The Sunday matinee between the New York Liberty and the Washington Mystics had all the makings of an instant classic, long before the ball was tipped. The two teams entered the contest a-half-game apart in the standings, both conference-wise and in the Commissioner’s Cup race. The game would be nationally televised on ESPN. And of course, two of this generation’s greats facing off in Breanna Stewart vs. Elena Delle Donne.
Luckily for us, it delivered. Despite trailing by 17 points in the first quarter, the Liberty fought back and wound up turning their battle with the Mystics into one of the W’s wackiest, most absurd contenders for game of the season. At times, the basketball was beautiful. At others, the basketball was so chaotic, so confusing, so physical that, well, it wasn't beautiful, but it sure was entertaining.
The lively Barclays Center crowd of 7,285 was even blessed with overtime, where they watched their Liberty fight tooth-and-nail to come up with a win by the skin of their teeth, 89-88, over Washington. While far from a perfect performance, a gritty win like that just may have been New York’s best of the season.
Early on, it appeared as if this matchup wasn’t going to get off the ground at all. It took all of three minutes for Washington to jump out to a 13-0 lead on the back of their switch-heavy, ball-hounding defense, setting traps that the Liberty fell right into. The crisp ball movement and easy offensive flow New York has displayed over the past few weeks was nowhere to be found, as half court possessions were ground to a halt, featuring ineffective, sluggish isolation ball. Worse yet, a lack of stops on the other diminished the Libs’ ability to push the ball in transition - they soon found themselves down, 23-6. But during an early timeout when Sandy Brondello must have told her tame to, essentially, “Wake the [redacted] UP!” they soon they woke up.
Led by a reserve unit featuring Marine Johannés running the point, the Liberty finished the first frame with a 11-4 spurt, able to cut the deficit to a manageable ten points. Breanna Stewart and company drove into the paint and drew fouls with brute force; if not for a 9-10 performance from the line in the first quarter, this game may have been truly over after ten minutes. Considering that the Libs shot a putrid 3-17 from the floor to open the game, they’re lucky it wasn’t.
Brondello’s post-game reaction to the opening frame said it all: “What are we doing? We’re not executing anything, we’re not playing - they’re competing harder than us.”
And while the game narrowed to a 45-39 halftime lead for the Mystics, the flow of the game didn’t change much in the second quarter. Outside of Ariel Atkins, who closed the first half with 13 points, including a perfect 3-of-3 mark from deep, Washington cooled down from the floor, thanks in part to a more focused Liberty defense. There will still some breakdowns, especially in pick-and-roll coverage...
Nyara Sabally's had some tough moments defensively in this first half, as her and Sloot miscommunicate on the switch here, and it leads to an open three: pic.twitter.com/BBARnDF3XF— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) June 25, 2023
...but on the whole, New York was much better, if not perfect, on the defensive end. Offensively, the seafoam, inch by inch, cracked open pathways to the paint, slowly un-suffocating themselves from a fervent Washington defense:
Liberty have finally started to generate some downhill pressure in this one, mostly by way of ball-screen. Sloot with a pretty great play here to generate an open corner three: pic.twitter.com/6Z0lMqDeXU— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) June 25, 2023
This despite the fact that Breanna Stewart did not make a field goal in the first half, missing all six of her attempts from the floor. In short, the Liberty woke up, then settled down, and the sold-out Barclays Center crowd got the show they were promised.
The third quarter between the teams just a half-game apart in the standings was a back-and-forth affair, everywhere but the scoreboard. Ten minutes of exchanging elbows and buckets with Mystics, and even grabbing five offensive boards in the quarter, wasn’t enough to push the Liberty to their first lead of the game. Two Breanna Stewart free throws midway through the quarter cut the deficit to 55-53, but that’s as close as New York got in the frame. However, a deep three from Sabrina Ionescu kept the home team within two possessions at quarter’s close:
WAS' drop is much higher this time, but it doesn't matter to Sabrina Ionescu. A bomb to cut the lead to four: pic.twitter.com/Hnrlbbc43f— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) June 25, 2023
Ionescu was the bright spot for the Libs’ offensive attack on Sunday afternoon, ultimately finishing with a team-high 31 points while going 7-of-12 from deep. Betnijah Laney, despite briefly leaving (and returning to) the contest in the third quarter after an awkward fall, added 17 points on 4-of-6 from deep, as the two picked up the slack on a brutal shooting day for Stewart (18 on 4-17 from the floor, but 10-11 from the line.)
