The New York Liberty are heading to the 2023 WNBA Finals, where they’ll meet the Las Vegas Aces in a matchup many pre-ordained back in the spring. A full season later, and the thought of a five-gamer between the don’t-call-them-superteams hasn’t lost any luster. From the X’s and O’s, to the personalities, to the sheer names, we have every reason to believe these Finals will live up to the hype.
But we can’t overlook how the New York Liberty reached the grand stage for the first time since 2002. They did it by surviving a bare-knuckle brawl with a Connecticut Sun team that entered the decisive Game 4 on Sunday with a clear focus.
“Come in with more energy, more energy in the locker room to start the game, more energy...that’s something that’s easily controllable.” - Natisha Hiedeman.
The Sun indeed brought the energy on Sunday afternoon, revising a script that left them trailing 37-16 after one quarter of play in Game 3. They led 23-19 after ten minutes of Game 4, but you didn’t need to look at the scoreboard to notice the difference in play.
Perhaps it was the return of Rebecca Allen, who missed Friday's contest with an illness, that sparked a return to form for the WNBA’s three-seed:
More likely, this performance was borne of the DNA that sent Connecticut to five straight WNBA Semi-Finals. As Stephanie White said pregame, “It’s just not normal. It doesn’t happen very often.”
Yet, the Sun have managed to pull that off, and they jumped out to a 33-23 lead early in the second quarter when Sandy Brondello called a timeout at a potentially crucial juncture. Yet, according to Breanna Stewart, the Liberty weren’t panicking: “When we were down ten, it was really early. All we needed to do is chip away and then just continue to be aggressive.”
“We” may have been a bit generous, because Stewie herself went on a 7-0 run thereafter, a run that forced a timeout for Connecticut and screamed ‘MVP.’
Or maybe it was some of the fans the Liberty bussed to Uncasville on Sunday afternoon — over 140 according to Jackie Powell of The Next — that started MVP chants in enemy territory. Despite it being an elimination game for the Sun, the sea foam faithful showed up in bunches; their efforts were appreciated.
“We all were talking about — I think some bussed down — which is just insane,” said Sabrina Ionescu. “It’s so nice to look up and see so many New York Liberty shirts and jerseys and hearing them. They went on their run, and our fans were still cheering for us and by our side.”
Those Liberty fans were certainly cheering by the second-quarter buzzer, as the Liberty took a 45-44 lead into halftime, an impressive feat considering Connecticut’s hot start and built-in desperation. Yet, the see-saw first half was merely an appetizer for what was to come.
The second half did not look fun. Fun to play in, that is. While it was a blast to watch, flipping even the stomachs of those without a rooting interest on Sunday afternoon, the WNBA should have sectioned off the court with yellow tape. Elbows flew, bodies fell, even Alyssa Thomas, made of steel, had to briefly leave the game in the fourth quarter after this scary play.
Jonquel Jones and Alyssa Thomas get tangled up, and AT is forced to head back to the locker room: pic.twitter.com/5YhX0CjafI— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) October 1, 2023
Jonquel Jones, unsurprisingly, was at the center of much of the chaos down the stretch. In Game 4, her stat-line — 25 points, 15 boards, and four blocks — matched her impact, a rare feat for a player whose work often slips through the cracks. Not on Sunday, though.
Jones fought through two to three Connecticut players on every play to snatch board after board, enraging the home crowd but, amid a season filled with foul trouble for her, picking up just three whistles. For once, Jones was not punished for being bigger and stronger than her opponents, but rewarded.
“A lot of it is just [Jones] working really bloody hard to get position,” said Brondello.
But Jones didn’t just win with brute force. After DeWanna Bonner hit a huge triple to put the Sun up 72-71 in the fourth quarter, Jones came right down the court to pick-and-pop into a three-point response.
Later, with a minute left and New York up 79-78, Jones sent her former team home, and her new squad directly to the Finals. She grabbed a heavily contested o-board, got fouled, then made two free throws. On the ensuing inbounds pass, after CT advanced the ball, Jones shot the lane, stole the ball and took it the length of the court before getting fouled and, yes, making two free throws. (Important note: Sandy Brondello would later call that sequence “lit”, much to her players’ chagrin.)
Sandy Brondello says that Jonquel Jones' steal was "lit" pic.twitter.com/eCt4mZiF7Y— New York Liberty Videos (@SNYLiberty) October 1, 2023
Finally, after a missed Allen three, Jones grabbed a defensive board, slacked off and only hit one of the ensuing free throws. That personal 5-0 run put the Liberty up 84-78, and despite a couple last-gasp threes by Tyasha Harris, sealed the game.
Postgame praise for Jonquel Jones was effusive and well-earned, with Ionescu saying, “She stays patient, and then when her time comes, and when the defense relaxes just a little bit, she’s able to punch and capitalize on those opportunities. That’s what she does, she makes big time shots.”
Jones was part of a New York front-court that carried them to victory. Her running mates, Stewart and Betnijah Laney, each played all forty in this one, combining for 48 points of their own. Once again, Laney hit all types of big shots, including punishing any Sun defender that dared to go under against her:
Can't go under against Betnijah, especially when she's feeling it. That's real tough for a defense: pic.twitter.com/d6rnmmNcjw— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) October 1, 2023
“We took off when we got [Laney] more integrated into the offense,” said Brondello before calling her “the ultimate professional. I’ve loved her growth and her commitment to this team.”
