New York Liberty. Las Vegas Aces. The first in a trio of matchups over a fortnight between the WNBA’s two best squads who entered Sunday’s matchup with a combined record of 45-8. What more needs to be said?
With the Aces aiming to match the 1998 Houston Comets as the only team in league history to start a season 25-2, the stage was set for a major showdown. Nationally televised on ABC? Check. A sold out crowd at the Barclays Center, which opened up portions of the upper bowl for just the third time this season? Check. WNBA Commissioner Cathy Englebert was in attendance for this one as well, and spoke to the media prior to tip off (more on that later). Liberty-Aces, round two, had all the makings of must-watch television.
We expected the energy to be a little different in this one; straight from the jump, it was. But so too was the level of play in a do-not-blink first half, one which the Liberty ultimately took, 49-44.
Where to start? How about with the two best players in the world trading highlight blocks?
Breanna Stewart’s block was emblematic of the effort on display from New York, of which she said “I think we had a bunch of 50/50 balls. Kayla [Thornton] was on the ground, and then I flew over Kayla, but just displays like that are where we’re all having fun, competing, and really playing hard.”
It was a bucket-filled first half, to be sure, but it wasn’t strictly buckets. Las Vegas entered Sunday’s matinee allowing the most second-chance points in the league since the All-Star break, yet also profiles as the league’s deadliest transition team, even as all-world outlet passer Candace Parker rests her fractured left foot. How, then, do opponents measure the proper level of aggression to bring to the offensive glass?
Prior to the game, Sandy Brondello stated it “just requires a bit of discipline and focus. We know transition D is big for us, but there are also opportunities to hit the glass.”
Brondello, it turns out, may have been underselling said opportunities. Betnijah Laney and Jonquel Jones followed up misses, whether their own or from teammates, with bloodthirst, each tallying three o-boards in the first half. The Liberty as a team won the offensive rebounding battle 7-0 over the first 20 minutes, and scored 12 second chance points compared to, obviously, Vegas’ zero. Sabrina Ionescu made two long-range bombs off second chances, including capping off this crazy sequence:
While rebounding may have played the largest role in crowning New York as the first half’s victor, Ionescu stood alone as the early star. The best shooter alive went 5-of-7 from deep en route to an early 23/5/3 statline that would have impressed over a full game. And as you likely could have guessed, very few of her looks were easy — most were anything but:
Courtney Vandersloot added some pristine shooting, 4-of-4 from the floor, to add ten points, the only other Lib with double-digit first-half points. The Aces, meanwhile, had a more balanced attack, with three players in double figures: Chelsea Gray, Kelsey Plum, and Jackie Young. Superstar A’ja Wilson struggled offensively to open this one, perhaps ailing after taking a rough elbow to the face from Jones, resulting in a flagrant 1:
Jonquel Jones was called for a Flagrant 1 for this move against A'ja Wilson. pic.twitter.com/E6sXf8YKpJ— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) August 6, 2023
The second half was just as entertaining...unless you were rooting for the Aces. The numbers from a historic demolition of the league’s unequivocal best team are, as you might expect, pretty darn funny. A laugher.
- The score of the second half was 50-17, New York.
- Breanna Stewart also beat the Aces in the second half, 18-17.
- Las Vegas’ 17 second-half points was the lowest from any WNBA team in any half this season
- The Aces turned the ball over seven times and made seven shots.
- The two teams combined for just 15 personal fouls, a new league record for any game! Yet not surprising considering a third of the game was garbage time.
- All in all, the largest margin of defeat a #1 seed has ever experienced (min. 5 games into a season)
Nobody besides the Liberty knew it, apparently, but the contest was over at half. The home team opened the third quarter on a 22-4 run that effectively iced the game, as Vegas was unable to get up off the mat. Ionescu picked up right where she left off, scoring eight quick points amidst that run, bringing her to a game-high point total of 31, which she’d finish with.
“I mean, I come out every game with the same mentality,” said Ionescu after the win. “And that’s just to do my job and to do it to the best of my ability. And so tonight, obviously understanding that we’re going up against the best team in the league and there’s no room for error.”
It’d be easy to call Stewart the second half star, given she, you know, took the Aces 1-on-5 and won. But it’d be also be too reductive, despite Stewie’s 7-12 shooting performance after the break.
Rather than one star going supernova, the second half was a total galactic event. Betnijah Laney and Kayla Thornton went 4-of-6 from deep after the break, continually punishing the Aces for making every rotation except the last one. Jonquel Jones continued to feast on the boards, finishing with a 12 & 14 double-double, including five o-boards.
On the day, the Liberty doubled the Aces on the boards 48-24. Part of the huge disparity is the Aces simply not having a whole lot of Liberty misses to collect, but make no mistake: The sea foam were here to rebound. And when they rebound, they win.
Sunday marked the tenth straight game where New York has out-rebounded their opponent, and according to Brondello, “We’ve been talking about that all season long. We want to be a great rebounding team, and I think since the All-Star break, that’s where we really got going.”
She specifically credited her starting center, Jones, for being “a monster lately. Just really establishing herself down low and being relentless.”
There was a lot of praise to go around after such a satisfying blowout, all of it deserved. Heck, we haven’t even mentioned Courtney Vandersloot moving into second all-time on the WNBA assists leaderboard, passing the great Ticha Penicheiro. Sunday was a big day for Sloot, not only making history but doing so on Women’s Health Day, an event that, this year, focused on raising money and awareness to fight multiple myeloma. New York’s point guard has talked about her mother’s diagnosis with the disease — we’ll have a separate article to cover Sloot’s busy day.
