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Breanna Stewart explodes for 42 in New York Liberty victory over Indiana Fever

On the eve of the Commissioner’s Cup, Stewie did it again, leading the Liberty to their sixth straight victory

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New York Liberty v Indiana Fever Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images

After the New York Liberty defeated the Chicago Sky on Friday night, they packed up and hit the road, where they’ll be for two weeks. It’s a six-game road trip more anticipated than most, considering the Libs have a doubleheader against the 27-3 Las Vegas Aces. Not only did the Liberty just smack the often-invincible Aces, but the first of these rematches is the Commissioner’s Cup, and New York’s first appearance in it.

Players, coaches, fans, media, we all knew this road trip featured major potential for some classic moments. But perhaps we didn’t expect to get one on the first game of the trip, a Sunday afternoon visit to the 8-22 Indiana Fever. Then again, you never let your guard down when Breanna Stewart takes the court.

For the third time this season, a WNBA record, Stewart scored 40+ points, finishing with a laughter-inducing 42/6/6/3/3 stat-line, a first in WNBA history. (Only one turnover, to boot.) Stewart had already tortured the Fever this season, scoring nearly half of her team's points in an earlier 90-73 win, New York’s second game of the season. Indiana, however, had guarded her effectively in the last two matchups, holding Stewie below 20 points each time.

Clearly, that was nothing more than a run of good fortune for the young Fever. Stewie took every opportunity on Sunday to show them what it’s really like:

Breanna Stewart playing one of the greatest regular-season games ever was certainly the main attraction at Gainbridge Fieldhouse on Sunday, but there was also the matter of, well, the Liberty vs. the Fever, which sprinted out of the gates.

After two minutes of play, neither team had gotten a stop; the Liberty lead 10-9 after the first eight possessions of the game were all scores. That’s pretty much how the whole first quarter went, ten minutes ultimately ended with the Liberty trailing, 31-29. The high scoring can’t really be chalked up to poor defense, either; the Fever were just ready for this one. The hosts got plenty of friendly bounces and pushed the pace throughout the first quarter, while the bench hardly sat down. As any respectable young team facing a title-favorite on ESPN should, Indiana simply brought the energy.

So too did the Liberty. Their offense was humming, largely thanks to Courtney Vandersloot, who racked up five early assists, and, of course, Breanna Stewart, who had 14 first quarter points.

After the game, Myles Ehrlich of Winsidr asked Stewart when she knew she had something special brewing, to which she confessed, “I think in the first quarter. I was getting some good looks, they were switching a lot, and I read what the defense was giving me.”

During the ESPN broadcast, Sandy Brondello said that her MVP candidate “sees so many different defenses and we’re just trying to find what’s open. Obviously, if we can get her the ball, she takes care of the rest of it.”

Stewart would continue taking care of the rest of it in the second quarter, pouring in another 16 points to enter the halftime break with an even 30, tied for the most points ever in a half (yes, she made a lot of history on Sunday). If the woman herself knew it’d be a special day by the first quarter, the rest of us found out in the second, where Stewie made a trio of treys including this one:

Elsewhere, the defense did just enough to keep the Fever at bay, and allowed New York to take a 58-51 lead into halftime. Although when a team is shooting an absurd 60% from the floor, as the Liberty were after two quarters of play, the defense doesn’t need to do much. Their main focus in the second half would be slowing 2023 All-Star Kelsey Mitchell, who put up 17 points in the first half.

Mission accomplished. Mitchell scored just five points in the second half, and was largely powerless as she watched the Liberty jump out to a quick 71-55 lead midway through the third quarter, as Indiana Head Coach Christie Sides, stunned, called a timeout suddenly down 16. New York rolled out of the locker room and showed a national audience why they entered Sunday leading Indiana by 15.5 games in the standings. They kept scoring, and the Fever didn’t.

