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New York Liberty defeat Connecticut Sun, even up WNBA Semis at 1-1

It was rocky once again for the Liberty, but in Game Two they pulled out a much-needed win to even the series

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

Entering Tuesday night, New York Liberty fans found themselves in a position they haven’t been in this year: worried. Or, at the very least, concerned. The Liberty brought a 0-1 deficit into Game Two of the WNBA Semi-Finals against the Connecticut Sun after winning all four regular-season matchups vs. their Northeast rival and sweeping the Mystics in the first round.

But Connecticut came out and executed as the road underdogs in Game One, and the Liberty played, according to Sandy Brondello, their “worst game of the season.” Brondello couldn’t have listed everything wrong with her squad’s performance with a quill and scroll, but she chalked many of the issues up to coming in with the wrong “mindset.”

A repeat in Game Two, and the best season in franchise history would be on life support. The announced crowd of 10,009, Barclays’ largest since the big August game vs. the Las Vegas Aces, got amped up for a pregame ceremony honoring the just-announced 2023 WNBA MVP, Breanna Stewart, and then anxiously sat for the most important game of the year.

Their anxieties would not be quelled in a first quarter that the Connecticut Sun won 22-16. Jonquel Jones was unstoppable out of the gate, scoring her team’s first seven points and nine in the period, but as soon as the visitors quieted her, no other Lib stepped up. New York’s 14-7 lead evaporated with a 15-2 Sun sprint over the final four minutes of the frame, and it was déjà vu in Brooklyn.

The Liberty offense slowed, then halted. Stewie, fresh off an MVP regular-season but also a 7-of-25 night in Game One, opted for the latter performance to mirror on Tuesday night. She went 0-5 in the first half without finding any space to operate:

However, she did block three shots, and the Liberty defense followed suit in the second quarter, keeping them in the game. The sea foam went to a zone that had been shaky in the regular season to at least give Connecticut something to think about. Alyssa Thomas continued to struggle, and while DeWanna Bonner hit a couple tough shots...

...Tiffany Hayes was the main reason the Sun took a modest 42-38 lead into the break. The lefty scored 17 points in the first half on 7-8 from the floor. She went 3-of-4 from deep, and mixed in some tough finishes over any Liberty defender that was waiting in the paint.

“I just come out every night and do my best for my team, and it was the same tonight,” said a characteristically calm Hayes.

When the third quarter started, the Liberty stayed in zone, and it looked even better than it had prior to the break. Even when there were mistakes, a Certain Someone who finished with five blocks was there to clean it up...

“I think we were playing zone most of the game and knowing that, you know, nobody was ever guarding one person but continuing to be helpside defenders and make things difficult for them at the rim,” said Stewart of her five blocks.

As Ionescu later pointed out, “We hadn’t played zone in a while, to be honest.” She said their success in the alignment “speaks a lot just about how prepared we were and understanding whatever coach was going to put us in, that’s what we were going to do.”

After a shocking zero transition points in Game One, New York’s D led to O on Tuesday, and some much-needed pace set the wheels in motion. Five quick points from Laney and a bomb from Courtney Vandersloot pushed the lead to 59-50, and it felt like a classic Liberty third quarter to put the game away was in the works.

Betnijah Laney called the pace and decision-making of the offense “definitely” better this time around: “I think that was a big adjustment for us. That was something that we talked about.”

Yet, a crisp start to the third wasn’t enough to salt the game away, not in this series. New York didn’t score for the final four minutes of the quarter, and Connecticut hung tough, closing the frame on a 7-0 run. We were all set up for a classic fourth quarter, as the Liberty entered it leading just 59-57 in another physical battle.

Ultimately, the Liberty’s two best players on Tuesday would bring them home. No, not the MVP, though Stewart did finish with a bulky 11/11/5/5/2 stat-line, nor former MVP Jonquel Jones, who scored just two points after her hot start. And it wasn’t Sabrina Ionescu, although she did finish with a team-high 21 points by shooting 10-10 from the line following some aggressive takes. (The Liberty successfully featured Ionescu-Stewart pick-and-rolls after the first quarter to combat the Sun’s trapping of Ionescu.)

In the end, Laney and Vandersloot made timely shot after timely shot to put the Sun away. Laney went 5-of-7 from deep on a variety of looks, from corner catch-and-shoots to straight pulling up off of ball-screens:

As for Sloot, she was New York’s most consistent decision-maker off the dribble, per usual. A key, late adjustment from Brondello was removing the early ball-screen for Sloot to let their point guard work one-on-one to get into the paint. That she often did, on top of adding hot shooting, going 8-13 from the floor including 3-4 from deep.

