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New York Liberty’s season ends in Phoenix with a nail-biting finish, 83-82

2021 WNBA Playoffs - New York Liberty v Phoenix Mercury Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

After a groundbreaking season for the New York Liberty, their postseason run came to an early — yet far from disappointing — end. After barely slipping into the playoff picture on the final day of the WNBA regular season, New York was pitted against the Phoenix Mercury in a single-elimination first round game.

After a night of 13 lead changes and momentum-shifting runs from both squads, the Liberty found themselves down one point with only 0.4 of a second remaining. Walt Hopkins’ squad scrambled for an open shot, but Sabrina Ionescu’s long-range attempt fell short, and New York lost, 83-82. Brittney Griner contested Ionescu’s heave, and left the guard on the floor afterwards. No foul. Game over. Season over.

Though he said that play was not one of his gripes, Hopkins was clearly displeased with the officiating postgame: “There are a lot of things I want to say about the officiating in the WNBA and the lack of respect we’ve gotten all season... It was a bad season. The way they treated us was bad.”

The theatrics of the final minutes kept every fan on the edge of their proverbial seat, and especially Betnijah Laney’s game-tying pullup triple with 2.7 seconds remaining, which put overtime in play...

It was the culmination of the Liberty’s attempt to pull an upset for the ages.

After trailing early in the first quarter, New York fought back mightily to keep the score close at the end of the first period with a string of defensive stops and long-range scores. They carried a four point lead into the half.

The Liberty have lived and died by their 3-point shooting all season, and their final game against the Mercury was no exception. Hot shooting helped New York maintain a lead throughout the second and part of the third quarter, but an eruption from Phoenix’s sharpshooting Sophie Cunningham ensued.

The Liberty impressed as they halted Phoenix’s run, and entered a tight fourth quarter.

In what she had dubbed was essentially a continuation of her rookie year, Sabrina Ionescu shined in her final match. Her elite playmaking was on display with 11 assists, which accompanied 14 points and five rebounds. Ionescu summed up her season and game this way.

Betnijah Laney carried the Liberty in scoring — as she has done all season, scoring 25 points from all three levels.

With WNBA GOAT candidate Diana Taurasi ruled out an hour before tip-off, New York’s defensive focus quickly turned to the post-dominant Griner. From the first minute, at least two Liberty defenders were on Griner on the block immediately after she caught the ball. Postgame, Hopkins commented on his team’s defense on Griner: “I don’t think it’s fair to say one player was responsible. It was the entire team executing the game plan. They flew around and understood their rotations almost all game.”

The defense would scramble to rotate on the weakside, content enough to let the Mercury beat them from the perimeter — until Cunningham happened. Cunningham shot 6-of-7 from behind the arc en route to 22 points, 18 of which came in the second half of play.

Post-game, there were a variety of comments summing up the season, led by Liberty Co-Governor Joe Tsai...

Ionescu summed up her season and how after severely spraining her ankle in Game 3 of her rookie year, she wanted a new start.

“Those expectations come from within, not the outside. My main goal was to get healthy and be out there on the floor. It was nice to have that break to get healthy and be able to grow and help my team,” said Ionescu. “I’m really excited for this next season, especially with this core group of players next to me.”

Laney also expressed enthusiasm for next season.

”I think it just shows what we’re capable of. We showed a lot of growth. It shows we’re here and we’re here to stay,” said Laney. “We’re going to be back. And we’re going to be good.”

The thriller capped off a season where the Liberty played for a 12-20 record, good enough for the eighth seed in the WNBA Standings. They had the worst win percentage of any playoff team in WNBA history, but sure didn’t play like it in their season finale in the desert.