Game 4, then, was a full-circle moment for Laney, who spent much of the early season finding her way in an offense that had 180’d from her prior seasons as a Lib. She was now the starter with the ball in her hands least often, where she would find her offense was a natural, important question. Flash forward to Sunday, and Laney was as dangerous as any of her teammates, taking 18 shots and dishing out five assists, aggressive and in control.
Laney, a 2021 All-Star in her first season in New York who then missed much of the 2022 season due to injury, savored every bit of the Finals-clinching win she played such a big role in:
"I'm so happy right now."— New York Liberty Videos (@SNYLiberty) October 1, 2023
- Betnijah Laney pic.twitter.com/vTV7PLzytj
And, of course, there is Stewie. A game-high 27 points, nine boards, two blocks, and nothing more we can say about a two-time MVP who, with Jones, became part of the only duo in WNBA playoff history to record 25 points and two rejections in a playoff game.
Stewart also hit the game-winner for New York, a pick-and-pop three to put them up 77-75, before Jones’ heroics. Sure, she may have started the playoffs shooting 1-15 from deep, but you sure couldn’t tell on Sunday:
Breanna Stewart has hit some big shots in this one. pic.twitter.com/BLytPn4GxK— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) October 1, 2023
On the other side, Alyssa Thomas put up a very AT line of 17/15/11 and left us with an honest mic drop after a brutal loss to end her season: “I had a season you’ve never seen in this league, and probably won’t see again unless I do it.”
DeWanna Bonner continued to struggle from the floor, shooting 4-13 for 12 points, but all four makes were from deep, and the 36-year-old vet moved into fourth all-time in WNBA playoff scoring.
Really, it was Connecticut’s backcourt that kept them in it. While Ionescu and Courtney Vandersoot (five turnovers) struggled for the Liberty, combining for just 12 points on 4-12 shooting, often struggling with CT’s aggressive trapping on ball-screens, the Sun had no such problems.
DiJonai Carrington came off the bench to score 14 points in 22 minutes, in her best showing of the series. The aforementioned Harris surpassed Olivia Nelson-Ododa (nine quiet minutes) in the pecking order, and added two steals to her ten points. And while Hiedeman continued to struggle from the floor, with Allen clearly not at 100%, Tiffany Hayes continued to feverishly attack the lane, scoring 15 points on her second straight 6-of-11 shooting performance.
The Connecticut Sun deserved all the applause their loyal fanbase gave them to send off their 2023 season. Prior to the game, Sandy Brondello told the media she wasn’t expecting the Sun to lay down. Connecticut not only stood up to New York, but threw the first punch, and landed counterpunches all the way to the bitter end. If they didn’t cut the Liberty, they sure did bruise them.
The Connecticut Sun provided the exact test the New York Liberty needed to pass to reach their first WNBA Finals since 2002. The Liberty, just a season into this new era of an über-talented roster, matched the Sun with ample toughness and togetherness. If there was still any doubt about whether New York was a team or a collection of names, it was answered on in Game 4 on Sunday.
Just take it from Breanna Stewart: “No matter what, throughout this entire game, if we were the ones that stuck together best and strongest, we were gonna win, like we did.”
Expect more records this month in terms of attendance and TV viewership.
The Aces have already sold out their arena, having a two-day head start on the Liberty after beating the Dallas Wings in three straight...
! — Las Vegas Aces (@LVAces) October 2, 2023
Individual tickets for Games 1, 2 & 5 of the 2023 @WNBA Finals are officially sold out!
Limited suites are still available. For more information please reach out to Tickets@LasVegasAces.com#RaiseTheStakes pic.twitter.com/rlbqHsVH3a
Expect the same in New York, where big prices are already being asked...
It’s time. The Liberty have some Unfinished Business and the Las Vegas Aces are the last team standing in their way. The series begins on Sunday, October 8 at 3:00 p.m. ET in Las Vegas. The Liberty’s loyal fans, Nets players, will also be in Las Vegas next weekend, prepping for their first preseason game vs. the Lakers the next day.
- Box Score: New York Liberty 87, Connecticut Sun 84 - WNBA
- Game Highlights: New York Liberty 87, Connecticut Sun 84 (Video) - WNBA
- Sit Down Interview with 2023 WNBA Kia MVP: Breanna Stewart (Video) - WNBA
- Jonquel Jones reacts to New York Liberty advancing to WNBA Finals (Video) - ESPN
- Highlights: Breanna Stewart 27 Points (Video) - ESPN
- Jones, Stewart lead New York to first WNBA Finals in 21 years with 87-84 win over Connecticut - Pat Eaton-Robb - AP
- Liberty win series over Sun, advance to WNBA Finals to face Aces - Fiifi Frimpong - New York Daily News
- Get ready for epic WNBA Finals matchup between Aces, Liberty - Michael Voepel - ESPN
- Liberty headed to WNBA Finals after eliminating Sun: How Laney played key role for New York - Ben Pickman - The Athletic