Scoring is up across the board in the WNBA this year, and one player, Dallas Wings center Elizabeth Cambage, aimed to keep it that way Tuesday when she scored 53 points — the highest individual total in league history — during a 104-87 victory over the New York Liberty.
And given the other elements of her game, which also included 10 rebounds and five blocks and two assists, it wouldn’t exactly be a stretch to say that Cambage’s display in 37 minutes of playing time was one of the finer all-around showings the league has ever seen. It’s worth keeping in mind that the WNBA plays 40-minute games as opposed to the NBA’s 48-minute ones. That difference is a key reason that the NBA, which has experienced a spike in triple-doubles in recent years, sees the statistical rarity so much more often than in the WNBA, where it’s only happened seven times in league history.
Cambage, 26 years old, shot 17-of-22 from the field and 15-of-16 at the free-throw line, all while outscoring New York’s starting five by 10 points. She torched nearly every look the Liberty threw at her, alternating between either side of the floor, and making mincemeat out of double-teams as if she was still being covered by a single defender. She logged 13 points in the first quarter, 15 in the second and five in the third before going off for 20 in the final period to seal the game.
Yet a handful of her buckets in the first half came with no one near her at all — largely because she doesn’t hold the reputation of a sharpshooter, and had only made five triples in her 74 career WNBA games heading into Tuesday’s contest. So one can only imagine the initial shock New York players felt yesterday when Cambage calmly drained four threes on five attempts.
The 6-foot-8 Cambage isn’t known as a jump-shooter. More generally, she isn’t all that widely known in this country despite having long been a basketball star; perhaps because of her disjointed time in the league. She was the No. 2 pick in the 2011 WNBA draft, but made it clear upon being selected by the Tulsa Shock that she didn’t want to play there. As such, she’s never played two consecutive seasons here in the U.S., and since 2013 had spent the last four years playing overseas, where many of the best players routinely sign on to earn higher salaries.
In any case, Cambage — who entered Tuesday averaging nearly 20 points and nine boards — has pieced together an impressive season, having been named an all-star for a second time. She ranks in the league’s 95th percentile in post-up situations this year, per Synergy Sports1. In games like Tuesday’s, where Cambage is fully in sync with Dallas point guard and fellow all-star Skylar Diggins-Smith, there aren’t a ton of good options defensively to contain her. (New York wasn’t all that successful in denying Cambage during the first meeting between the teams, either, as Cambage scored 28 points on just 17 shots in that game.)
Just minutes into the game, the Liberty tried forcing the ball out of her hands with a double-team, and Cambage simply kicked the ball out to the arc, where Allisha Gray was prepared to knock down an open triple. Then, on her next scoring chance, Cambage — having just illustrated the risk in sending a double-team — aggressively sealed her defender inside the restricted area, allowing Diggins-Smith to loft a pass from the arc into her for an easy lay-in. Beyond that, she kept defenders off balance by occasionally putting the ball on the floor and inviting contact, like she did against Amanda Zahui B a pair of times during the final period.
By scoring 53 in the winning effort, Cambage surpassed the previous WNBA record of 51 points, one set in 2013 by Riquna Williams. Cambage’s 50-point game on Tuesday, with the 10 rebounds and five blocks, was far more complete than that of Williams, who finished hers with just one rebound and three assists. (Williams and Cambage were actually teammates during that 2013 season.) The next-highest showings are held by names that are far more well known throughout the sport: Maya Moore (48 points in 2014), Diana Taurasi (47 in 2006) and Lauren Jackson (47 in 2007), an Australian ex-player with whom Cambage has drawn comparisons.
But a performance like this one only figures to boost her profile. “I’ve had big numbers in China, I’ve had big numbers in Australia, and I’ve heard a lot of people say I could never have big numbers here in the WNBA,” she told reporters afterwards. “So I guess this game is for y’all.”