LAS VEGAS — The New York Liberty are one of the WNBA’s original franchises dating back to 1997 and have played for the league title four times. But they had never won a championship — until Tuesday.
Even if it was an in-season title, it meant a lot to the Liberty to claim the Commissioner’s Cup trophy after an 82-63 victory over the Las Vegas Aces. The Liberty talked before the game about the importance of finally winning some hardware for the franchise, and now they have.
“This is why we all came here,” said forward Breanna Stewart, who signed as a free agent with New York in February after winning two WNBA titles in six seasons with the team that drafted her No. 1, the Seattle Storm. “We came to win games, to contend for WNBA championships. One of our goals was to win the Commissioner’s Cup, and we did that.”
As the Cup championship winners, the Liberty players each earned $30,000. They also now have defeated the defending WNBA champion Aces twice this season, handing Las Vegas its first loss at home in 2023.
Tuesday night’s game didn’t count in the standings; the Aces are still 27-3 atop the league, with the Liberty second at 24-6. But New York sent a message by following its 99-61 victory over Las Vegas in Brooklyn earlier this month with another win in which the Liberty put the Aces’ league-best offense (94 PPG) in the deep freeze while getting 15 3-pointers to the Aces’ five.
The potential of a WNBA Finals meeting of these two so-called superteams has been the league’s primary storyline all season. After their first meeting, a 98-81 Aces victory on June 29 in Las Vegas, it seemed like the Aces were in the driver’s seat. For now, though, the Liberty have claimed the upper hand.
The teams play twice more in the regular season: back here at Michelob Ultra Arena on Thursday and at Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Aug. 28.
“Things have been coming better and better for us after the All-Star [Game],” Liberty coach Sandy Brondello said. “We knew we were going to be a good team. We knew it would take some time to get the chemistry together.”
In regard to whether the Liberty are now the “team to beat” in the WNBA, Brondello said with a smile, “I’ll let the media do the talking about the rest of it. We’ve still got to play Vegas in two days and continue building our chemistry.”
Aces coach Becky Hammon said her team’s defensive issues are part of what hurt it on offense, along with how well the Liberty played.
“Bottom line is our defense has had some slippage, probably in the last 10 games,” Hammon said. “New York’s defense has gotten better. Before that, that was a separation factor for us. I ask a lot of our big four, night in and night out. And when they’re not flowing or hitting [shots], it gets real tough.”
Those four are forward A’ja Wilson and guards Chelsea Gray, Jackie Young and Kelsey Plum. All were key to Las Vegas’ championships last year in both the WNBA Finals and Commissioner’s Cup.
The Liberty have held reigning WNBA MVP Wilson to two uncharacteristic performances. She was 2-of-10 for nine points Tuesday after going 2-of-14 for nine points on Aug. 6. The Aces shot 33.3% for the game; Young led with 16 points, while Gray and Plum each had 15.
Missing for the Aces because of injury — with no certainty when she might return — is veteran Candace Parker, a two-time WNBA champion in her first season in Las Vegas. The 6-foot-5 Parker impacts games in multiple ways. In the teams’ first meeting this season, she had 15 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists; she hasn’t played the subsequent two games against New York.
“[The Liberty] started blitzing our ball handler, and we used to have a 6-5 point guard in the pocket,” Hammon said of Parker, known for her ability to play all over the court. “That makes a big difference.”
A difference-maker for New York is 6-6 forward Jonquel Jones, also in her first season in New York along with Stewart and guard Courtney Vandersloot. Jones, the 2021 WNBA MVP while with the Connecticut Sun, was named the Commissioner’s Cup MVP on Tuesday after getting 16 points and 15 rebounds.
New York’s bench outscored Las Vegas’ 28-8, with guard Marine Johannes getting 17 of those points, and the Liberty outrebounded the Aces 49-28.
“That’s our emphasis regardless of who we are playing,” Jones said of the Liberty’s work on the boards. “We want to be able to give our team extra possessions. The Commissioner’s Cup was definitely a step in the right direction for us as a team to put the pieces together toward the ultimate goal, which is to win a WNBA championship.”
The Liberty played for that in 1997, 1999, 2000 and 2002, losing the first three times to the now-defunct Houston Comets and the other to the Los Angeles Sparks.
This was the third Commissioner’s Cup final; Seattle won in 2021, and the Aces won last season. Stewart was part of that Storm team two years ago. With four NCAA championships at UConn, the two titles in Seattle and two Olympic gold medals, Stewart is known for winning wherever she goes.
“That’s why you play. You play to win,” said Stewart, who also captained the winning All-Star team in Las Vegas in July. “To be able to take advantage of these opportunities, and Commissioner’s Cup is one that’s different from all the rest because it’s in-season. … You have this one game for the trophy and the money. The ability for us to lock in and see what we had right now in August is something I’m really proud of.”