The New York Liberty slowly, steadily hunted down the Las Vegas Aces in August, entering September just one game behind the Western Conference juggernaut. But Las Vegas entered September with just three games left on the schedule, all against teams out of playoff contention. There is far from any guarantee the Aces lose once more, opening the window of opportunity for New York.
But that doesn’t mean there weren’t other matters to attend to when the New York Liberty faced off against the Connecticut Sun on Friday night at the Barclays Center. The Libs entered with a chance to clinch (at least) the two-seed with a win over Connecticut this season, and thus, home court advantage in a potential playoff matchup. A win would also complete their four-game season-sweep over the 25-11 Sun.
However, the Liberty would have to accomplish that without Sabrina Ionescu, who was ruled out prior to action with a right calf injury.
“We’re just trying to be smart,” said Sandy Brondello, pregame. “We’ll hold her out tonight, but we’re hopeful that she’ll be able to play in Chicago on Sunday.” The Liberty Head Coach later added that Ionescu “is not injured; it’s just more like being really smart with the playoffs in mind.”
Any advantage that the Sun may have had, however, was mitigated by a rough travel schedule. The WNBA’s three-seed would play in New York just a day after defeating the Phoenix Mercury at home in Uncasville.
The visitors wore the effects of that travel, falling behind 27-16 after just one quarter of play. The second quarter did not turn out much better, and New York took a 49-32 lead into the halftime break, their largest of the game at that point.
The Liberty were a step faster in every facet of play early on; Breanna Stewart ran the floor in transition for an easy layup, as did Betnijah Laney. Connecticut’s interior defense was non-existent — whatever outside shooting prowess the Liberty missing without Ionescu was afterthought, given that they shot 66.7% from two in the first half.
Laney in particular picked up the slack without Ionescu, scoring 16 first-half points on just eight shots. She did it in a variety of ways, including some good, old-fashioned bucket getting:
“She always guards the best player and does a great job of that, but we know she can score points too in a variety of ways,” said Sandy Brondello on her starting forward. “We’re putting her in good spots to be aggressive, and then her just making great plays. That makes us harder to guard when we’ve got attacks from so many different spots on the floor, and [Laney], you know, she’s great, she’s a competitor, and she keeps getting better and better.”
Stewart matched her front-court counterpart by shooting 6-of-8 as well, to the tune of 12 points, while Marine Johannès, bumped up to a starting role, scored seven points on just four shots, despite dealing with foul trouble.
Alyssa Thomas did what she could to keep her Sun in it, bruising her way to seven early free-throw attempts, but it wasn’t enough. The MVP contender shot just 2-of-9 from the floor, and didn’t receive much help. DeWanna Bonner was largely invisible, playing the whole first quarter but missing her only shot attempt. Rebecca Allen, in a return to the Big Apple, picked up three quick fouls before even attempting a shot.
It would be misguided to blame Connecticut’s offensive ineptitude solely on tired legs, though. The Liberty defense was overwhelming, communicating flawlessly when navigating the many off-ball screens Connecticut deploys while hounding their ball-handlers:
Courtney Vandersloot credited New York’s strong defense to “learning from the last time we played them, we had a lot of breakdowns. This is the fourth time we’ve played them, the second this week…We had a great game plan, we were all really locked in at shoot-around and focused. We walked through it several times, then we went out and executed.”
The end result? Over a quarter of garbage time, thanks to New York winning the third quarter 24-17.
Connecticut did not mount a valiant comeback after the break, overmatched everywhere except for the 3-point arc: through 30 minutes, the Liberty and Sun were each shooting 33.3% from deep. If the visitors did indeed have tired legs, it didn’t show up in the jump-shooting department.
Rather, the Liberty dominated on the inside all night long, with everybody joining in. All five starters reached double-digits on the night; Laney led the way with 19, Stewart finished with a double-double (14/10/7), and Jonquel Jones blocked two shots to supplement her ten points. Vandersloot put up 13 points and dishing out five assists, slithering into the paint repeatedly:
Meanwhile, the Libs’ core bench trio all showed up. Johannès scored 18, tying a season-high in a starting role while Kayla Thornton played 24 minutes, doing Kayla Thornton things the whole time, like grabbing three offensive rebounds and committing three fouls. Stefanie Dolson added six points and four boards across 16 minutes, in which she finished a +13.
We even got a Han Xu sighting, perhaps thanks to some of Barclays Center’s famous “We Want Han!” chants. The Chinese sensation responded with a mid-range jumper and three boards in six minutes:
There were no such highlights for the visiting Sun, who scored a season-low 58 points while shooting just 33.3% from the field:
The Liberty shot 32% from deep and 54.8% overall.
The Sun shot 30% from deep and 33.3% overall.
— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) September 2, 2023
Olivia Nelson-Ododa scored ten points on 5-of-8 shooting, but the offensive positives for the guests ended there. Alyssa Thomas had eight points, her second-lowest total of the season (thanks to a five-point performance against the Liberty in May), and Tiffany Hayes needed ten shots to score 11 points, leading her squad.
If New York Liberty fans had any fun plans for Friday night, they were treated to one heck of a pregame at the Barclays Center, a two-hour long party where they saw their sea foam wipe the floor with a very good, possibly tired Connecticut Sun team. Final score: New York 89, Connecticut 58.
Kayla Thornton Contract
Earlier in the day, the Liberty announced that Kayla Thornton agreed to a contract extension. KT is beloved by fans and teammates alike and has been fantastic coming off of the bench. In postgame, Courtney Vandersloot spoke about KT and her extension:
“You know, she comes in and makes winning plays. She can defend one through five. She rebounds the crap out of it, you know, and she’s just in the right spot. She’s the ultimate sacrifice player. She probably could have gone somewhere and got bigger money, bigger role, but she knows how important she is to all of this. And, you know, we’re excited to have her on the extension.”
As the Liberty continue their push to the postseason,
West Indies Night
Tonight was a special event at the Barclays Center. At the ‘clays, it was West Indian night as the team celebrated New York’s vibrant West Indian community. At halftime, Serani and Nailah Blackman performed for the sold out Barclays Center crowd
In pregame, Jonquel Jones spoke about the importance of having a game like this in Brooklyn:
“It definitely means a lot and it shows the diversity of New York City that we can be able to do something like this and be able to get behind it. It means a lot to me. I’m gonna be excited to see all the Carribean people showing up and hopefully showing out.”
JJ put on a solid show for her Carribean faithful and helped the Liberty own the paint and the glass.
Having Jones dialed in like this on both sides of the ball makes the Liberty an incredibly difficult team to face.
The Liberty hit the road for the last time in the regular season. First stop, Chicago to take on the Sky. Tip after 3:00 p.m. ET on Sunday.