That’s 8-of-11 on 3-pointers for Sloot and Laney, with the rest of the team going a paltry 2-of-15:

Thus, all five Liberty starters scored in double-digits while playing heavy minute-loads. The bench only played a total of a dozen minutes — Thornton lead with seven — and each starter logged at least 37.

“You know, I'm so tired, I can't even think,” said Ionescu while answering a postgame question.

The Sun deployed a similar strategy: Thomas and Bonner each played 40 minutes, and Hayes played 36. Hayes was Connecticut’s unequivocal star, finishing with an even 30-piece on 12-of-19 shooting.

Hayes’ head coach, Stephanie White, had high praise in postgame: “She’s just a pro. She comes to work everyday locked in and focused and doesn’t cut corners, wants to get better, is open to anything and everything that we need from her. It’s, ’I can get to the paint,’ to guarding the best perimeter offensive player.”

But Hayes’ teammates shot just 15-of-49, including another silent game from Thomas. Though AT put up 10/9/8, she shot just 2-of-13 from the floor, often troubled by New York’s length. Natisha Hiedeman was limited to 14 ineffectual minutes thanks to, well...

Rebecca Allen, who had a starring role in Game One, was also limited for the Sun, but her troubles were were foul-related. The ex-Lib never settled into a rhythm, and shot a quiet 3-of-7 from the field. The Sun had some success switching Ionescu-Stewart pick-and-roll, but that required Allen to be guarding the action, which led to some of the five fouls she picked up.

Stewart admitted, “I definitely wanted to be better in all of my screens today, knowing that they had to make a decision whether going over or under or switching or whatever they’re doing. But that match up with Sab and I, AT and Bec, they were switching a lot. Knowing that, [we were] putting them in positions that they don’t want to be in.”

While Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Tyasha Harris each scored two field goals off the bench and played as hard as White asked them too, neither amounted to the critical difference makers that could’ve saved the game for Connecticut. The Sun lost Game Two for a lot of reasons, but chief among them was Thomas and Bonner combining to shoot 8-28 from the field. Just not good enough.

Ultimately, White was “proud of our group for for withstanding runs. We gave them a fight.” But the Sun never rose again after relinquishing their lead in the second half.

Final score: New York 84, Connecticut 77.

Breanna Stewart Named WNBA MVP

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

Prior to Game 2, Breanna Stewart was named WNBA MVP in a historically tight outcome. I mean, just look:

And while a deserving winner for many reasons beyond just an absurd 23/9.3/3.8/1.6/1.5 stat line, Stewart did not garner the most first-place votes; her Tuesday night opponent Alyssa Thomas did that. She did, however benefit from a pattern of voting that went something like this: With Stewie’s case so comparable to Wilson’s, voters either thought that Thomas’ impact trumped both of theirs, or neither of theirs. (Hence AT’s dip in second-place votes.) For voters in the latter camp, they tended to side with Stewie over Wilson within those confines, which ultimately granted her the hardware.

To celebrate the team’s first MVP-winner in franchise history (Stewart’s second overall), the Liberty held a pregame presser with the victor and WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert. Stewart’s two-year-old daughter, Ruby, stole the show, running around during Engelbert’s introduction and doing two-year-old things before Stewart picked her up to deliver the quote of the presser:

Stewart acknowledged her primary competitors for the award as well, calling A’ja Wilson’s and Alyssa Thomas’ seasons “amazing.” Still, the 29-year-old Stewie took home the hardware for the second time in her career, and as the first Liberty player to do so.

The Sun were not shy about admitting the disappointment they felt in watching their star, Thomas, not receive the award.

DeWanna Bonner — who is engaged to Thomas — spoke truthfully about the situation:

No discredit to Stewie because she’s the MVP for a reason. But yeah, what Alyssa did this season was was unbelievable. So of course, the news was kind of, you know — it was emotional. That was tough for her, tough for our team. But we came out and we played for her tonight. We didn’t get the win, we’re gonna continue to play for her...It was just a really emotional day for us as a team.

Next Up

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

Luckily for Bonner, Thomas, and the Connecticut Sun, they will have a chance to bounce back and take a commanding 2-1 series lead on their home court this Friday night. Of cours the same is true of Stewart, Ionescu and the New York Liberty. Tip is scheduled for just after 7:30 p.m. ET.