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Liberty go wire-to-wire in win over Mercury

Phoenix Mercury v New York Liberty Photo by Catalina Fragoso/NBAE via Getty Images

When you’re on the go, you gotta maintain your pace. You find that rhythm, stick with it and keep the music going. You’re feeling good, feeling great and everybody’s happy. Once you’ve got everything lined up, then the fun can begin.

The New York Liberty were off for a few days after a particularly tough loss to the Atlanta Dream. Coming into Sunday’s game, they were looking to put a good showing on the board before they hit the road. Against a shorthanded Phoenix Mercury team, they were able to do that and then some.

The Liberty came out incredibly strong as they had the ball zipping all over the place. They handed out 11 assists in the first quarter as they were able to move the ball, get to the second and third sides, and generate easy looks for each other.

The Liberty often tend to let go of the rope to a certain degree. They get up big and let teams sneak their way back into games. We’ve seen what happens when they’ve been caught flat footed, and they’ll have to keep their guards up as a collective. There was a point in the fourth quarter where the Mercury’s zone and the hot shooting of Sophie Cunningham had the sold out Barclays Center crowd uneasy, but the starters quickly restored order.

Marine Johannes didn’t attempt a shot in the first half as she got her teammates more involved in the flow of the offense. In the second, she picked things up as she scored 10 points and made two clutch three pointers deep in the fourth quarter to put the game on ice. Courtney Vandersloot and assistant coach Olaf Lange encouraged MJ to look for her shot. In postgame, she mentioned she’s trying to stay aggressive and confident as she continues to play her game.

Rebounding has been a bug-a-boo for New York all season, but they cleaned that up today. They won the battle of the boards by 12 and held Phoenix to only eight second chance points. The team matched Phoenix’s physicality and were able to prevent them from setting the tone. Their work on the boards and reducing second chance opportunities will determine their fate against some of the better teams in the league, and this game can go a long way in shoring up that aspect of the team.

All together, the Liberty led wire-to-wire and won 89-71. The Liberty are now at 7-3 and have started to figure some things out. There’s still plenty to clean up and fix, but at the quarter mark of the season, the team is looking good.

Back on the block

Phoenix Mercury v New York Liberty Photo by Catalina Fragoso/NBAE via Getty Images

Breanna Stewart is coming off of a weird game. She went 1-14 from the field on Tuesday vs. Atlanta, but did everything else up to her usual standard. It’s very rare for superstar scorers to go cold two straight games. And on Sunday, Stewie was back to firing on all cylinders. She scored the first basket of the game on a runner in the lane and kept it going from there.

The Mercury started placing more defensive focus on Stewart, but she was able to leverage that attention she got and made great plays for her teamamtes

As is her wont, Stewart made a little more history along the way

Not done yet with the accolades!

Along with those accolades, Stewart is the second player in Liberty history to have 10+ points and 10+ rebounds in seven out of the first ten games, joining Tina Charles who did it in 2016.

Stewart noted in postgame that with Ionescu out, the team practiced with her running some point guard. She was asked how important it was for her to bounce back after her rough game, and she said she wanted to be assertive and aggressive at the start of the game so it could set the tone for her teammates to follow. Sandy Brondello and Courtney Vandersloot mentioned that they needed to get Stewie the ball in better position, and they were able to help their MVP out a great deal.

Love for BG

Phoenix Mercury v New York Liberty Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Brittney Griner missed this game due to a hip injury, but she was still the star of the hour. BG got to embrace her peers and spent plenty of time with the fans during warmups prior to the game

The team aired a video of Griner and the Bring Our Families Home campaign, and the sold out crowd of nearly 10,000 showed its love. Prior to the game, I had the privilege of speaking to Jake Wolf and Thomas Feigen, who were there greeting fans as they wrote letters to Americans that have been wrongfully detained overseas. I asked about the turnout and what stood out, and Feigen told me

“For me, the one thing that stands out is these are obviously Liberty fans, but they’re fans of the WNBA as a whole [and] fans of BG. They understand the cause, they’re coming and people are really enthusiastic and really caring about these messages. They’re putting in the time and that means a lot to people overseas. It’s great to see.”

