September 4, 2020 

‘We just found a way’: How Atlanta emerged victorious from a low-scoring battle

The Dream topped the Liberty, 62-56, Thursday night for their third win in five games

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Courtney Williams #10 of the Atlanta Dream handles the ball during the game against the New York Liberty on September 3, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. (Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images)

With barely more than 90 seconds left in a three-point game, Courtney Williams wanted the ball in her hands.

She already had 12 points on the night and was clearly feeling confident. As she brought the ball up the floor, she surveyed her options and chose to keep the ball herself. Williams drove hard to the right around Layshia Clarendon, spun back to the left and lofted a wild, one-armed jump shot from the lane line.

Somehow, the shot was good — and Williams drew the foul. With Atlanta up by five on New York with 91 seconds left, Williams went to the line for her only free throw attempt of the night.

The foul shot gave the Dream a six-point lead and cemented the impossibility of a comeback by the Liberty as Atlanta held on to win, 62-56. It was also Williams’ last point of the game of her 15 total. She combined those 15 points with 13 rebounds for her third double-double of the year.

“She’s coming off COVID, had no training camp, and is really just starting to get her legs back,” Dream coach Nicki Collen said. “I saw her take a jump shot against Indiana the other day and saw her really elevate, I thought for the first time all season. Like, full elevation, Courtney Williams WNBA Finals last year looking [jump shot]. … She’s fearless.”

On a night when neither team could buy a shot for long stretches of the game — Atlanta finished shooting 32.1 percent and New York, just 26 percent — Williams’ performance was a difference-maker. For the most part it was a grinding, low-scoring affair, and Williams’ ability to make key shots at key moments was crucial for the Dream.

Other players, like Shekinna Stricklen and Betnijah Laney, also made just enough shots at just the right times to keep Atlanta in the lead. The game didn’t call for an otherworldly performance from a single player. It called for enough players making enough shots — and getting enough stops — at the right times, and that’s what the Dream got.

Atlanta couldn’t have won like this three weeks ago.

Most of the Dream’s few wins this season have come on the back of stellar individual performances, an offensive outburst and the defense getting just enough stops to keep Atlanta in the game. But Thursday night, neither team really flowed on the offensive end. It was a physical, battling game — the kind of win that says a lot about the growth of a team.

“I mean, they were frustrated,” Collen said. “We were not always composed. We were constantly trying to keep them in next play mode. … When you get to the fourth quarter and it’s winning time, you’ve got to make winning plays. Whether that’s a defensive rebound, or a steal, or setting a good screen to get a teammate a shot. When you’re not hitting, you’ve got to find a way to create a shot for somebody else.

“We just found a way. It wasn’t always pretty. It was probably never pretty. For those that had to watch the other night versus tonight, that’s the tale of two games. Ultimately, when you put a win in the right column, that’s what you want at the end of the day.”

The two teams combined for a WNBA-record 109 missed shots. To say the game wasn’t pretty would be an understatement. But Atlanta got the win anyway.

“The best thing is that we’re staying together as a team,” Stricklen said. “Could have been many times we could have just put our hands down and just kind of went all our separate ways. But we stayed together and that’s a good thing. … We’re just gonna continue to keep fighting to the end. I think people know that we’re one team that is not gonna quit. We’ve got great players, and we’ve just got to keep building and keep playing together.”

Collen isn’t afraid to talk to her team about their path to the playoffs. It would require a few things to break in their favor, as well as some major wins down the stretch, but it’s not impossible at this point.

Both Collen and the Dream believe they can make it happen, and wins like the one they got Thursday night are crucial for building confidence and belief among a team.

“It certainly was our goal going into this,” Collen said. “We weren’t coming here to play 22 games. We were coming here to play for a chance to play at least one after the 22. Certainly, we made it tough on ourselves. But we just have to take one game at a time and we certainly need help. We’re obviously going to be that team that’s cheering for all the teams that have already secured playoff bids to beat all the teams that are that are still in contention at this point.

“But we can only do that if we take care of ourselves and we go into each game trying and knowing that we have to control we can control, and that means one win at a time. We’re kind of in that mode where we just have to go one game at a time and give ourselves that chance.”

Written by Bailey Johnson

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