As the New York Liberty jumped from elite to historic in the season’s second half, we turned our attention to the standings. The Las Vegas Aces were no longer a foregone conclusion to finish the 40-game WNBA regular-season as the one-seed. Not with the Liberty stomping out opponent after opponent, and certainly not after New York went 2-1 against Vegas in August, in addition to winning the Commissioner’s Cup on the Aces’ home floor.
Yet, that intrigue is now on life support. All Vegas has to do to lock up the one-seed is defeat the Phoenix Mercury twice to close the season. While stranger things have happened, New York looks primed to come up just short, and coast into the WNBA playoffs with a decent consolation prize in the two seed.
For the Chicago Sky, the Libs’ opponent on Sunday afternoon, the standings are less a matter of intrigue, and more a matter of life-and-death. The Sky entered the weekend matinee holding the W’s final playoff-spot, the eight seed, but only by virtue of a tiebreak advantage with the L.A. Sparks.
The Liberty were guaranteed face a desperate Chicago team, though they weren’t focused on that, per Betnijah Laney: “Regardless of what anybody else has going on, our goal is to always be on top, so that's our mindset right now.”
Luckily for Laney and the Libs, the Sky were surprisingly if fairly generous hosts to their East Coast guests Sunday afternoon. Sure, the Sky played a hard, physical contest, but they gifted their opponent numerous opportunities as well. The Liberty came into Wintrust Arena aiming for a track-meet, and Chicago ensured that it would become one, pushing the ball at every opportunity but frequently running themselves into turnovers or poor shots. Worse yet, they missed far too many layups for comfort, ending efficient possessions with hiccups.
The Liberty were fortunate to be leading 22-20 after a breakneck first quarter that featured just one total foul call (nice!), largely due to an early 8-0 advantage in points off turnovers.
The second quarter was more of the same, with Marina Mabrey and Kahleah Copper continued to keep the home team in it. After 20 minutes of play, Chicago’s two lead guards had combined for 23 points on 10-18 shooting, with their teammates going 2-of-15:
Despite a shallow scoring attack for their opponent, the Liberty could not pull away in the first half. Laney scored three easy layups early in the first quarter, and that was it. Marine Johannès, starting once again in Sabrina Ionescu’s place (right calf), shot just 1-of-5. Jonquel Jones contributed two buckets and three turnovers. New York as a whole succumbed to the turnover virus, ultimately matching Chicago’s first-half total (seven) to negate their own defensive activity.
On Sunday, New York would be led by Breanna Stewart and longtime-Sky Courtney Vandersloot. They were the only two Libs in double-figures by the break, and Sloot was harassing her former team at every juncture, posting a 10/4/5/1/4 line (including her 500th career steal) in just the first half:
500 career steals for Sloot2️⃣2️⃣ pic.twitter.com/Y8JOnM6cSd— New York Liberty (@nyliberty) September 3, 2023
If the second quarter merely mirrored the first, though, the third quarter resembled a pattern of subpar Liberty basketball that allowed the pesky Sky to stick around. Stewart scored another 11 points, but Copper had ten, and her teammates began to help out. The Williamses, Courtney and Elizabeth, ultimately combined to shoot 4-of-17, but Robyn Parks and Sika Kone came off Chicago’s bench to hit some shots and turn up the physicality of the fast-paced affair.
And while the Liberty produced flashes of the offensive flow that only they can...
...they were consistently handicapped by, well, themselves. With 0.8 seconds left in the third, Laney fouled Copper on a 30-foot heave. Copper would make two out of three freebies to cut the Liberty lead to two entering the fourth. The Sky even took a 61-60 lead early in the final frame thanks to a Kone layup following a breakdown in the Liberty defense.
“I don’t know why we came out and it didn’t resemble anything that we’ve been doing lately,” said Sandy Brondello of her team’s performance through three quarters. “I don’t know if complacency or fatigue stepped in, but we know we weren’t at our best.”
Then the sleeping giant awoke. Over the next five-and-a-half minutes, New York ran the Sky out of their own building, and sent their fans into shock with a 22-0 sprint. With 8:30 left, the Liberty trailed 61-60; with 3:00 left, they led 82-61. Final score: 86-69
That absurdity was captained, again, by Stewie and Sloot. The former kicked off the run with a vintage pull-up 3-pointer:
Breanna Stewart, very good at hoop. pic.twitter.com/mNLbuFxAqW— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) September 3, 2023
The latter was simply everywhere, hitting three of her season-high five triples in the quarter and even throwing in a snatch-block for good measure:
When’s the last time Sloot pulled that off? “Never.”
That epic stretch from the New York Liberty put the game to rest ... and a smile on their coach’s face. A mic’d up Brondello had this to say amidst her team’s fourth-quarter destruction of the Sky: “Now that’s the team I know, okay? That’s the team I know and that’s the beauty of our team, that we can get it back, can’t we? We don’t give in.”
After trailing by just one point, they got it back and more, turning a fourth-quarter deficit into three minutes of garbage time. The Liberty may not have delivered their signature performance of the season on Sunday, but there have already been many of those. Going supernova for a few minutes was enough to secure their 30th win of season, a first in franchise history. Final score: New York 86, Chicago 69.
Breanna Stewart put up 26 points, 14 rebounds, five assists and two blocks on Sunday, yet wasn’t the star of the show, not by any measure. That’s because Courtney Vandersloot made history with her all-around performance, finishing with 20/5/10/2/6:
10 assists now. Sloot has the 1st 15/10/5/5/2 game in WNBA history. https://t.co/YmdE8r7BT1— Across the Timeline (@WBBTimeline) September 3, 2023
“To see Sloot like this, to see her confident, comfortable and in her element is exactly what we want and why she’s the best at what she does,” said Stewart about Sloot’s historic night. The Liberty also set a league record for most 20+ assist games in WNBA history, and their ability to play together, make the right pass, and find various ways to score will serve them well once the playoffs begin next week.
With Sabrina Ionescu out, Sandy Brondello turned to her bench. Jocelyn Willoughby is someone that is always ready to contribute when her number is called. On the day, Willoughby had season highs in points (ten), rebounds (four), and plus/minus (+10). She also played the entire fourth quarter as the Libs went on their game clinching run.
“I think Joce just stayed ready for her moment, came on, and executed perfectly. She took the shots when she was open, played really great defense, and that’s what we expect of her,” said Sandy Brondello of Willoughby’s efforts this afternoon.
Vandersloot also credited Willoughby with making the shot that changed the flow of the game for good:
.@LucasKaplan_ asked Sloot about the turning point:— Jackie Powell (she/her) (@ClassicJpow) September 3, 2023
"When Jocelyn hit that 3 on the wing, we kind of set up a play, we let develop and... we just executed really well and she knocked it down. Joce had great minutes for us tonight and I think that was a big turning point for us." https://t.co/d5axg2M3X4
Willoughby gives the Liberty one more plus defender and someone that can perfectly execute their switching schemes. As we draw closer to the postseason, she’ll be someone Brondello can trust to contribute at a moment’s notice.
The Liberty play their last regular season road game of the season on Tuesday night against the Dallas Wings. Tip after 8:00 p.m. ET.