This is what you fight for. When you first begin the journey, you hope to do something that’s meaningful. You study, you practice, and you prepare for the big show so you and your colleagues can make names for yourselves. It’s never an easy ride and there are plenty of setbacks you’ll experience. However, the goal is the goal and if you give yourself a legitimate chance of reaching it, that’s half the battle right there.
The New York Liberty are fighting for their playoff lives, and they have to get on the good foot in a hurry. The Dallas Wings punched their playoff ticket on Monday night and are locked into the sixth seed. The Liberty got themselves right back into the playoff race with an impressive comeback and eventual double digit victory on Wednesday night. Final score: Liberty 91, Wings 73.
The number of the day is 50. That was the number of points the Liberty bench scored tonight, which was the fourth most in franchise history per our friends at Across the Timeline. NY outscored the Wings 50-9 as the second unit got the team back in the game and set the tempo for the rest of the game. One of the keys to the bench unit’s success was Betnijah Laney. It always takes time to get back to the form you had before injury, and Laney made a few plays in the fourth quarter that reminded us why she was an All Star in 2021.
How often the Liberty can get to the basket was one of the biggest questions I had about them down the stretch, and if Laney is back, they have someone who can score at an elite clip from all three levels. Sandy Brondello spoke about Laney’s game and accurately noted:
Sandy Brondello: "This is an All-Star from last year. Our record wouldn't be 14-20 if we had Betnijah Laney. As I said at the beginning, you have to have patience. She played with effort, with heart on the defensive end. Later on, we got her in second actions." (Q: @busyxb)— Myles (@MylesEhrlich) August 11, 2022
Bee is back, and Liberty fans are sleeping good at night.
Key to the Liberty’s comeback was their defense. You got the sense of dread watching as the Liberty fell behind by double digits, but the defense stepped up and shut Dallas down. In the second, the Wings only scored eight points as the Liberty strung together consecutive stops, which powered the transition attack and led to easy baskets
Sandy Brondello was ecstatic in talking about the bench and was asked how the second unit steadied the team:
“Really easy, and this is what we say: Basketball is about “can you get stops?” We call them kills - three stops in a row, and then can we run? That’s what it’s about, and that’s what our bench gave us tonight. We got consecutive stops in a row and then we were just moving the ball. And we made some shots. You feel good about yourself, you get a little “ooh, let’s go!” But we needed every bit of that energy because we let em score 31 points in the first quarter. I was like “Oh my God, here we go again!” And thankfully, the bench was ready to go, and the starters joined the party in the third and fourth quarter.”
Amazingly, we’ve made it this far without even mentioning Sabrina Ionescu and Natasha Howard! Sab went scoreless in the first half, but flirted with another triple double as she scored 13 points, grabbed nine rebounds, handed out seven assists, and only committed one turnover. Howard made her return from her ankle sprain and scored nine points in 25 minutes. Howard’s contributions were deeper than the box score as her presence helped steady the Liberty and her ability to quarterback the D when she’s on the court ensures everyone is in the right place at the right time.
Sami Whitcomb is one of the team’s captains and veteran leaders. She won two championships with the Seattle Storm in 2018 and 2020 and has brought that experience to New York. After a good first half, Sandy Brondello inserted her into the first five after the break, replacing Crystal Dangerfield. The move paid immediate dividends as she hit the first basket coming out of the break and provided the team with some pace and elite shooting from deep.
She also drew the assignment of guarding Marina Mabrey. Mabrey put the Liberty to sleep as she scored a career high 31 points on Monday and wore NY’s perimeter defense out. Tonight was a much different story. Although she scored a game high 19 points, Mabrey only went 7-21 from the field as the Liberty stayed in her grill and made everything difficult.
“It’s a team effort. I think Sami got through screens extremely well and we were being more aggressive at the point of the screen. In the last game, we were supposed to be, but our post players were in a drop. Against a great player like that, you’ve gotta be at the point of the screen, you’ve gotta be a little bit more aggressive. But I think Sami knows her well. She played in her space, and we crowded her. Not all the time, but it was better [than Monday] and the way we were supposed to [on Monday]. She came in and gave us the energy we needed to win this ballgame.”
We asked her what worked tonight as compared to Monday, and she said:
“I thought we stayed in her space a little better. I thought we forced her into other players a bit better. We loaded up a little bit more. I thought we just, in general, made it a little bit harder. Again, she’s a great player. She was still gonna score. She was still gonna make tough shots and make plays. But if we can make it more difficult so she couldn’t feel quite as good as I thought she felt last game, that’s a win for us I think ultimately. And I thought we were just a little bit more locked in on that, in terms of the defensive schemes.”
The Liberty aren’t the most athletic team, so if they can execute the scout to the best of their ability while playing excellent team defense, they’ll be in great shape.
On Monday, Teaira McCowan obliterated the Liberty bigs on the inside as she made the restricted area her home. A couple of times on Monday,
“We’ve spoken about it. We prepared for it in the last game, but until you experience playing against her, you don’t realize what a big handful she is. But it’s more about pushing out of the restricted area as much as we can, and that’s lowering your sense of gravity. I think her percentages go down when it’s out of the RA, and knowing where we wanna trap. We went over that. We over trapped a little bit in that last game and created some offense. Just making sure we’re clear “this is where we’re trapping,” and otherwise we’re pushing her out and just using her height. She did it a few times where she could keep her out and just use her height and let her shoot over the top without fouling. But we don’t wanna let her get to the rim. She’s too lethal at the rim.”
McCowan did have another double double as she scored 17 points and grabbed 13 rebounds, but it was a much more challenging evening for Big T. She went 6-12 from the field as the center duo of Han Xu and Stefanie Dolson forced her further from the restricted area each time she got the ball in the low post. Han in particular had one of the plays of the game late in the second quarter
Sami Whitcomb noted that the team did a better job of pushing her out further away from the restricted area. Like Brondello said, if she gets the ball at the rim, she’s lethal. Dolson and Han took a lot of bumps, but they fought hard and helped slow down McCowan enough to get the win.
When you see Marine Johannes step on to a basketball court, a barrage of buckets will follow. On Monday night, MJ singlehandedly got the Liberty back into the game. Tonight was pretty much a repeat as her hot shooting got NY back in the game and helped them establish the rhythm that would carry them for the second half.
I wondered out loud if the Liberty should reinsert MJ into the starting five, but having a microwave scorer coming off the bench has plenty of value in its own right. There were points during her slump when it looked like she lost her confidence, but her teammates and coaching staff believe in her and want her to play her game to the best of her abilities. She was asked about maintaining her confidence, and gave a pretty great answer
Marine Johannès on staying confident: "I'm trying to talk to myself. I'm trying to do my best. I feel like everyone is involved during the game: I'm not someone asked to score 20 points and I like to create for others. If I make five assists, I'm really happy." (Q: @ClassicJpow)— Myles (@MylesEhrlich) August 11, 2022
As long as you try your best, you can live with whatever comes next.
After the Liberty and Wings wrapped up, the Phoenix Mercury and Minnesota Lynx squared off in Phoenix. Minnesota came away with the win to improve their record to 14-20. With that W, Minnesota set the stage for a wild weekend in the WNBA. Phoenix, Minnesota, Atlanta, and New York all have 14-20 records and are all fighting for the last two playoff spots. Get ready for all hell to break loose this weekend.
The stakes are even higher. The Liberty head to the ATL to take on the Atlanta Dream. Tip is after 7:00 p.m. ET on Friday night.