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New York Liberty fall to Minnesota Lynx, 88-83, on final game of homestand

The Liberty couldn’t overcome a determined Lynx team on the second night of a back-to-back, watching their four-game winning streak come to an end.

Minnesota Lynx v New York Liberty Photo by Evan Yu/NBAE via Getty Images

The New York Liberty entered their Friday night matchup with the Minnesota Lynx in the middle of a jam-packed stretch that merely speeds up before it slows down. The game, originally scheduled for June 7 — hazardous air quality in New York City due to Canadian wildfires forced the WNBA to postpone it — marked the third in four nights for the Liberty, amidst a stretch of eight in 14.

The Lynx also were the last of four opponents of a nice homestand, the first three of which the Liberty defeated to push their record to 18-5, just a half-game ahead of the 18-6 Connecticut Sun, who have been breathing down New York’s neck all summer.

The sea foam were without their All Star Courtney Vandersloot against Minny, opting to rest the ever-steady point guard before the team flies cross-country to take on the Los Angeles Sparks (twice) starting Sunday, but they hardly had the short end of the stick. The Lynx were forced to rest their lone All-Star, Napheesa Collier, after the forward suffered an ankle injury on Wednesday night. Prior to Friday’s contest, she trailed Breanna Stewart by just nine total points for the WNBA lead, but she watched this one from the sidelines in a walking boot.

Yet, despite the talent absent from Friday’s action, the Lynx were able to walk into the Barclays Center and come away with a win after a physical affair. Final score: Minnesota 88, New York 83.

The story of the Minnesota Lynx this season has been one of resiliency. After dropping their first six games, they clawed back to .500 early in July, when a five-game winning streak brought them to 9-9. Now sitting at 11-13 and losing Collier just before facing the W’s second-best team, Minnesota had the opportunity to roll over once more, but didn’t.

The Liberty took a 15-5 lead on the back of some hot shooting from Sabrina Ionescu and Breanna Stewart, who utilized their burgeoning two-woman game to set each other up for clean 3-point looks:

One day after running the Atlanta Dream out of the building, would the Liberty secure back-to-back wire-to-wire victories? No, not if Lynx Head Coach Cheryl Reeve had anything to say ... and she strategically did. Reeve called a timeout at 15-5, and seemingly pushed all the right buttons in the huddle. Over the final 6:38 of the first quarter, her squad held the home team to just two more points, and roared back to take a 22-17 lead against a dazed Liberty team.

Minnesota’s ball pressure in particular turned the tides; forcing three turnovers wasn’t exactly eye-popping, but seemingly every time a Liberty player drove the lane, she saw multiple bodies and active hands. A bevy of deflections slowed New York’s offense to a halt, and their fiery shooting quickly fizzled out. It was Minnesota’s reserves, namely Jessica Shepard and Emily Engstler, providing energy off the bench to assist Diamond Miller, who got off to a quick start with eight first-quarter points.

In the second quarter, the Liberty turned to Sabrina Ionescu to ignite an offense that had turned dim. Not a bad crutch to lean on! After scoring a dozen points in each of her last three games, the former Oregon Duck had 18 points by halftime, along with a few of her typical first-pumps and screams after various buckets. If the Liberty were tempted to hit the snooze button on the second night of a back-to-back against an ostensibly inferior opponent, Ionescu wouldn’t let them. Her fourth 3-pointer of the night gave the Libs their first lead of the second quarter at 36-35 after having trailed by as many as seven.

Her teammates, however, couldn’t quite match her long-range proficiency, a big reason they found themselves trailing 48-39 at half-time. Non-Ionescu Libs shot just 2-of-12 from deep in the first half, and no other player player besides Stewart even made one. That made it tough to compete with a Minnesota squad that nailed six of their 12 bombs, including this ridiculous one from Tiffany Mitchell to close the half:

A nine-point, second-half comeback certainly wasn’t out of the question for the hosting Liberty, but their legs started to falter in the third quarter. Certainly, all the blame for losing the period by three points can’t be placed on the back-to-back scheduling. Minnesota’s defense did not waver, and often catapulted them into easy buckets:

The Lynx were also frenetically crashing the offensive glass, doubling their o-board total from the first half in the third period alone. Yet, their lead likely would not have ballooned to a comfortable 70-58 by the end of the quarter if the Liberty simply made a few more shots. Marine Johannés, who started in place of the resting Vandersloot, finished the night a paltry four points on 2-of-6 shooting. None of the four reserves that Sandy Brondello deployed scored a single point — all night — until Kayla Thornton made a lowly free throw with less than two minutes to go in the third. A night after Jonquel Jones put up 19 points, she scored just nine on Friday.

How much blame can be placed on the back-to-back, the generic bogeyman whenever a team underperforms on the second night? We don’t know. But the Barclays Center crowd certainly wasn’t treated to the same team that handily defeated the Atlanta Dream on Thursday night.

New York did, however, make one last mad dash in the fourth quarter, looking far from a team that had accepted their fate. A Lynx lead that was 17 points at his highest dwindled all the way down to a single point, mainly thanks to Ionescu’s long-range brilliance:

She turned in her WNBA record-setting fourth game this season with at least seven made threes en route to 31 points, but her teammates ultimately couldn’t keep pace. The Liberty shot just 28.6% from deep as a whole, and missed crucial, open looks down the stretch. Betnijah Laney turned in her least efficient game since the All-Star break, shooting 5-of-13 and missing a couple of wide open corner threes. Stewart started hot, but the Lynx were relentless in showing her multiple bodies inside the arc, and the MVP front-runner shot just 5-of-18. Not good.

Minnesota’s Diamond Miller and Kayla McBride were simply too much in this one, combining for 46 points. McBride in particular played a nearly flawless game, going for 26/5/4 while only missing three shots and turning the ball over once. And Miller turned out to hit what proved to be the dagger.

The Lynx bench outscored their Liberty counterparts, 14-5. This was a complete team with a focused vision, no matter how irreplaceable Napheesa Collier might be. Simply put, the better team emerged victorious on Friday night.

The last time the Liberty lost the rebounding battle was against the Dallas Wings on Camp Day last week. As it happens, that was the last time they lost a game prior to tonight. In postgame, Sandy Brondello attributed it to some fatigue on the group, but credited Minnesota’s persistence and physicality on the inside.

With Vandersloot out, the team had nine players available for this one. Marine Johannes took her place in the starting five, but only went 2-6 from the field. In post, Brondello noted the team needs MJ to be aggressive, but that she and the team need to find a way to make her feel better. Johannes had been playing better during the win streak and with Vandersloot likely back on Sunday, MJ can slide down a role and spark the second unit.

Next up

Indiana Fever v Los Angeles Sparks Photo by Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images

The Liberty head west for a three game road trip. First up, an afternoon affair with the Los Angeles Sparks. Tip after 4:00 p.m. ET on Sunday afternoon.