Coming off an exhilarating win over the Washington Mystics, the schedule did not get any easier for the New York Liberty. They would travel to Connecticut to face the Sun just 48 hours later, before boarding a cross-country flight to Las Vegas to participate in the most anticipated game of the WNBA season to date. But the Liberty’s matchup with the Sun could not be glossed over.
Not only did the Sun enter Tuesday’s action ahead of the Liberty in the conference standings, but so too in the Commissioner’s Cup standings. To keep their dreams of that $500,000 prize alive, the Libs had to leave Connecticut with a victory.
And that they did, after more heart-stopping action against a tough-as-nails Eastern Conference contender. The Liberty defeated the Sun in a back-and-forth affair on Tuesday night, 89-81.
It was clear early on that we would not be watching a repeat of New York’s nail-biting victory over the Washington Mystics. And not just because the Liberty avoided a horrific start, experiencing something akin to the early 13-0 or 23-6 deficits they faced against Washington. Rather, Sunday's contest often featured disjointed (yet entertaining) basketball, whether it was turnover-prone offenses or a foul call every few seconds.
That was hardly the case in Tuesday’s face-off vs. Connecticut, especially in the first quarter, which ended with the home Sun taking a 29-28 lead. You don’t get a score like that after ten minutes without some defensive blips, and while the Liberty did showcase some less-than-ideal possessions defending the pick-and-roll...
Five minutes into this one, the Liberty's PnR defense has not looked much better: pic.twitter.com/qr5JKK1m7w— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) June 27, 2023
...there was a lot of pure shot-making as well. How about this sequence featuring back-and-forth 3-pointers, traded by Marine Johannés and DeWanna Bonner?
Great individual offense can be immune to great defense, as both teams learned in this high-scoring affair.
The first real separation in the game began after the Sun’s DiJonai Carrington laid the ball up and in to give the home team a 43-39 lead at the 3:27 mark of the second quarter. The Liberty would lock in on defense, not allowing Connecticut another first-half bucket. An 8-0 run to close the half, granting them a 47-43 advantage at the break, ballooned into a 26-6 sprint when third-quarter play began. New York, suddenly up 64-49, was threatening to end the competitive portion of what had been a fun contest at the third quarter’s halfway mark.
But, like Sunday’s game, the Liberty were facing an Eastern Conference predator with just three losses to their name, like themselves. And like the Mystics, the Sun did not go quietly into the night, either. Despite trailing by 15 points with 15 minutes of game-time left, Connecticut continued to fight, and used an 13-0 run in the fourth quarter to take a gut-punching, 81-80 lead with under four minutes remaining.
The Sun, looking to improve to 3-0 since losing All-Star big Brionna Jones to an Achilles tear, got production from both familiar and unexpected places. Alyssa Thomas played all 40 minutes of this one, and recorded her 5th triple-double (11/10/10) of the young season, already a WNBA record. But Carrington and sophomore forward Olivia Nelson-Ododa combined for 37 points off the bench, including a career-high 23 from Carrington. She hit two bombs from way downtown during that game-altering 13-0 run.
And for a minute there, it looked as if the Baylor product would be the star of the Sun’s premiere win since losing Jones. But their 81-80 lead would be the home team’s last moment in the sun, as the end of the fourth quarter would mirror the end of the second: The Liberty defense tightened the screws, and the Sun would not score another point over the period’s final three-and-a-half minutes.
Jonquel Jones, who finished with a team-high plus-minus of +21, had two huge blocks down the stretch, including this absolute clamping of DeWanna Bonner on a switch:
Jonquel Jones clamping DeWanna Bonner on a switch may be the deciding stop in this one. Great stuff: pic.twitter.com/V4v4DADR7I— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) June 28, 2023
The Bahamian big rebounded after a subpar performance on Sunday with a dominant showing on Tuesday; a line of 14 and 11 with four blocks likely understates her impact. After she was benched down the stretch run of the Mystics game, she sealed this victory over the Sun.
