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Sabrina Ionescu game winner helps Liberty beat the Sky

Chicago Sky v New York Liberty Photo by Catalina Fragoso/NBAE via Getty Images

When you’re struggling, the good moments always feel even better. It feels like a weight is taken off your shoulders and you’ve got a bit more pep in your step. Once that weight is off your shoulders, you start to wonder if you can build off your victory and see where the world takes you next.

For the first time in over a week, the New York Liberty were not subjected to Camp Day games. They were back on their evening usual shift, but had a daunting foe awaiting them. The Chicago Sky have been near the top of the standings all season long and will be incredibly hard to dethrone as WNBA champions come playoff time. The Sky almost pulled off an improbable victory, but the Liberty did just enough to hang on and get a much needed victory, 83-80, at Barclays Center on Saturday night. The win snapped New York’s five game losing streak and ended Chicago’s six game winning streak.

The last time the Sky were here, the Liberty were clinging to a one point lead in the final seconds until...

Saturday, the Liberty were clinging to a one point lead in the final seconds, and...

In the postgame, Sandy Brondello mentioned that they didn’t want to trap in the post like they did in the first matchup, and this time they stunted on the post and it paid off as Michaela Onyenwere + the Liberty were able to bother Candace Parker enough to force a miss. The Liberty defense came to play as they were able to hold the champs to a .370/.125/.793 shooting split. We’ll have much more on Onyenwere in a bit.

All season long, turnovers and letting teams get to the free throw line have been bug-a-boos for the Liberty. In the second, New York coughed it up eight times and allowed the Sky to shoot 11 free throws. Those have been two huge problems for this team and it’s something they’ve gotta, GOTTA, fix if they want to end the season on a high note.

They got to work on that after halftime as they only coughed it up eight times total and allowed the Sun 12 free throws over the final 20 minutes. Sandy Brondello noted the team still had its foul issues (the Sky took 11 free throws in the fourth quarter alone) and will work on that in practice along with finishing better at the rim. In the second, Sandy noted that the team was trying to force touchdown passes, and that was something that threw them off. There are still things to build upon and improve, so the Liberty will get back in the lab and fine tune some things before they return to the court.

The Liberty have hung tough with elite teams all season, and Natasha Howard noted that if they continue doing the little things like getting rebounds, limiting fouls, and getting stops are things they can carry over from game to game. The team has talked a lot about controlling the controllables, and if they can do that, they’ll be alright.

It’s gotta be the shoes!

New York Liberty v Minnesota Lynx Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Saturday night was Sneakerhead Night at Barclays Center, and everybody was in style. The team partnered with Soles4Souls , a nonprofit organization that helps those in need around the world. Liberty CEO, Keia Clarke, spoke about the partnership and said:

“Partnering with Soles4Souls on our first-ever sneaker drive will allow us to have impact that reaches far beyond New York. We encourage fans to take advantage of this initiative and make a difference while also supporting a cause that Brittney Griner cares about very deeply.”

Style for a good cause. For those of you out there wondering what I was rocking tonight, I had the PUMA R78 Trek Trainers in a Ivory Glow-Pebble-Puma Black colorway. They’re quite nice, in fact! Treat yourself to a nice pair of kicks. You deserve it.

Multimedia journalist, Greydy Diaz, noticed Sabrina Ionescu was rocking the Kobe Mambacita Sweet 16s tonight with Vanessa Bryant and the Bryant family in the house tonight, who were in Brooklyn to support Ionescu and Candace Parker. In postgame, Ionescu mentioned she switched shoes since her previous pair of Kobes were starting to wear out. She also spoke about getting the win in front of the Bryant family:

After the game, the cameras caught a sweet moment between Ionescu and the Bryant family

Family forever. Mamba forever.

A special evening

Chicago Sky v New York Liberty Photo by Catalina Fragoso/NBAE via Getty Images

It was also a special evening for Han Xu and Li Yueri. The Chinese ambassador, Qin Gang, was in attendance and spoke with the Liberty in the locker room following the game.

Basketball is a global game, and Han and Li have helped grow the game in China, as Michael Yuan of Team Fountainhead explained to Doug Feinberg of the Associated Press:

“Han and Li have been creating hype online and offline. Many girls have been inspired by Han and Li, and we have numbers to show that more girls have started participating in basketball on all levels. We can also clearly see more news coverage and other kinds of user generated content on China’s social media platform.”

It’s wonderful to see basketball reach as many people as possible.

