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Liberty survive another day, but will have to wait till Sunday to learn playoff fate

Washington Mystics v New York Liberty Photo by Pamela Costello/NBAE via Getty Images

The Liberty were down to their last nerve Friday in every way imaginable. They had lost eight in a row and nine of their last 10 and were in danger of not making the WNBA playoffs. Nothing seemed to work, not lineup changes, not a trip to a Napa Valley resort. Time and again, they would collapse in the second half.

So on Friday night in Brooklyn, the New Yorkers faced the Washington Mystics who they HAD to beat to make the post-season. Forget the recent past. No if’s, and’s or but’s. There was also the added pressure of facing Tina Charles, a Liberty legend who New York traded away a year ago. She had in the past noted that beating her former team gives her special pleasure.

No problem!

Hitting on all cylinders from the opening tap, and surviving one of those characteristic collapses, the Libs beat the Mystics, 91-80 at a raucous Barclays Center. They were led by Sabrina Ionescu, who had one of her best games as a pro, and Natasha Howard, who finally seems herself after spending much of the season battling an MCL sprain. Ionescu finished with 22 points, nine assists, five rebounds and a steal while Howard led New York with 24 points, 10 rebounds and three steals... and she held Charles to 10 points and four rebounds. Betnijah Laney, who’s been in a mild shooting slump, hit only 3-of-13 overall, scoring 10 points, but she added a game-high 11 assists.

Now, wit that out of the way, the Liberty will have to wait till Sunday evening before they can celebrate their first playoff run in four years and their first in Brooklyn under co-owners Joe Tsai and Clara Wu Tsai. The Liberty (12-20) need Washington to lose to the Minnesota Lynx and the Los Angeles Spakes to lose to the Dallas Wings before they can celebrate. The Liberty hold the tiebreaker by virtue of having a better record against the two other teams.

Here’s the game highlights...

Head coach Walt Hopkins expressed satisfaction — and no doubt some relief — with his team’s effort post-game.

“I saw glimpses throughout this entire stretch of losses. I saw a growth from everyone: something they couldn’t do or haven’t done, and they did it,” said Hopkins

He also had special praise for his two stars as well as the supporting cast, starting with Howard,

“I told her how proud I was that she stepped up and led. Her thing, we had everyone on the team up on the board — 3, 4, 5 things they would commit to doing — and one of Tash’s things was lead by example. And she did it,” he said of three-time WNBA champion.

“Sabrina really controlled the game for us offensively and got us where we wanted to get late in fourth quarter,” added Hopkins. “Sabrina’s development has been remarkable. I say that because this has been hard for her. The way she’s come around, in terms of handling lead guard duties, I thought she controlled the game for us offensively late in the fourth.”

With a crowd of 3,615 cheering them on, the Liberty jumped out to a 26-15 early lead and by the half they were up by 18, 47-29. The lead ballooned to 24 in the second half, but the Mystics came back bit-by-bit and got it down to five with 6:22 left in the fourth, raising fears of another let-down. Ionescu wouldn’t have it and pulled up for a two-pointer. After some back-and-forth, the Liberty pulled away with Ionescu hitting a buzzer beater to give them their final cushion.

Ionescu credited the Barclays fan base for a big part of the Liberty’s resilience.

“The fans were amazing. I don’t know how many were there, but it felt like a lot. We heard them, it was electric. I think it’s really starting to feel like home for a lot of us, and that’s hard to say for a new team,” she noted, adding that New York “is starting to feel like home for a lot of us.”

The game also provided a milestone for the Oregon product who missed all but three games last season with a severely sprained ankle. She became only the third player in WNBA history to average 6-plus assists and 5+rebounds for a season. The other two: Candace Parker in 2015 and Nikki Teasley in 2003.

“It would be a tremendous experience for us,” Hopkins said of a playoff berth. “The amount of experiences we can get are so important for the development of the team. It would mean a lot to everybody. We’re hopeful.”

Joe Tsai tweeted post-game with his thoughts...

The Liberty should know their fate by early evening on Sunday. The Mystics play the Lynx at home starting at 3 p.m. ET while the Sparks take on the Wings in Dallas at 5 p.m. ET.

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Before the game, fans received a copy of the debut edition of WSLAM, the first ever women’s basketball edition of the venerable hoops magazine. It featured a story on Laney by Jackie Powell of The NEXT.

There was one moment however that didn’t work out. A young man, wearing an Ionescu jersey, proposed to his girlfriend live on the Jumbotron. But she said no and literally ran away. Nic Claxton, who was cheering on the Libs, had the best video and posted it on Instagram.

After hearing about the mishap post-game, Ionescu offered some consolation. She wanted the fan’s name so she could autograph her jersey for him.