clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Liberty win 8th straight, beat Sparks as Sabrina Ionescu breaks 3-point record

The records keep falling for the Liberty but with only one game left before the post-season, it looks like they’ll wind up with the second seed.

Los Angeles Sparks v New York Liberty Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The New York Liberty entered their penultimate game of the season caught in the between. The month of August, in which the Libs went 10-1, won the Commissioner’s Cup, and they officially joined the Las Vegas Aces as WNBA co-favorite, but that glorious four-week stretch is now a week old. And while the Liberty won their first three games of September, their chances of overtaking the Aces for the one-seed are nearly dead, given that all Vegas must do to lock up pole position is defeat the lowly Phoenix Mercury twice. Liberty players and coaches would never admit it, but it’s time to look ahead to the playoffs.

For the Libs’ opponent on Thursday, not so much. The Los Angeles Sparks visited Barclays Center tied with the Chicago Sky for the WNBA’s final playoff spot; the other seven are already secured. Both the Sky and the Sparks had two games remaining, with Chicago owning the tiebreak. Needing a win to sustain their playoff hopes, the Los Angeles Sparks had no choice but to live in the present Thursday.

And that they did, playing one of their best halves of the season to start the contest. On the offensive end, Head Coach Curt Miller drew up some beautiful plays and his players executed them to a T:

The Sparks’ defense, however, was even more impressive. They played their signature ball-hounding, screen-trapping style despite injuries cutting their rotations down to just seven, and despite facing one of the WNBA’s all-time passing squads in the Liberty. It’s one hell of an understatement to decision to send two to the ball against a team that’s going to shatter the all-time assist-percentage a ‘gamble’, but L.A.’s gamble paid off in spades in the first half.

The Sparks forced nine turnovers before the break, helping the guests to outscore the Liberty 9-2 in fast-break points:

“Credit to L.A., they really were aggressive with not many people to play. To play at the level, that’s hard, to trap and rotate and still be able to have legs on the other end,” said Sandy Brondello. “I think we were being a little bit stubborn in trying to force the action when we knew the trap was coming. We have to be a little bit smarter in those situations.”

Yet, as well as the 16-22 Sparks played in the first half of a must-win game, shooting 6-11 from deep with multiple starters taking zero rest, they only took a 50-43 lead into the break. While undoubtedly an impressive feat against the world-destroying New York Liberty, their lead would have been larger if not for Head Destroyer in Charge Breanna Stewart:

Stewart scored 21 first-half points on 8-of-12 shooting, including 3-3 from deep, to keep the Liberty in it. For all of Stewart’s transcendent performances this season, her first half on Thursday was something Liberty fans haven’t seen since the season’s first half. Rather than a beneficiary of an excellent offense, Stewart was bailing her teammates out of faulty possessions by nailing tough shot after tough shot. Outside of her and Betnijah Laney, who shot 4-of-6 to score 11 first-half points, the rest of the Libs shot 5-18 from the floor.

Nobody struggled more than Sabrina Ionescu, though; she missed all eight of her first-half shots. Perhaps she was just shaking off the rust in her second game back from a calf injury?

“That’s exactly what it was,” said Ionescu in post-game. “You know, my shot has so much to do with the pop in my feet, and finally getting a lot healthier and getting my legs under me, I just had to get it dialed back in. Just had to shoot my way through it.”

And that she did. Ionesco quickly got in rhythm after her uncharacteristic start, scoring all 16 of her points after the break, nailing 4-of-5 second-half triples and in doing so, broke the WNBA record for most threes in a single season. topping Diana Taurasi’s single-season 3-point mark, Ionescu now has 124 this year.

“It’s an honor, any time you’re able to pass arguably the greatest basketball player that ever played in the WNBA,” Ionescu said post-game.

But just as one star rises, another falls. The Los Angeles Sparks keyed in on Stewart after the break, and the MVP-contender shot just 1-of-7 in the third and fourth quarters, seeing double teams and aggressive help defense whenever she touched the ball.

New York never really activated all of its stars at any point in the game, not with Jonquel Jones picking up two early fouls, receiving few post-up opportunities, and ultimately taking just four shots in 27 minutes of play. New York also continued to turn the ball over in the second half, for a total of 17 on the game. Most critically, they never figured out how to slow ex-Lib Layshia Clarendon, who made a bushel of ridiculous shots to finish with a career-high 30 points:

Clarendon and sophomore Rae Burrell, making her third career start and scoring a career-high 18 points, were giving the Sparks all the offense they needed while their defense continued to rack up takeaways. If the Liberty were going to pull this one out, someone would have to step up.

That someone did in the form of Stefanie Dolson, who checked in for her third-quarter stint with her Liberty trailing 66-57. First, she hit a three to help cap off a dominant sequence from Betnijah Laney, and L.A.’s lead was just five at the buzzer:

Immediately, Dolson hit two more triples to give the Liberty their first lead since the first quarter, 75-74, and was mobbed by her euphoric teammates:

But the party wouldn’t last, as the Sparks quickly re-took a 78-75 lead whic—JUST KIDDING Dolson hit another two 3-pointers to give the Liberty an 83-78 that they would not relinquish. Final score: New York 96, Los Angeles, 89.

If that seems abrupt, well, it was. The Liberty were roundly outplayed for about half-an-hour of basketball before the 6’5” Dolson counterpunched, blocked, and knocked out the Sparks with five consecutive three-pointers, leaving her teammates and supporters delirious and the opponent in a daze. When asked what changed in that third quarter, Stewart simply replied, “I mean, Stef hit like five threes.”

“Honestly, my teammates did a really good job of just finding me, but after the first one went in, I had a lot of confidence,” said the woman of the hour. “Lowkey, I just closed my eyes and threw it, and it went in.”

Dolson’s long-range outburst was an unexpected as they come; her previous season-high in 3-pointers made was just one. Perhaps it was fitting for this wild Sparks-Liberty contest, though: the two teams combined to shoot 27-57 from deep, and were 26-50 at one point.

Yet, for as valiantly as the Sparks played and the absurdity of the all-around shot-making performance at the Barclays Center on Thursday, despite another ten assists from Courtney Vandersloot and Stewart’s incendiary first half, this will be remembered as the Stef Dolson Game.

While Dolson was focused on the task at hand, saying her performance merely “feels good. I just want to do my job. And part of being on the bench is coming off and being a spark,” she did recognize the moment as special: “Honestly, I’ve never experienced this in my life. I ‘I said that to Sabrina and she was like, ‘isn’t it fun?’”

And thus, Dolson helped the New York Liberty keep pace with the Las Vegas Aces, who need to drop one of their final two games to Phoenix to open New York’s door. But, “crazy things have happened,” said Brondello in a telling assessment of the situation.

But more importantly, Dolson gave her teammates and the Barclays Center crowd a moment to remember in a season that’s been full of them. The Los Angeles Sparks’ effort on Thursday, one that likely ended their playoff hopes, will soon be forgotten but should be commended, as they pushed a dominant Liberty team into a corner with just seven players. They just couldn’t seal the deal, thanks to Stefanie Dolson’s hot shooting.

Crazy things have happened indeed.

Next Up

The Liberty will close out the regular season at 1:00 p.m. ET. vs the Washington Mystics at Barclays Center. The playoffs begin Wednesday in Brooklyn.