Prior to such a hyped-up game, the media at Barclays got a visit from the Commish! Cathy Engelbert spoke prior to the start of the game, covering a breadth of topics, such as roster expansion, team expansion, and how to expand the cultural footprint of the W among young viewers. Alexa Philippou of ESPN asked about the recent arrest of Aces guard Riquna Williams as well:
“I think on the Williams [situation], obviously we got that information [and are] working with the Aces to get all the facts and information to determine next steps there. We support the Aces [and] their statement that they’ve made so far. So I don’t have any further statement on that. Obviously, it’s in law enforcement[‘s hands]. and so we’re tracking that, certainly.”
Englebert also spoke on Skylar Diggins-Smith’s allegation that the Phoenix Mercury are not allowing her to use their team facilities while she is out on maternity leave:
“Skylar’s on maternity leave as you all know. You know, I have a very good relationship with Skylar. The Mercury have put out a statement, I don’t have anything to add to that. Obviously we’re watching that, but she is on maternity leave. Obviously, we’ll welcome her back into the league whenever she’s ready to come back.”
And, with the WNBA’s television deal with both ESPN and ION set to expire after the 2025 season, we asked the Commissioner about how much of an emphasis the league will put on consolidating games on the major networks like, say, ABC:
“It’s an excellent question; it’s something we’ve been working on clarifying. When are games on, where are they on? We’ve got the appointment viewing Friday nights now with Scripps Ion,” said the commish. “We’ve got, obviously, ABC — ESPN/Disney has been a great partner with, I think, ten ABC games this year. We have, when you look at our fan data and our viewership data, we have a different fan than maybe some of the men’s sports. We have a more ‘lifestyle’ viewer who is watching ABC more than they might be watching one of the other networks.
“So it is important that we get that exposure through ABC. I mean look what happened with the NCAA Women’s Final Four this year and the final game being on ABC. I had talked to ESPN executives about, “that’s a great move to move that to ABC because you’re gonna get a big number,” and they got a $10 million number! That’s why it’s so important to us that we work with our partners at ESPN who have been with us since the beginning on as many ABC windows as we can get. They generally will fall on Sundays, maybe have one or so on a Saturday. We don’t really get them during the week, we’ll get ESPN or [ESPN 2] but we’re working all of the time with all of our partners.
“I mean, CBS also has stepped up and put a bunch of our games on the CBS Network. And we do much better than we obviously do on CBS Sports Network, so yeah, it’s really important because it drives viewership, it drives that lifestyle viewer, it drives that, maybe more not core fan, but casual fan that might be, you know, on that lead-in programming to say, “Okay, let me stay here and watch this WNBA game.” So, very important.”
With the league continuing to grow on the court and in the community, they have to continue finding ways to capitalize on their momentum.
Record set for attendance
How big of a crowd showed out at Barclays Center for the big game? From what we can tell, last time the Liberty attracted crowd bigger than this afternoon’s 11,418 was back on August 6, 2018 when the Libs, then owned by James Dolan, lost to the Seattle Storm (and Breanna Stewart) on a kid’s day at Madison Square Garden which drew 12,488.
That makes Sunday’s game the biggest game ever for the Brooklyn edition of the Liberty, who are now averaging better than 7,500 per game, an increase of 2,000 over last season. Everyone was happy.
Nets rookies courtside
With rabid Liberty fan Mikal Bridges out in Vegas getting ready for tonight’s Team USA game, the Nets three rookies— Noah Clowney, Dariq Whitehead and Jalen Wilson — filled in nicely courtside. As Evan Barnes of Newsday pointed out, Whitehead is out of his walking boot.
They were not alone on celebrity row. Jason Sudeikis — aka Ted Lasso — was on hand with his daughters who showed humor runs in the family...
The Liberty have a few days off before returning to action on against the Chicago Sky. Tip off is scheduled for at 8:00 pm E.T. on Friday night.
- Box Score: New York Liberty 99, Las Vegas Aces 61 - WNBA
- Game Highlights: New York Liberty 99, Las Vegas Aces 61 (Video) - WNBA
- Ionescu’s big game lifts New York to 99-61 win over Las Vegas, handing Aces only 3rd loss of season - Doug Feinberg - AP
- Liberty dominate WNBA-leading Aces for statement victory - Miles Schachner - New York Post
- Sabrina Ionescu, Liberty get revenge against Las Vegas Aces after securing 38-point victory - Fiifi Frimpong - New York Daily News
- Sabrina Ionescu helps Liberty romp past Aces in potential WNBA Finals preview - Brian Heyman - Newsday
- Smokin’ Aces: Liberty Vanquish Vegas in Clash of WNBA Titans - Geoff Maggliocchetti - Sports Illustrated
- Ionescu stars as Liberty hand Aces third loss of season, building Commissioner’s Cup Final intrigue - Sabreen Marchant - The Athletic
- ‘A wake-up call of how good we can be’: Liberty trounce Aces by 38 - Alexa Phillippou - ESPN
- Sabrina Ionescu’s 3-point shooting powers Liberty to stifling win over Aces in 2nd super-team meeting - Cassandra Negley - Yahoo! Sports
- Aces collapse in 2nd half, lose by 38 points to Liberty - Andy Yamashita - Las Vegas Review-Journal
- Aces dominated by Ionescu, Liberty in battle of WNBA powers - Danny Webster - Las Vegas Sun