Head coach Walt Hopkins credited a moving team meeting as the source behind the New York Liberty’s first win in the WNBA bubble.
It’s a celebration! 💦 🙌 pic.twitter.com/nVjXBVA8VV
— New York Liberty (@nyliberty) August 8, 2020
Asked about the atmosphere behind his first victory as a WNBA head coach, Walt Hopkins remarked that it featured “a whole lot of water”. The New York Liberty’s social media accounts were more than happy to prove his words were quite literal.
Friday night saw Hopkins guide his team to a 74-66 win over the defending WNBA champion Washington Mystics in the Bradenton bubble. As the final seconds ticked away, Hopkins remained stoic, only cracking a slight smile when his players joyfully surrounded him.
Once he got to the Liberty’s makeshift locker room, however, Hopkins finally let his guard down as members of the Liberty (1-5) doused him with water, his wide grin lost in his players’ aquatic assault. It didn’t take long for Hopkins to return to basketball matters, jokingly declaring that his copy of the box score was lost to the storm.
“We didn’t want to celebrate on the court, we wanted to act like we’ve been there,” Hopkins said in a postgame Zoom call. “It’s extremely touching that they care that it’s my first win, because it’s their first win too. But they were really warm and really genuine. It’s a pretty cool moment.”
Hopkins was named the eighth head coach in Liberty history in January after three seasons of a de facto apprenticeship under the legendary Cheryl Reeve in Minnesota. His first head coaching endeavor has already offered challenges some coaches will never experience in decades. Opt-outs and transactions have given the Liberty one of the youngest teams in North American professional sports history, packed with seven rookies. This was even before the 2020 season was shifted to Florida’s IMG Academy in the wake of the ongoing health crisis, postponing the Liberty’s full-time Barclays Center debut.
The infantile squad perhaps pales in modern comparison with the competition, many of whom are firmly planted in “win-now” mode. Consolation reigned with the idea of consequence-free games headlined by top overall pick Sabrina Ionescu, but she was lost to an ankle sprain in her third WNBA game. There’s no word as to whether her rookie season will resume.
Valiant efforts that followed were marred by garish ten-minute showings. Hopkins himself noted in Friday’s pregame that the team seemed to have “one bad quarter” in each of their showings to date. For example, that narrowed a 14-point deficit to one late in the third quarter against Phoenix last weekend but were outscored 41-13 the rest of the way. In Hopkins’ first get-together against Reeve (and his New York predecessor Katie Smith) on Wednesday, the Liberty led after the first quarter and shot 55 percent in the first half, but were on the wrong end of a 27-6 margin in the third.
So Hopkins did what every family, every business, every unified, rational organization does in a time of crisis…talk it out.
Hopkins revealed in his postgame media discussion that the team met for an emotional meeting prior to the contest against Washington. Labeling it an “everyone get it out on the table” discussion, it was part of the reason Hopkins was looking as lively as possibly could prior to a difficult challenge.
“The thing I’ll remember the most (about the first win) is that we had one of those meetings,” Hopkins said. “Let’s talk through this, let’s talk about specifically what we have to do to get better. We went around after the (Minnesota) game and before the (Washington) game and we asked, what is your controllable? Everyone said one thing. Everyone controlled their controllable today. All the team stats we talked about limiting, we limited.”
“That’s the thing I’m going to remember: the response to a really emotional meeting. It’s really special.”
The game against the Mystics featured a sense of controllable sloppiness. The Liberty led by an 18-14 tally at the end of the first, but ended it in tremendous fashion, with Megan Walker finding fellow rookies Joyner Holmes in transition after a Washington miss. It commenced a 16-5 Liberty run that helped them build a lead they’d never relinquish.
Hopkins carefully managed the final portions, fatefully calling a timeout with the Liberty up by 12 near the midway mark of the third quarter. When the Mystics trimmed the lead down to five later in the frame, physicality took over. Jazmine Jones drew a foul in the interior, allowing a stoppage in play and fresh legs on the court. The Liberty scored on that possession and kept their foot on the gas pedal from there on out. Kia Nurse and Jocelyn Willoughby reached the foul line a combined 17 times, sinking all but three of those attempts.
The head coach credited the fateful meeting for the surge and the players echoed those claims of positive impact.
“It was about having that hard moment and realizing you have to make the choice to have a better perspective in all of this and look at it as a moment of joy,” Friday’s top New York scorer Layshia Clarendon said of the meeting. “I’m a joyful player, silly, fun. I play really physical, but I love to have fun in practice, always have a smile on my face. I wasn’t playing like that. (The meeting) was a moment for me to remember that I need to get back to who I am, being myself. It’s when I play the most fun.”
“All the new players and coach Walt, they deserve it. We deserve it,” added Amanda Zahui B, she of a career-best 14 rebounds. “It feels good. I’m very proud of my teammates. We stepped up, all of us.”
Hopkins has routinely preached that wins and losses aren’t going to be 2020’s barometer in terms of New York growth. He certainly won’t be complaining when a few head his way, though.
The chance to start his first winning streak comes on Sunday afternoon against the Las Vegas Aces (5 p.m. ET, YES).
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags