September 20, 2023
To advance to semifinals, New York Liberty beat Washington Mystics in overtime ‘together’
'It felt like a team win'
BROOKLYN — When the final buzzer sounded on Tuesday night, the New York Liberty felt a sense of relief. They didn’t want to go back to Washington D.C. for a deciding Game 3 on the road, and found a way through four quarters and an overtime period to defeat the Washington Mystics, 90-85. Wing Kayla Thornton couldn’t pinpoint when she knew that the Liberty were going to come on top. “Phew,” was her first reaction to how the 45 minute anxiety-filled Game 2 went down at Barclays Center.
“We just stayed relentless,” she said to reporters. “We played with heart. We stuck together. We didn’t break down and that was a key…For us to stick together and just say ‘look, next play, next play’ was tremendous.”
Before the Liberty met up in center court for their final huddle before heading back to the locker room, players had to hug it out first with themselves, then with their opponents, the Mystics. There was respect between both sides as the Mystics were a team that head coach Sandy Brondello said should have been the third seed rather than the seventh. It was a major accomplishment the the Liberty defeated the Mystics in two games, and that’s exactly what was felt at center court.
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“It felt like a team win,” Courtney Vandersloot said after the game. “You just take those, those feel different. And it can start a run, a momentum, but we felt a lot of the chemistry and felt like ‘yeah, we did this together,’ which is a good feeling.”
And she’s correct, the Liberty couldn’t have swept the Mystics behind the key performance of just one of their stars. But especially on Tuesday night, it took everyone who stepped on the floor and that’s the way that the Liberty like it. That’s the way the Liberty were designed.
Jonquel Jones‘ game-deciding double-double
Coming into this series, Jones loomed large. The Mystics were without their 6’5 center Shakira Austin for at least the first two games, and the 6’6 Jones would be matched up mostly with the 5 inches shorter Myisha Hines-Allen. While Jones had a 20-12 double-double in Game 1, the fingerprints of her second double-double left a deeper impression.
The moment that couldn’t leave Brondello’s mind following the game’s conclusion was Jones’ offensive rebound with 12.6 seconds left in regulation followed by her two free throws that helped the Liberty tie the game and send it to overtime. In that moment, Jones was on a mission to redeem herself following her bad pass that led to two Natasha Cloud made free throws and a 78-76 Washington lead with under 30 seconds left in the the fourth quarter.
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But after being fouled by Cloud, Sabrina Ionescu, who made over 87 percent of her free throws during the regular season, missed the first shot at the line. With less than 20 seconds left, how would the Liberty put themselves in a position to get another possession and tie the game? It was a play the Liberty had run may times before in practice. Ionescu would have to miss the second free throw and in her own words, it had to be “a good miss” so that the ball could land in the hands of the Liberty’s best offensive rebounder (Jones).
Ionescu didn’t initially know if the message was received by all that she was going to miss the shot. Brondello was shouting from the sidelines, but her words got caught in the booming 9,256-person crowd at Barclays Center. But amid the noise, Jones and Stewart knew exactly what Ionescu’s second free throw was going to look like and what they had to do to execute. “JJ and I gave each other the look,” Breanna Stewart said. “We wanted to cross and cause some confusion.”
And once Jones got to the line after securing the offensive board and the foul, Stewart knew right then and there that the Liberty were going to overtime. Jones went through her standard free throw shooting routine to sink some of the most consequential freebees in her career. 1,2, spin, bend, shoot is what cycles through her head every time she’s at the line and in that moment, there was no exception.
Once Jones got the Liberty into that critical overtime period, she scored with under 50 second left. She put the ball on the floor and drove on Hines-Allen, something the Liberty haven’t seen a from her a lot this year. But it’s a move way within her bag. “JJ did a few rips from high, a little iso at the top,” Brondello said about Jones’ scoring that contributed to the Liberty 52 paint points. “That’s all JJ.”
That’s a former MVP who had been in this situation before. Her team needed her to be aggressive, create and put her team in a position to close out the game. She’s been there and done that. But this time around it was slightly different. She had a plethora of playmakers all around her to step up alongside her. They helped her through it together.
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Sabrina Ionescu weathers the storm Cloud
The narrative going into game two was the matchup between Ionescu and Cloud. Kareem Copeland of The Washington Post reported on Monday that Cloud was going to try her best to navigate the Liberty trying to switch her. She needed to be on Ionescu for as long as she could.
And while Cloud didn’t guard Ionescu for the full 40 minutes as she originally intended to, she made the Liberty guard work for every shot that she got. Ionescu shot 4-for-11, including 2-for-6 from three, and scored 11 points. But her own impact on the game wasn’t in her scoring, but rather in how she gave to her teammates to make sure they could exploit how the Mystics were guarding them.
Ionescu filled up the stat sheet in other ways. She registered 9 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals and a block. But it wasn’t even about how she could contribute to the box score going down the stretch for Brondello. She wanted Ionescu to be able to mess with the Mystics, and force them to make decisions that would benefit the rest of the team.