With Stef Dolson in foul trouble, Han a lot more responsibilities on her shoulders, and she delivered. She scored 12 points, grabbed six rebounds, and played with a level of assertiveness we haven’t seen since her all-time game against the Las Vegas Aces prior to the All-Star break. The Liberty will need more of that from Han down the stretch

Travel woes

As the Liberty can tell you in great detail, the travel policies in the WNBA leave a LOT to be desired. The Chicago Sky were the latest team to deal with this as they didn’t land in New York City until mid morning. And when you consider that this is the Sky’s third game in four days (including a Camp Day against the Seattle Storm on Wednesday), it made for tough sledding for the champs. Sandy Brondello was asked about what she would like to see the league do differently to avoid situations like this from happening, and said:

“I think no more back-to-backs. We’ve had a few of them, but if you’re gonna have a back-to-back, have it in your home city so there’s no travel involved. Or charter a plane. I mean, it’s pretty simple in that regard. We, obviously, going after Vegas going in to Phoenix, players arrived at 4 a.m. Not really good for preparation for a game coming up the next day. So I think that’s the thing. We’ve got an LA back to back coming up. That works because it’s in the same city so there’s no disadvantage for any team. We’re all about the product, so having teams not having to play into those situations, I think that certainly helps.”

Owen Pence of Nets Republic and Winsidr made a great point on Twitter, and it’s really poignant. With airline travel being the mess that is right now, subjecting your players to commercial flights with this type of schedule is unacceptable and the league office + team owners need to be a lot better.

In the Mic of time

Chicago Sky v New York Liberty Photo by Catalina Fragoso/NBAE via Getty Images

Coming into the game, Sandy Brondello was unsure Michaela Onyenwere was going to play as she’s been dealing with a nagging left knee injury. She was upgraded to probable prior to the game and was absolutely essential tonight for the Liberty. She scored five of her seven points in the fourth quarter and was in the closing five after Natasha Howard fouled out. With the Liberty up one late, she had the assignment of stopping Candace Parker in the low post and was able to contest CP3 without fouling, grab a heavily contested rebound, and sink two critical free throws to push the Liberty lead to three.

Sandy Brondello was effusive in her praise of Onyenwere, saying:

“Look, I didn’t even know if Mic was gonna play today. It just helps the balance of our team when Mic is there, because [Natasha Howard], I thought she did great, but Mic, she can take some minutes and do those minutes. She gets better and better now. She understands the system. She feels confident in it. She’s a tough girl, isn’t she? Candace couldn’t even move her! She’s so physically strong and it’s a credit to her. She stayed poised there...

I’m just happy for her. We just gotta keep getting her healthier, and hopefully we can continue to build.”

Sabrina Ionescu spoke about Onyenwere

“It’s just that mentality of staying ready. You never know when your number’s gonna be called. You never know when it’s your time to make a game winning play, and as athletes that’s what everyone always dreams of. And so, her ability to stay locked in, in the moment, present, having not played the last two games, to come in and play 13 minutes and give us seven points and just, the game winning rebound and free throws, is a testament to her and her ability to stay locked in and ready for the moment.”

Geoff Magliocchetti of Baseline Sports also observed that on the game winning basket, Mic drew Emma Meesseman away from the lane, which opened the lane up for Sabrina Ionescu. Winning plays like that go a long way in building the foundation for a great team.

Winning time

Chicago Sky v New York Liberty Photo by Catalina Fragoso/NBAE via Getty Images

When you have a star, you climb on their shoulders when it’s time to get to the finish line. With the Liberty trailing by three late, Sabrina Ionescu got to work. All night long, Rebekah Gardner was making life tough on Ionescu. She was in the passing lanes, contesting everything, and threw a wrench in the Liberty’s offensive plans. On the evening, Gardner finished with 16 points, four rebounds, three assists, four steals, and three blocks coming off of the bench. She picked off Marine Johannes and gave the Sky a late lead and it looked like the Liberty were set for another heartbreaking loss.

However, Ionescu came through for the hometown faithful. This tough bucket got the team to within one:

And this even tougher shot sent the Barclays Center faithful into a frenzy:

Ionescu hit the clutch free throw to put the Liberty up for good. She broke down her thought process on that final possession in the postgame interview:

Despite the five turnovers, Ionescu finished the night with a 17/8/9 split in 34 minutes. Ionescu and the team made it a point to get to the basket more, and we asked if that’s something they’ll do more of down the stretch:

“Absolutely. That’s something you can rely on. Getting two feet in the paint, going up strong, getting to the free throw line. We have great bigs with great inside presence, and that usually opens up the outside for us. And that’s something that, game in and game out, we’re gonna have to do. Find ways to get the ball inside, whether it’s in transition, off of a pick and roll, or just feeding the big. Stefanie [Dolson] did a great job of rolling and getting baskets inside as well. When that happens, it opens up the floor for all of us guards as well.”

Ionescu also joked that she was happy she got her one free throw in since she never gets foul calls. The league might pay a visit to her wallet, but she’s got a point!

Next up

Chicago Sky v New York Liberty Photo by Catalina Fragoso/NBAE via Getty Images

The Liberty are off for a week before playing the Sky again, this time in Chicago. Tip for that one is after 8:00 p.m. ET.