‘Play your way’: Tina Charles unleashes 34 points on her former team

Charles led the Washington Mystics to their first win of the season on Friday against the New York Liberty

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When Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud controlled the opening tip against the New York Liberty on Friday night, she knew exactly what to do: give her center, Tina Charles, a touch. Charles missed her 3-foot hook shot, but besides the finish, the sequence previewed much of what was to come in the Mystics’ 101-72 victory.

The 6’4 Charles dazzled with an array of jump shots, hook shots, finger rolls and even an underhanded toss that found the net early in the third quarter. Two minutes later, she drained her fourth 3-pointer of the game, a career high.

In short, seemingly everything Charles touched against her former team turned to gold, as she finished with 34 points and 9 rebounds in just 29 minutes. The native New Yorker made 12 of her 21 shots, seven of which came from behind the arc, and all six of her free throws. She was so hot that the Mystics even ran a play for her to shoot a 3-pointer, which is a shot that head coach Mike Thibault doesn’t always encourage her to take.

It was Charles’ highest scoring game since May 2018 and the 14th 30-point game of her career, and it couldn’t have come at a better time for the Mystics, who got their first win of the season just before a three-game road trip.

“Tina had what, 34?” guard Ariel Atkins said postgame. “I mean, what didn't you like tonight about what she did? … She makes moves. She's finding ways to get her shot off. She's doing a good job of, when they're doubling down, trying to find that kick-out person or that diver.”

Charles had scored in double figures in each of the Mystics’ first two games, but the difference between those performances and her near-career high was patience. Thibault emphasized that to Charles before the game, and she took it to heart. “He was like, ‘Just calm down, let the game come to you. Play your game, play your way,’” she said. “And that's what I was doing tonight.”

Charles was remarkably consistent throughout the game—scoring seven, 11, eight and eight points across the four quarters—as well as devastatingly efficient. In part, that was due to shot selection, as she didn’t pass up open jumpers but looked to score in the paint when she could. “She was aggressive, she was assertive and … I'm just so proud of her for not settling [for jump shots],” guard Shavonte Zellous said. “She actually took her time on the block to get the easy points.”

The Liberty were shorthanded in the post without star Natasha Howard, who only recently got back to the United States from playing overseas and is still in COVID-19 protocols, and both head coaches recognized it. Thibault described the game plan as, “Let's go right at them in the paint,” and his team did that, outrebounding the Liberty by 14 in addition to Charles’ dominance.

“Tina’s an MVP-caliber player; she’s a Hall of Famer. Nothing was surprising,” Liberty coach Walt Hopkins said of Charles, who is also the Liberty’s all-time leading scorer. “I told the team that she would probably have between 30 and 40 [points] tonight. The goal was to stop everybody else.”

As a result of that goal, Charles faced single coverage rather than double-teams for most of the night, and she knew exactly what to do. She told the media earlier this season that she prides herself on knowing when to look for her own shot and when to get teammates involved: “It’s just something that I do. If I get double-teamed, pass it out. If I'm supposed to score, go out and score. But I’m always going to have that attack mentality.”

Then-New York Liberty center Tina Charles gets by Washington Mystics center LaToya Sanders (left) and guard Natasha Cloud (right) for a close-range shot in a game on Aug. 25, 2019. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra)

Charles, who also scored her 6,000th career point earlier this week, began her career in Connecticut under Thibault before playing six seasons in New York from 2014 through 2019. (She did not play for Hopkins, whose first year in New York was in 2020.) In April 2020, Thibault traded four draft picks and a backup guard for her, and this is her first season on the court for the Mystics after being medically excused last season.

“It's always great to be back with Coach T, someone who believes in you, someone who wants you,” Charles said after the Mystics’ preseason game on May 5. She expanded on that feeling of being wanted and valued after Friday’s game, admitting that facing New York did give her extra motivation to play well.

“They fired me on my day off,” she said. “I got fired on my day off, so yeah, there was juice.”

Zellous, who also played with Charles in New York and scored a season-high 11 points on Friday, knows all about that. “I think we’re both excited to play New York,” Zellous told the media on Thursday. “I told her she needed to have a career high.” After hearing on Friday that Charles fell just short of that demand, Zellous joked, “Now I have to go in there [and] get on her about that.”

Career high or not, Charles has been the difference-maker for the Mystics so far this season, leading them in scoring in every game and adding rebounding, defense and leadership. The 2012 WNBA MVP had expected to play alongside another former MVP, forward Elena Delle Donne, this season, but with Delle Donne still recovering from offseason back surgery, Charles has carried the load.

Her influence can even be seen in young players such as forward Erica McCall, who shoots a similar overhead shot as Charles and told The Next earlier this year that Charles has long been one of her favorite WNBA players. Starting alongside Charles for the first time this season, McCall had seven points and a career-high 13 rebounds.

While Charles won’t score 30 points every night, seeing her settle in on the court and show off her full repertoire has to be a promising sign for the Mystics. Whereas she said after previous games that she had missed some shots that she could make with her eyes closed, she didn’t have many misses of any kind on Friday night.

“I think she's felt a lot of pressure coming here right now and having a lot talked about her being a big get for us,” Thibault said. “And she's looking down the bench just like I am and seeing Elena in street clothes and Alysha Clark in street clothes and Myisha [Hines-Allen] not here yet, and she's feeling the weight of the world a little bit. And I think that eases the pressure a little bit, a game like tonight.”

While Delle Donne is out indefinitely and Clark will miss the full season with a foot injury, Charles may team up with Hines-Allen as soon as Sunday against Indiana. Hines-Allen made the All-WNBA Second Team last season but, like Howard, arrived late from overseas. Her offensive presence will immediately help space the floor and take some of the scoring load off of Charles and Atkins, who exploded for 25 points on Friday after scoring 17 in her first two games combined.

Then again, as Charles showed on Friday, sometimes it’s a pretty great plan just to say, “Tina, go to work,” and let the chips—or hook shots—fall from there.