek, with 619, is the only player with more than 500 blocks.

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