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Liberty ride dominant first quarter to 92-81 victory over Sun in Game 3

New York destroyed Connecticut in a first quarter that decided the game, and moved them to one win away from the WNBA Finals.

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

Friday was a tough day in New York City, with the remnants of tropical storm Ophelia drenching the city in record-setting volume. The borough of Brooklyn, home of the New York Liberty, was hit particularly hard, with many residents experiencing flooding not only on the streets and subways but in their homes.

When asked if the ‘New York’ across on their uniforms meant a little more for Friday’s Game 3, Liberty Head Coach Sandy Brondello said, “Yeah, definitely. You know, it’s terrible, I’ve been a part of a lot of floods in Australia. And it is terrible because it ruins so many things here, so hopefully, number one, everybody’s safe. And hopefully we can give them something to cheer for tonight by playing well.”

Whether it was the situation back in N.Y., or the fact that a loss would send the Liberty into a 2-1 hole, and on the brink of elimination at the hands of the Connecticut Sun, or a combination of both, the Libs did indeed give their fans something to cheer for, immediately.

After offensive struggles in Games 1 and 2, the Liberty scored a playoff franchise-record 37 points in the first quarter of Game 3, silencing everybody in Mohegan Sun Arena except for, well, the Sun:

After ten minutes, the score was 37-16, New York, and it was hard to imagine a worse start for a Sun team that had played so well on the road earlier in the series.

“First of all, just disappointed, certainly with the way that we started the game. I felt like our energy level from the beginning was just really poor for whatever reason,” said Stephanie White.

The Sun entered the game already facing an uphill battle, losing Rebecca Allen to a non-COVID illness just 15 minutes prior to tip, according to White. Her loss undoubtedly contributed in part to both Connecticut’s shoddy first-quarter defense and apparent lack of effort, or spirit, or whatever you want to call what the Sun were clearly missing to start the game.

“You certainly you miss Bec’s length and versatility on the defensive end of the floor. You miss her ability to knock down shots offensively,” said White, later adding that “Bec just has a presence about her. You know, she’s one of those glue players, she’s a good teammate.”

On the other side, the Liberty weren’t missing anything, including shots. They went 15 of 21 from the floor in that ridiculous first quarter, propelled by a transition offense that produced more fast-break points (7) than they had in Games 1 and 2 combined:

Everything clicked, and all the discomfort New York’s offense experienced to start the series had transformed into bushels of space to operate in. Ionescu told ESPN’s Holly Rowe after the frame that it started on defense, as in the above clip. Consistent stops allowed them to push the pace and keep Connecticut off balance. And while true, their half-court offense wasn’t too shabby either.

Ionescu hit two early threes, and Breanna Stewart finally got off the schneid, going 5/6 in the first quarter.

Really, those ten minutes decided the game. The final three quarters consisted of New York fending off Connecticut runs that ranged from amusing to mildly concerning, but never threatening. In a much-improved second quarter for the hosts, the Sun cut the lead to a mere dozen, but Jonquel Jones grabbed an offensive board and laid the ball up at the buzzer to give her Libs a 54-40 lead heading into halftime.

“She’s been great, just her pursuit of the ball,” said Brondello of Jones’ rebounding. “You know, so many bodies over her and that takes a lot of effort. They’re trying to block her out, but she got some really big ones.”

Jones would finish with a modest 10 points and 12 boards, tying Lisa Lesia and Elena Delle Donne for the most consecutive double-doubles to open a playoff run. But the box score far understates her impact on Friday night. While the Liberty offense will and should grab the headlines, Jones played an outstanding defensive game to prevent the Sun from truly getting back into it, meeting driver after driver in the lane.

“I think JJ is using her length incredibly well to kind of lock down the paint and make it difficult for anybody who’s trying to drive in there or get rebounds,” said Stewart. “With her behind me, I know that I can go for some steals or be aggressive because she’ll clean up the mistakes that I make.”

There was nothing too exceptional about the third quarter, other than the referees, who had been quick to their whistles in the first half, swallowing them completely in the frame:

A buttoned-up contest that got an already-depleted Sun rotation into serious foul trouble early turned into a melee. Tiffany Hayes, who finished with 16 points, spent much of her time complaining to the refs or on the floor after being hit in the face by Stewart, to no foul call.

If there was one positive on the night for Connecticut, it's that the physical nature of the second half played into Alyssa Thomas’ strengths, and perhaps helped get her offense going. After dismal shooting performances in Games 1 and 2, Thomas scored 23 points on 11-17 from the floor while dishing out 14 assists, finishing one board shy of a triple-double.

Emergency starter Olivia Nelson-Ododa continued her strong play with a 6-7 performance to score 14 points while blocking two shots; the Sun did not play poorly after the first quarter, and had strong individual performances to show for it.

However, Connecticut had dug themselves too big of a hole to dig out of. It didn’t help that DeWanna Bonner and Ty Harris each shot just 4-12, or that Carrington only played three minutes off the bench, and permanently returned to it after her sideline fiasco. Everything must go right to overcome a 21-point deficit, and it didn’t for the Sun.

“Going into a deficit like that in the first half, we have to expend a lot of energy trying to find a way back and claw back,” said Nelson-Ododa.

Stephanie White pointed out that the Sun ultimately outscored the Liberty after the first quarter, but that playing anything less than forty minutes simply isn’t “good enough...not for an opportunity to play in the Finals.”

The closest Connecticut got was nine points, at 70-61 late in the third quarter. But Ionescu immediately hit her fourth triple of the game, bringing her to her total of 16 points, and that was that.

The fourth quarter, then, teetered on garbage time, with the Liberty starters remaining in to rack up some statistics. Stewart, after a tough playoff run to this point, was New York’s bright spot, once again looking like the MVP she is. Stewie scored 25 points and grabbed 11 boards, pulling out all the classics: a transition, pull-up three, some fade-aways, put-backs, and everything in between:

“Like I said, it’s Stewie,” said Brondello. “She’s missed a few shots we know she’s capable of making. But she was at her very best tonight and that really got us off to a great start. She’s the MVP.”

All five Liberty starters reached double-digits, but the only other Lib that reached 20 points was Betnijah Laney, who hit that number squarely. In New York’s four wins this postseason, she’s averaging 19.5 points. In their lone loss, in Game 1 of this series, she scored just three. By the end of this one, that loss felt like a distant memory, with Laney hitting dagger after dagger:

New York got contributions from everybody on Friday night. They mixed in zone defense as they did in Game 2, but truth be told, it didn’t matter what they played. The Liberty were all that the Sun were not, particularly in the first quarter that decided the game. It was as stress-free as a road playoff win can be, and as a reward, the New York Liberty are one win away from reaching their first Finals since 2002.

Final score: New York 92, Connecticut, 81.

A special day for JJ

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

It was an awesome evening for Jonquel Jones. She made some history with her fifth straight double-double and was a force all over the court. Prior to the game, she received a special award.

Prior to coming to the W, she spent three years at George Washington University. While at GW, she helped the team to back to back conference championships and NCAA Tournament appearances. It was a special run for Jones and the school will be inducting her into their Hall of Fame! After the game, JJ spoke about the honor with Natalie Heavren of The Next

It's been a wonderful run for Jones. She's playing her best ball of the season, has continued to make New York her home, and is peaking at the right time. The journey isn't over yet, but it feels great to celebrate a win like this.

Nic Claxton goes on the road

Just as he and other Nets have done when the Liberty were playing at home, Nic Claxton was courtside in Uncasville, supporting the Nets sister team.

Another record

Before the game the WNBA announced that Game 2 ESPN broadcast Wednesday night from Barclays Center was the most watched WNBA game on cable since 2001. The game, which attracted more than 10,000 fans to Brooklyn, drew 721,000 viewers.

Next up

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

The Liberty have a chance to clinch their first WNBA Finals appearance since 2002. Tip off after 3:00 p.m. ET on Sunday afternoon.