The seafoam featured a more balanced scoring attack after the break, although anything would have been more balanced than Stewie scoring over half their points again. But the MVP candidate, while still dominating the game in nearly every facet, scored “just” a dozen second half points.

Vandersloot continued to dish the rock with a passion, finishing with 14 assists. Betnijah Laney scored ten of her 12 total points in the second half as well, including a couple timely buckets when the Fever made half-hearted stabs at cutting into the lead. The reserves, led by the core trio of Marine Johannès, Kayla Thornton, and Stefanie Dolson, ultimately for 17 points, the most New York’s bench has scored in August. Outside of Stewart’s first-half explosion, the Liberty offense was as egalitarian as it gets.

Defense and rebounding, then, were the major stories of the second half. While Indiana grabbed six o-boards in the first-half, they grabbed just two after the break, and saw their well of second-chance points dry up, largely thanks to Jonquel Jones.

Since the All-Star break, Jones is leading the WNBA in rebounding by a wide margin, both on the offensive and defensive glass, grabbing over 12 a game in total. That continued in Indy; Jones grabbed another 12 boards, including eight in the second half.

“It just gives us extra possessions,” said Jones of her rebounding after the game, per Jackie Powell of The Next. “There’s always a good shot off offensive rebounds, so I’m just continuing to give us more opportunities to be able to be successful.”

While New York’s lead floated around the double-digit mark as the game wore on, the Fever did make one last push, leaving no garbage time in this one. With just under a minute left, NaLyssa Smith scored her 15th and final point off the bench to cut New York’s lead to 95-89, the smallest it had been since the first half.

However, Betnijah Laney hit the dagger on the next possession, an in-your-eye corner three that effectively sealed the game. After the necessary window dressing, we had our final score of New York 100, Indiana 89.

The losing hosts, however, did put up a real fight. Mitchell, despite a quiet second half, still finished with 22 points. Superstar rookie Aaliyah Boston quieted down too, but still stuffed the stat-sheet with 17/9/5/2. Erica Wheeler added 21 points and refused to let her team die in the second half.

Unfortunately for the valiant Fever, the Liberty were simply firing on all cylinders as. They tallied 32 assists on Sunday, a season-high and the second most in franchise history. They even tied the all-time WNBA record for most assists over a three-game span, with 88, per WBBTimeline on Twitter.

However, this was the Breanna Stewart show, through and through. Sandy Brondello got straight to the point in post-game: “Look, I think Stewie for MVP. Obviously there’s some competition there but I think that’s what she's meant to this team. It shows, and it’s defensively too, it’s all over the court, it’s not just about putting up numbers, which she is.”

It is a pleasure to watch any all-time great in their prime, but this is especially true with Stewie, who is one of the game’s most malleable superstars. She tallied three blocks and three steals against the Fever, many of which came as a hellacious big defender on pick-and-rolls, using her long arms (she has a 7’1” wingspan) and anticipatory skills to wreak havoc. And not only did Stewart repeatedly torch every citizen of Indiana on switches Sunday, but she also relentlessly moved without the ball. How else do you score 42 points on such a prolific assist night for the team? By the way, it’s no coincidence the team the Liberty tied for that three-game assist record is Stewart’s 2022 Seattle Storm.

Early in the season, it felt as if Stewart needed to explode, to carry her supposedly elite supporting cast to wins that were expected to be breezy. Three months later, after another 40-piece against Indiana, that is no longer the case. Stewart is a part of a New York system that is absolutely humming. The Libs now know what they need to accomplish on each end, and so does each player, specifically in the starting five.

But, you know. She’s still Breanna Stewart.

Next Up

It’s time for the big one. The New York Liberty travel to Las Vegas take on the otherworldly Aces in the Commissioner’s Cup, not two weeks after smacking them 99-61, at home. “It’s a chance to win the first bit of hardware for the Liberty,” said Jonquel Jones following Sunday’s win, per Ehrlich. Tip-off is scheduled for Tuesday night, at 9:00 p.m. ET.