The New York Liberty have had a long week. Last Friday, they defeated the Chicago Sky at home; then they hit. the road to beat the Indiana Fever before a much-hyped doubleheader against the Las Vegas Aces, a champagne-soaked Commissioner’s Cup victory on Tuesday before coming back to Earth with a loss on Thursday.
The Liberty, however, didn’t have time to rest quite yet, as they would remain out West for a contest against the Phoenix Mercury this Friday, marking their fifth game in eight days. On the bright side, across the finish line in Phoenix was a mouth-watering five-day rest before facing the Connecticut Sun next Thursday. And it’d be best not to spend that break stewing over two losses in a row, a fate that hasn’t befallen New York all season.
Despite the Mercury’s 9-21 record on the season, and despite the fact that the hosts would be missing Brittney Griner and her backup, Megan Gustafson, due to health and safety protocols, New York wasn’t expecting a cakewalk. Not only would the Liberty be playing the dreaded two-city back-to-back, but the Mercury hadn’t played in four days, and would be competing in front of one of the best home crowds in the league.
In the first quarter, the Liberty were fighting the uphill battle they may have feared prior to the game. The 24-7 sea foam looked lethargic as they were a step slow contesting Diana Taurasi, who made three early treys, as the Liberty tossed up brick after brick. After a quarter, the heavy favorite (on paper) was trailing 19-16.
But that was all it took to awaken the visiting Libs, just one lethargic quarter of poor shooting and slow defense before they kicked into gear. The shooting improved drastically, largely thanks to Marine Johannès. Similar to the Commissioner’s Cup, in which the French guard was the game’s leading scorer, Johannès woke her teammates up out of their shooting funk, going 4-of-6 from deep in the first half while playing a starter-like 13 minutes, certainly due to both her hot shooting and the heavy minutes New York’s starters had played Thursday night:
“Of course when you score, you feel more comfortable on the court,” Johannès said, before assessing her hot start in her typically reserved manner: “I think I was okay tonight.”
Sandy Brondello, meanwhile, was more effusive in her praise: “She’s being aggressive now. We want Marine to be Marine. We always want that, it’s great, because we need that. We talk about having depth, and it’s great when you got a player like Marine coming off the bench.”
Johannès’ 14 first-half points led all scorers, and while Taurasi was second with 11 points, she was silent after her trio of early 3-pointers, missing her next nine shots. As Taurasi’s production fell off a cliff, Brianna Turner and Sophia Cunningham stepped up, scoring eight each.
It wasn’t enough, though, to keep pace with a Liberty offense that had suddenly remembered how to shoot after the first quarter; Betnijah Laney, Sabrina Ionescu, and Breanna Stewart combined for 24 points on an efficient 17 shots, and Kayla Thornton added a 3-pointer to help pull away from Phoenix. New York won the second quarter by a score of 27-19, and took a 43-38 lead into the locker room.
The third quarter, then, was the beginning of the end. The second-half dead-legs that normally plague teams on the second night of a back-to-back were nowhere to be found for New York, as they put the game to bed right out of the break, going on a 16-5 run that no amount of timeouts from Mercury Head Coach Nikki Blue could stop.
The star of the third quarter was certainly Laney, who posted up smaller Phoenix defenders relentlessly, accumulating 13 points, an assist, and two steals in the quarter:
Once again, you need to guard Betnijah Laney with somebody bigger: pic.twitter.com/4nT23pFUy0— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) August 19, 2023
On her burgeoning post-up game, Laney confirmed, “that’s another emphasis we’ve put on: When I do have a smaller defender on me, to make sure that we’re punching it in because I can score or am able to kick out for a better shot.”
Even more damming for the hosts, though, was their complete inability to nail an outside shot. Outside of Taurasi’s first three 3-point attempts, the Mercury shot a putrid 1-of-20 from deep, and any momentum they may have been able to build was finished before it even got started thanks to their inaccuracy. They actually scored more points in the paint than their guests, but even their interior effectiveness was’t enough to make up for a 17.4% mark from deep.
New York buried Phoenix in front of their home crowd in the third quarter, outscoring their opponent 32-16 across those ten minutes to take a 75-54 lead into the fourth quarter, which was a non-affair altogether.
The Liberty scored just ten points in the final frame...and they still won it, because, well, Phoenix scored just nine to finish with a total of 25 second-half points! Yeesh.
It was not the prettiest game either team has played this season, with a total of 28 turnovers. Yet the Liberty, the team facing a huge rest disadvantage, were able to use that sloppiness to their benefit, consistently pushing off of turnovers while being able to set up their own transition defense. New York won the battle of fast-break points 17-6.
“Playing in a back-to-back is not easy,” Johannès admitted after the victory. “After the game yesterday, we just had to switch and be ready for today, and I think we did a good job.”
While they started a bit sluggishly, the Liberty mastered enough of the little things to allow their talent to win out; on Friday night, it was Marine Johannès taking over in the first half and Betnijah Laney in the second. Laney would wind up leading all scorers with 22 points, while Johannès had 18, tied for second with Ionescu, who, in the midst of her worst two-point shooting season by far, went 5-7 from inside the arc.
“She’s taking what the defense was giving her,” said Brondello of her All-Star guard. “We know that she’s a great 3-point shooter, and the midrange is something that she’s continued to work on.”
For the Mercury, Taurasi and Cunningham each had 14 points, but neither the offense or defense as a whole offered anything much to speak of. I guess that’s a good recipe to lose a game by 22 points. Final score: New York, 85, Phoenix, 63.
A Milestone Victory
Not only did the blowout dub mark the first time Sandy Brondello won a game as the visiting head coach in Phoenix (where she coached for seven seasons), but it also marked her 205th regular-season victory as a WNBA head coach? Why is that number special? It tied her with late Anne Donovan for eighth all-time in the category:
Tonight's @nyliberty win is Sandy Brondello's 205th regular season win as head coach in the WNBA, tying her with Anne Donovan (8th all-time).— Across the Timeline (@WBBTimeline) August 19, 2023
Donovan was Brondello's last head coach as a player in the W (Seattle, 2003); today is the 18th anniversary of Donovan's 100th WNBA win. pic.twitter.com/pPEKMrfGqn
As Across the Timeline notes in the above tweet, the 6’8” Donovan was the last head coach Brondello played for in the W, in 2003 with Seattle.
Rest! And then more rest! And then, finally, the New York Liberty will continue their road trip — although, technically, they will certainly come home to New York first — against they’ll the Connecticut Sun in Uncasville. As the Liberty started their weekend with a win on Friday night, the Sun were blown out by the Dallas Wings, falling 3.5 games (three in the loss column) behind the Liberty for the W’s two-seed.
Tip-off for New York vs. Connecticut is scheduled for next Thursday, August 24th, at 7:00 p.m. ET.
- Box Score: New York Liberty 85, Phoenix Mercury 63 - WNBA
- Game Highlights: New York Liberty 85, Phoenix Mercury 63 (Video) - WNBA
- Sabrina Ionescu Post Game Interview (Video) - ION TV
- Liberty beat the short-handed Mercury 85-63 to complete a 3-game season sweep - AP
- Bee Movie: Laney Burns Phoenix For 22, Liberty Get Back to Winning - Geoff Maglioccetti - Sports Illustrated