The W has always been out front in supporting community, being there for others, uplifting others and speaking out for what’s right. I asked Wolf about the importance of having a league like the W that is out front in supporting community ventures here and abroad:

“I think that’s really vital. I think you can see how inclusive the W is as a league. And you really see that it helps each of the players feel like the things that are important to them are being represented, are important to everyone. And I think that it really allows them to have a platform and use it for positive change.”

Jocelyn Willoughby spoke about the importance of using a platform and be active and vocal on these issues:

“That’s another thing that I’m proud to be a part of the Liberty organization for. The fact that they support us in using our platforms, the Liberty as an organization also uses its platform and its resources to pour into the community. I think as athletes we have an opportunity, some people would say responsibility, but I think it’s a great opportunity that we can take advantage of to highlight certain causes that are important to us, that are close to us. Whether it’s gun violence, whether that’s education... I had my book club which covered the gamut of issues that we see today. I think it’s all important and it’s a great opportunity for us to do so as athletes.”

In postgame, I asked Stewart about the letter writing campaign and the W’s commitment to speaking up for others, and she said:

Being there for others is such an important aspect of life, and it’s beautiful to sew Brooklyn show up and show out for Griner and everyone else that has been wrongfully detained.

Keep building

Phoenix Mercury v New York Liberty Photo by Catalina Fragoso/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s been slow and steady for Jonquel Jones. Jones suffered a foot fracture in last year’s Finals and has fully healed from it. When you come back from a serious injury, it takes time to regain the cardio you had and the form you once had. There have been some stops and starts for her in 2023, but on Sunday she put together her best performance to date.

To begin games, the Liberty have made it a point to find Jones in the paint. Brondello talks a lot about going from paint to great, and it was in full effect on Sunday afternoon.

JJ finished with 13 points on 5-10 shooting along with a season high 11 rebounds, three assists, and a block in 23 minutes. She did the postgame interview with CBS (shouts to our folks, Sarah Kustok and Michael Grady!!!), she found out this was her first double-double of the season and gave a cool answer

Something great about this game was that JJ didn’t deal with any first quarter foul trouble. That’s been a trouble spot for her as she gets into an early groove, but has to hit the bench due to foul. She was able to play solid stints each time out and was able to build good plays on top of each other.

Brondello noted that she’s still building her conditioning, finding when to be aggressive and when not to, and still fitting in to the gameplan. She was dealing with a non COVID illness, but was able to tough it out and play an excellent game on both sides of the ball. The season is a marathon and as JJ continues to run this race, the stronger she and the team will become.

On call

2023 New York Liberty All-Access Practice Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

With Sabrina Ionescu out, that has opened some opportunities up for Jocelyn Willoughby.

“Joc has practiced really well. Ultimate professional, obviously not getting many opportunities but came to work every single day. And that’s how you earn your minutes. And obviously we’re a player down and I know I trust to put her in. I think she showed some really good moments this weekend. And she has to always just keep staying ready regardless of who’s in or who’s out.”

Willoughby put together another solid outing, as she scored five points, handed out two assists, and played great perimeter defense in her 11 minutes of playing time. On Twitter, Jackie Powell of The Next mentioned Willoughby’s work from practice this week on this laser pass to Nyara Sabally on the interior

She also made this nice pull up jumper off a pick and roll with Stefanie Dolson

I asked her about that play and the importance of having that in her arsenal, and she told me:

“I think it definitely is important. I think we all have to be capable scorers and be aggressive and confident in that. I think the big thing with this team and other teams that may play us is taking what the defense gives you. So on that particular play, the midrange was open but I think you’ll see on our team, we shoot a lot of threes and we try and get to the rim a lot. And sometimes you have midrange and you gotta take that. So, I think it’s just being confident in whatever you’re doing and being aggressive, but also making smart reads and plays based on what the defense gives.”

A great thing about this Liberty team is that everyone’s bought-in. From top to bottom, everyone seems to be working together, supportive of one another, and working to be the best version of themselves. The team looks bought-in and as they move into the next portion of the season, that buy-in will go a long way as they keep working to figure things out.

Picking up that vibe, Mikal Bridges kept up his perfect record of attending the Liberty’s home games. He was seen talking to women’s basketball great Diana Turasi.

Next up

Atlanta Dream v Connecticut Sun Photo by Chris Marion/NBAE via Getty Images

The Liberty have a few days off before heading down south to take on the Atlanta Dream. Tip after 7:30 p.m. ET.