Stewie, though, certainly had her moments in the sun, hitting back-to-back midrange jumpers in the fourth quarter to give the Liberty their first lead of the day at 65-64. It was gorgeous, too, drawing the loudest cheer of the day from the Liberty faithful up to that point:
Breanna Stewart is incredible. pic.twitter.com/8uU8KydJ6W— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) June 25, 2023
However, that Dream Shake fadeaway looked like it may provide the home crowd’s last cheer of the day as well; the visitors immediately responded with an 11-2 run to take a 75-67 lead just outside the two-minute warning.
But on a day like Sunday, in a game that neared three hours, two minutes was an eternity. The Liberty stormed back, led by more brilliant shooting from Ionescu, as she dropped in a clutch trey to cut the lead to two:
Liberty run a nice elevator screen leading to a huge Sabrina Ionescu three, her fifth of the day, and after a stop on the other end, New York has a chance to tie the game with 35 seconds left: pic.twitter.com/LFya4wSp8l— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) June 25, 2023
What followed was an inexplicable mound of chaos and missed free throws: Three from the Mystics, and a crucial one from Courtney Vandersloot, all setting up a situation where the Liberty, down by a bucket and out of timeouts, had to go the length of the court in ten seconds to tie the game. For Vandersloot, with a chance at redemption, it was no problem:
(Yes, Natasha Cloud almost made a 60-footer to win it at the buzzer.)
So, a much-hyped, nationally televised contest that started sluggishly would end as an absurd, overtime thriller. The Mystics and Liberty, separated by a half-game in both the Eastern Conference and Commissioner’s Cup standings, would have to battle down the wire for this one. Fitting.
Overtime closely mirrored the third quarter, a litter of back-and-forth buckets, rather than prolonged runs. Only this time, we saw six lead changes over the final five minutes. Vandersloot, the hero at the fourth-quarter buzzer, fouled out. As did Tianna Hawkins for Washington, who was in for an injured Shakira Austin (more on that later).
The only lead change that truly matters, the last one, came deep into overtime as Stewart got the ball on the wing against Elena Delle Donne, as good a matchup as there is in the WNBA...
...and worked her magic, despite shooting 3-16 up to that point. Stewie’s 3-point play gave the Liberty an 89-88 lead with 19 seconds to go. Of course, the job wasn’t done as they had to get one more stop to seal the win. Luckily, they got two thanks to one of their key offseason acquisitions, Kayla Thornton, who first forced Delle Donne into a miss, and then stonewalled Myisha Hines-Allen at the rim after a subsequent inbounds:
And just like that, the Liberty came with a gutsy, heart-stopping win to improve their record to 9-3.
Thornton had entered the game for Jonquel Jones, late in the fourth quarter, and the Liberty went with a Thornton/Stewart frontcourt, perhaps undersized but more than athletic enough to hang, over the final nine minutes of this one. With Stefanie Dolson out for “weeks, not days,” with a right ankle injury, according to Brondello, this could mark the start of a trend of KT at the four.
“JJ was, you know, probably a little bit out of sorts here, and I just went with a little bit more toughness and versatility,” said Brondello of her late substation. “And that’s what KT gives us, allows us to switch a little bit better on some of our actions.”
After the win, Vandersloot summed up Thornton’s efforts, which earned her a team-high +/- of +8,: “It’s hard to keep her off the floor when you’re in games like this,”
As the Liberty continue their journey, there’s no doubt that Thornton’s production off the bench will be absolutely essential.
Shakira Austin Injury
There was a scary moment in this game as Mystics sophomore big, Shakira Austin, left the game with an injury. Austin had forced a turnover and was out in transition, but collapsed onto the court and grabbed her leg immediately. Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello and team trainer Terri Acosta went to Austin immediately before the Mystics medical staff came to help out. Austin had to be carried back to the locker room by the medical staff and Natasha Cloud and missed the remainder of this game. In postgame, Eric Thibault said she would be evaluated for a left hip strain when the team returns home to Washington DC. Cloud spoke about her rook and why she came to carry her teammate to the locker room:
“I know that’s not typical. But again I feel like in the moment of when one of our players- you’re talking about just the game of basketball. You’re talking about a young woman that just went down and obviously, we won’t have any updates or anything like that, but someone that is crying and kind of scared. Yeah, I’m the point guard of this team. I feel like I can carry her to the side and kind of poise her and talk to her as I’m going off.”
Here’s hoping Austin is feeling OK and is back as soon as possible. And shouts to Cloud for being an awesome teammate and person.
Breanna Stewart, All-Star Captain
Prior to the start, ABC announced the starters for this year’s All Star Game in Las Vegas. A’ja Wilson of the Aces was named captain of her team, and Stewart was named captain of her squad. Stewart said that it was an honor to be voted in by the fans and excited to suit up in Vegas. This year’s starters include:
- Jewell Loyd, Seattle Storm
- Arike Ogunbowale, Dallas Wings
- Chelsea Gray, Las Vegas Aces
- Jackie Young, Las Vegas Aces
- Nneka Ogwumike, Los Angeles Sparks
- Satou Sabally, Dallas Wings
- Aliyah Boston, Indiana Fever
- Brittney Griner, Phoenix Mercury
The All-Star captain joked that since she’s picking second, she might have to make a trade with Wilson in order to get BG on her squad. Seeing Griner back in the WNBA and playing at such a high level is an amazing sight, as Stewie attested to after the game: “Huge for BG to be an All-Star starter, the way that she’s come back. I think all of us are really inspired in what she’s doing and the way she’s handling herself.” No matter which team captain ends up with Griner on her squad, it’s going to be a special night in Vegas on July 15.
Mikal Bridges on hand again
As he has for every Liberty home game, Mikal Bridges was on hand Sunday and once again brought along another NBA player, this time the Cavaliers Donovan Mitchell, a New York native ... and a 2025 free agent. Corey Vinson, the former Suns assistant now in Brooklyn, accompanied the two.
Courtside at Barclays in fact has become a bit of celebrity row. It wasn’t just Bridges and Mitchell who were on hand. The first couple of women’s sports, Sue Bird and Megan Rapinoe were also on hand...
Sabrina Ionescu showed some love to both Bridges and Mitchell just before the game.
Alas, Bridges did not get any love from A’ja Wilson, the star of the WNBA’s other superteam, the Las Vegas Aces. Bridges asked Wilson when’s the next Aces game, only to be coldly rebuffed by the Aces star...
The trolling cannot hurt, even if Bridges feelings may have been.
The Liberty begin a three game road trip on Tuesday night against the 12-3 Connecticut Sun. Tip off for that one is after 7:00 p.m. ET.
- Box Score: New York Liberty 89, Washington Mystics 88 (OT) - WNBA
- Game Highlights: New York Liberty 89, Washington Mystics 88 (Video) - WNBA
- Stewart’s late 3-point play lifts New York to 89-88 OT win over Washington - Doug Feinberg - AP
- Liberty erase 17-point deficit, defeat Mystics in thrilling OT victory - Miles Schachner - New York Post
- A’ja Wilson’s tweet mocking Mikal Bridges goes viral: ‘Weird guys’ - Dhani Joseph - New York Post
- Mystics lose Austin to injury late, then game vs. Liberty in overtime - Kareem Copeland - Washington Post