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With six games left, Liberty facing crunchtime following loss to Mercury

Phoenix Mercury v New York Liberty Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

The New York Liberty won two games last season and lost 20. Sabrina Ionescu, the rookie hope, went down in Game 3. In the off-season, the Liberty acquired Natasha Howard, WNBA’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2019 and its Most Improved Player the year before, and Betnijah Laney, the WNBA’s Most Improved Player in 2020. Then, to top it off, they picked Michaela Onyenwere, a front runner for Rookie of the Year, in the Draft.

Despite more injuries, including to Howard, Onyenwere and now sharpshooter Sami Whitcomb, the Liberty still have hopes of making the WNBA playoffs. Those hopes are still alive ... but barely.

Following Wednesday night’s blowout loss to the Mercury in Brooklyn, they’re now 11-15 adn have now lost five of six since the league returned from the Olympics break. They’re in seventh place, a half game ahead of the Sparks and Dallas Wings, a full game ahead of the Washington Mystics in a four-way battle for the final spot in the post-season. The Liberty have six games to go, starting Friday night with the second half of a mini-series with Phoenix.

There may not be panic, but head coach Walt Hopkins wasn’t exactly the picture of optimism post-game.

“I thought we were awful,” he told the media discussing the Mercury’s 35-point outburst in the first quarter. “I thought that was the worst defensive quarter I’ve ever seen us play. Our pride was nonexistent. There’s no fix. I come out of it dumbfounded at our lack of urgency.”

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As for Howard’s 2-of-14 performance, another tough night following her return from a sprained MCL, Hopkins said her issue isn’t physical.

“She’s not ready. She’s not moving right. She’s just not herself yet,” he said of Howard. “We just have to get her to play through it and get back to herself. She’s clear, there’s nothing wrong physically.”

Still, he’s hoping for the best when the two teams faceoff at Barclays Friday.

“They just need to execute. They didn’t. The times they executed defensively, they’d get stops, but then give up an offensive rebound.”

The Liberty did mount a late game challenge to the Mercury, getting within 10 points with 4:43 left in the fourth, but Phoenix went on a debilitating 17-0 run to end the game.

In the end, the box score showed some of the Liberty’s season long woes. There was Howard’s struggles to score and although Ionescu had 10 points, five rebounds and seven assists in 35 minutes, she shot 4-of-15, including 0-for-9 from deep. New York was outrebounded by Phoenix, 40-33 and the Libs didn’t break 40 percent shooting either overall or from three.

There was one bright spot Wednesday, the play of rookie big Didi Richards, pressed into service with all the Libs’ injuries. She finished with a career high 14 points and, said Hopkins, provided energy when she got in the game.

“She works really hard. She put in a lot of time with Dustin [Gray], a lot of time on her own. She’s a confident person in general and she plays with a lot of people that infuse her with confidence.”

Hopkins added that he wished he had inserted her in the lineup earlier.

Laney, who’s been the Liberty’s staple this season, finished with 20 points, eight rebounds and five assists.

For the Mercury, it was their three veterans who put a stop to the Liberty’s hopes. Brittany Griner had 26 points as well as nine assists. Diana Taurasi, still growing strong at 39, finished with 21 while backcourt mate Skylar Diggins-Smith had 27. Diggins-Smith and Taurasi combined for 10 3-pointers on 10-of-20 shooting.

Griner was injured late in the game when she defended a shot by Richards with 1:38 Richards missed, and Griner was hurt while jostling for the rebound, falling on Richards’ foot. After staying down for a few minutes, Griner was helped to the locker room by two teammates.

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