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New York Liberty stumble, fall to Connecticut Sun in Game One of WNBA Semis, 78-63

The Liberty fell apart after halftime and scored their lowest point total of the season in an uninspired loss to Connecticut on Sunday afternoon

2023 WNBA Playoffs - Connecticut Sun v New York Liberty Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

The New York Liberty may have swept their four-game regular-season series with the Connecticut Sun, but neither team was resigned to their WNBA Semi-Finals matchup going the same way. And for good reason. Two of those contests went down to the wire, one was the second half of a back-to-back for Connecticut, and the other was a lifetime ago in May. Despite four losses, the Sun had plenty of reason to feel, as Natisha Hiedeman put it, “super confident” prior to the start of Game 1.

Liberty Head Coach Sandy Brondello agreed, saying she “learned that you cannot underestimate them,” from their earlier matchups this season. “They’re gonna come out really aggressive, you’ve seen that. They’ve got players that have been in these situations before, and that can be really dangerous.”

Brondello’s assessment proved prophetic in the first quarter, which the visiting Sun won 25-21. Rebecca Allen, who rode the bench as a rookie for New York in their last semis appearance in 2015, is indeed dangerous and experienced, and she came out firing to start this one:

It was classic Spida, and after her eight-point first quarter, she’d finish ultimately finish the night with an impressive, unsurprising 18 points, seven rebounds, two steals, and two blocks in 32 minutes.

“I’m just happy that I came out and - I said the two words I wanted was to be assertive and to be confident, and I felt like I started like that,” said Allen postgame.

The Liberty had little trouble keeping up with the Sun on the scoreboard though, mostly thanks to an unstoppable Jonquel Jones inside. In another matchup of scorned exes, Jones carried the scoring load with eight early points against her old teammates, as her new ones struggled to get going.

Yet, Sabrina Ionescu hit a 3-pointer late in the period, ever the momentum-booster for the Barclays Center crowd. The Liberty responded by remembering to lock in on defense in the following period, though the did surrender many-a-second chance. This possession featured as many deflections as o-boards:

Yet, despite their troubles on the glass, the Libs allowed just a dozen in the second, and took a 40-37 lead into halftime. The offense still wasn’t perfect, but everybody chipped in: Kayla Thornton hit a timely three, Courtney Vandersloot did as well and while assisting everybody else. Then Ionescu and Breanna Stewart seemingly heated up, each adding a couple buckets of their own.

That trend would die there. The Sun opened the third quarter on a 16-2 run and never looked back, as none other than Natasha Cloud dissected the problem on Twitter (I mean X):

The Sun scored on eight of their first ten possessions after the break, frequently using up the shot clock down but always getting a good look. It was a recipe for disaster for the Liberty's fast-paced offense, which finished with an incomprehensible ZERO fast-break points. Zero. As Cloud told us, Connecticut’s half-court defense was just too good to overcome that math.

“We came out really slow in the first quarter and then the third quarter,” said Sandy Brondello. “It’s been happening in the last few games, and I think it’s mindset, and I think maybe frustration sets in and we don’t execute. We all know - we know we’re better than that.”

The Liberty kept it within single-digits for much of the third quarter, but a 7-0 individual spurt from DeWanna Bonner, who finished with 20 points, pushed their deficit to 70-55, early in the fourth quarter. The Liberty failed to make any meaningful inroads after that, flailing around in search of momentum but unable to grasp any. Jonquel Jones was New York’s best scorer on the afternoon, but couldn’t get the ball in the second half, dealing with four fouls and physical play in the post, on which she had some thoughts:

Jones would shoot 5-of-8 for 14 points and 11 boards, but she just didn’t get enough help. Stewart was most perturbed by Connecticut’s physical defense, though even that can’t fully explain her 7-of-25 shooting performance, including 0-of-8 from deep, the latest in a series of mediocre performances which New York cannot afford. She did finish with 19 points, but they were incredibly un-Stewie-like, as her struggles against elite, physical defenses continued.

Sabrina Ionescu didn’t fare much better. While she had a few open looks to finish 4-of-8 from deep, she didn’t make a single two-pointer, and was bottled up every time she traversed inside the arc to finish 4-of-14. Betnijah Laney, who averaged 19 points per game in round one, made her first shot of the night and then disappeared, finishing 1-of-9 with three turnovers.

“She had a tough night tonight,” said Brondello, flatly.

Laney wasn't alone, though: Every New York starter turned the ball over multiple times. Between that and a dozen Connecticut o-boards, and the Liberty had neither the shot quality nor quantity to come out on top on Sunday afternoon.

“If we get more shots, maybe we score more points tonight. But even the ones that we did get felt rushed, felt pressured. Of course, we got some good looks but not enough,” said Courtney Vandersloot.

While Sloot credited Connecticut’s pressure with making her offense “uncomfortable,” she attributed many of the Liberty’s struggles to “just sloppiness. There’s no excuse for it. It’s not that we didn’t expect [their pressure] to happen, we did. But, you know, we just didn’t execute well.”

The only positive for the Liberty may have been the play of Kayla Thornton, who somehow finished a +10 in 19 minutes while going 2-of-3 from deep, dishing three assists, and grabbing an offensive board.

But KT couldn’t prevent the Liberty from shooting just 29.6% from three, 36.6% from two, and having just three more assists than turnovers. Sandy Brondello did not mince words in her overall assessment: “That was our worst game of the season.”

Sun Head Coach Stephanie White understandably sung a different tune following her squad’s win: “I‘m just really proud of our group. It felt like we came in and played probably the most consistent 40 minutes that we played all year, particularly on the defensive end of the floor, being disruptive, making things as difficult as possible for a really good offensive team.”

On a night where Alyssa Thomas and DeWanna Bonner, who sealed the game when she had to, shot a combined 10-30, White’s whole squad stepped up. Outside of Allen, the guard tandem of Tiffany Hayes and Natisha Hiedeman set the tone on both ends, getting into the lane on O and flying everywhere on D:

Olivia Nelson-Ododa came off the bench to play 19 big minutes while grabbing two steals and a block of Breanna Stewart down low. She was Connecticut’s athletic answer to Thornton off the Liberty bench, and White recognized her young big after the game: “Gotta give kudos to Olivia Nelson-Ododa. She came in and just did an outstanding job on the defensive end of the floor mixing it up and using her size.”

The Sun shot a pedestrian 8-of-24 from deep, but that may be even more encouraging. The three-seed didn’t need hot shooting to steal a win on the road, but rather played one of their most complete games of the season, highlighted by their characteristic work on the boards and on defense.

The New York Liberty may not have played up to their standards, but the Connecticut Sun certainly earned a win in Game One of the WNBA Semi-Finals. Final score: Connecticut 78, New York 63.

Attendance keeps rising

The Liberty attracted a crowd of 9,442 to the Sunday matinee, the biggest so far in the post-season and the highest since the Liberty-Aces game back in early August that drew 11,418.

As usual, three of those in attendance were Nets players, once again led by Mikal Bridges adorned in his Sabrina Ionescu jersey...

Next up

2023 WNBA Playoffs - Connecticut Sun v New York Liberty Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

These teams do it again Tuesday night at the ‘clays. Tip after 8:00 p.m. ET.