Head Coach Sandy Brondello “thought this was a great confidence booster” for Jones, who has had an up-and-down start to her inaugural season in the Big Apple while recovering from a foot injury.
Kayla Thornton also closed this one out, this time at the expense of Sabrina Ionescu, who scored just six points following her 31-point explosion over the weekend. With Thornton and Jones next to Breanna Stewart and Betnijah Laney, the Liberty played perhaps their most physically imposing lineup to close out a game that was scrappy from the start.
“When you have the luxury of having Kayla Thornton coming off the bench,” said Brondello, “we know we can be a great defensive team. We didn’t do it for 40 minutes, but buckled down late.”
Stewart, as she almost always is, was electrifying offensively. The UCONN legend came back to the Constitution State and made 11 of her 17 shots, including both of her 3-pointers, while only turning it over once en route to 24 points. The usual. Betnijah Laney added 16 points, aided by a 3-of-6 performance from deep that raised her 3-point percentage on the year to an astounding 46.7%. That included this big-time shot off an inbounds play which extended the Liberty lead to 85-81, an absolute dagger:
Laney has shown considerably more confidence shooting the ball as the season has progressed, something her teammates have noticed, according to Courtney Vandersloot: “We were pumping her up, saying, ‘we want you taking open threes.’—she wasn’t as comfortable taking open threes so much [earlier in the season]—but we want her to shoot those.”
Vandersloot herself poured in 17 points and nine assists, and was as aggressive as New York fans have seen her driving to the paint. It was a true team performance that lead to another exciting, important win over an Eastern Conference foe.
With the road win, the Liberty moved a smidge ahead of the defending conference-champion Sun, as their 10-3 record currently trumps Connecticut’s 12-4. More importantly, though, they moved to 6-3 in Commissioner’s Cup games while clinching the tiebreaker over Connecticut. A win in their final cup game against the Indiana Fever on July 12th would guarantee them an appearance against the Las Vegas Aces in the main event.
A huge 48 hours for the Libs in the Commissioner's Cup race, with wins over WAS and CON. A win over ATL on July 12, and they'll represent the Eastern Conference vs. the Aces: pic.twitter.com/pTz415ApO8— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) June 28, 2023
“It’s big for us,” said Vandersloot post-game, citing the Commissioner’s Cup as “a goal of ours...we dropped a couple early, but we made up for it and beat two teams back-to-back. It feels good that we're in control of our destiny, but the job’s not finished.”
Another Milestone For Breanna Stewart
In a career that’s career that’s chock-full of them, Breanna Stewart added another record to the list: Per the YES broadcast, Stewie became the quickest (by games played) to 4,000 career WNBA points, needing just 196 to achieve the milestone:
She’s very good at basketball.
A homecoming for Jonquel Jones
Tuesday marked the second meeting between New York and longtime Lib Rebecca Allen; their first such encounter was at the Barclays Center in late May. There, Allen, who played seven seasons in the seafoam, experienced her homecoming, hearing loud cheers upon checking into the game and saying hello to familiar faces. Tuesday, then, was about Jonquel Jones returning to her former home.
Jones did not just become the league’s MVP while wearing a Sun uniform, though that she did in 2021. She also became a pro, spending the first six seasons of her career in Connecticut, going from low-minute reserve to best player on a team that made back-to-back WNBA Finals.
“I have so much love and appreciation for this organization,” said Jones before the game, latter adding, “I think my experience was so amazing here. Everyone was genuine, treated me with a lot of care, and I could see the love they had for this franchise. I think that’s the main thing.”
Oh yeah, it’s time. The Liberty face a quick turn-around, and the juggernaut Las Vegas Aces on the other side of the country on Thursday, in what is the most-anticipated game of the young WNBA season. Tip-off for that one is just after 10:00 p.m. ET, so grab that afternoon coffee.