“I knew from what she had said before that all my teammates were gonna go off because if she wasn’t gonna want to switch and leave me, then Stewie is gonna go off for 30 and everyone was gonna have the floor,” Ionescu said to a group of reporters about Cloud following the gutsy win. “And so for me, I took that in. I don’t need to score 30 every night as long as we win. That’s why we have the team that we have.”
What might have been the most fulfilling part of the evening for Ionescu was the fact that she made the game-winning stop. During the Mystics’ possession with 11.8 seconds left in overtime to try to tie the game, Ionescu was bumped by Elena Delle Donne on a flare screen to provide some resistance and space for Ariel Atkins. But that didn’t matter. Ionescu got over to Atkins thanks to Stewart switching on Atkins ever so briefly before shifting her attention back to Delle Donne. Ionescu stayed in front of Atkins, which caused her to succumb to the pressure and hoist a premature three with 9.9 seconds left that missed left and rimmed out immediately.
While Cloud stuck to her word and guarded Ionescu well and played the offensive game of her career, putting up 33 points, 6 rebounds and 9 assists, it was Ionescu’s team that came out with the victory. And to Ionescu, that’s what matters. Following the final buzzer, Cloud went up to Ionescu and was the first person after Stewart that Ionescu embraced. Cloud said something to her after they hugged, something the Mystics guard would explain during postgame.
“I have a lot of respect for Sabrina and who Sabrina is, what she is to our league, who she is as a player,” Cloud said. “And so I just wanted…iron sharpens iron. So that’s what I said to her. It’s no bad love or anything. I really do respect her as a player, enough that I had to make her my primary focus tonight in Game 2.”
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Kayla Thornton rose to the challenge
Stewart referred to this overtime game two as “spicy” and that was apparent in how it was called by the officials. Betnijah Laney got a technical foul after expressing anger at a no-call when battling for a rebound alongside Atkins with 7:54 remanning in the second quarter. Two minutes later, Laney picked up her third personal foul.
She sat for the rest of the second quarter. She had scored 15 points in the first half in a similar fashion to Game 1. She was scoring, running the floor in transition and cutting off the ball. She had to sit with over a half of a quarter left and her team just ahead by just 4 points, 31-27. Moments later, the Mystics would cut that lead to just two points off a Shatori Walker-Kimbrough mid-range pull-up.
Vandersloot tried to counter on the other end but was blocked in the air by Walker-Kimbrough. Thornton saw it happen and acted before anyone else, out-ran Brittney Sykes to the ball and collected it. She bounced in the air without a defender in her field of view to score her first points of the game and keep the Liberty in front, 33-29.
Thornton would score two other times on cuts and passes from Vandersloot. With Laney in foul trouble and backcourt scoring and playmaking limited by the Mystics defense, every single Thornton point (6 total) and rebound (3 total) mattered immensely for the Liberty to be able to squeak out the win and avoid leaving New York.
“I said this all along about KT,” Vandersloot said. “She makes winning plays always. Whether it’s in the first quarter or late, she’s ready to do whatever the team needs her to do at that night and it’s different every single night. It speaks a lot to just her commitment to the team.”
For Brondello, having Thornton ready to go coming off the bench is a luxury. She needed a player to bring toughness while Laney was in foul trouble. Check. She needed a defender who could also stay in front of the Mystics’ slashing guards in Sykes and Cloud. Check. She needed a player who is confident in her own scoring opportunities. Check.
But Thornton’s “winning plays” didn’t just come on the court. They came while sitting on the bench too. When Vandersloot or Laney’s shots weren’t falling early in the second half, Thornton took it upon herself to tell both of them to keep shooting. “When they come to the bench, you know we keep telling them just keep shooting,” Thornton said postgame.
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And Thornton’s encouragement worked right on cue. Laney hit a clutch trey to cut down Washington’s lead to 1 with 2:13 left in the fourth. Vandersloot hit two straight shots within the first two minutes of overtime to give the Liberty a 84-79 lead with around 2:30 minutes left.
“Tell Sloot, keep shooting and for her to have that confidence down the stretch is a great thing and just all of us, we just keep encouraging each other,” Thornton continued. “You know that shot might not go, but the next is going to go.”
There’s a belief amongst this Liberty team that even in the most dire of circumstances, anyone on the roster can find a way to step up.
It doesn’t have to be scoring, it could be rebounding or even just some toughness and encouragement. “From our starters all the way down to our bench, we’re all capable of scoring, we’re all capable of doing the little things,” Thornton said. “So it’s just good that we go in there and you can expect little things for everybody. You might not know what, but you can expect it.”
That expectation has served the 2023 New York Liberty well. Tuesday night, it got them a series win closer to a championship.
Written by Jackie Powell
Jackie Powell covers the New York Liberty and runs social media and engagement strategy for The Next. She also has covered women's basketball for Bleacher Report and her work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Harper's Bazaar and SLAM. She also self identifies as a Lady Gaga stan, is a connoisseur of pop music and is a mental health advocate.