October 2, 2023
Column: Betnijah Laney made this moment possible for the New York Liberty
Brondello: 'B's built like this'
UNCASVILLE, Conn. — When it was over, Betnijah Laney couldn’t stop smiling. She sat at the podium next to her head coach Sandy Brondello and teammates Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones, answering postgame questions from assembled media, the quartet having done something no New York Liberty team had accomplished since 2002 — reach the WNBA Finals.
“I’m so happy,” Laney said with a small giggle. “I’ve got a few days where I can just enjoy this moment. And then you know, the work starts.”
For much of the press conference, Laney played the part of supporting player. And that’s fair — Jones and Stewart are both MVPs, in Stewart’s case the reigning one. This Liberty team doesn’t reach the WNBA Finals without both of them.
It doesn’t reach the finals without Laney, either.
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All year long, the common phrase from so many New York players was that Laney “set the tone” for this team, and it was no different on Sunday afternoon. With the job complete, Laney sported a joyful grin for much of the postgame presser, finally able to comprehend the heights this team had reached. It stood in stark contrast to the grim determination she displayed during pregame comments, when asked about the value in winning Game 4 and avoiding a winner-take-all Game 5.
“For this series to be over, for us not to have to worry about Connecticut anymore,” Laney said, ticking off the reasons. “Of course, to be able to go home and have more rest. And as soon as possible, to finally be back in the finals and compete against Vegas.”
Finally. This was always the destination for the Liberty, to reach the Finals because you can only win a WNBA title by playing for one. The whole team competed like it was anxious to get through the preliminaries of that quest as quickly as possible. This was how Brondello treated the game, too — like a must-win. Jones was as responsible as anyone for the victory, and no one ever questions the value of Stewart to this team. But there were two members of the New York Liberty who played every single second of the game: Stewart and Laney.
I asked Brondello is there were any scenario in which she’d have given either one of them a rest.
“No,” Brondello, who is back in the WNBA Finals once again (and not by sheer coincidence) said in response. “It’s Game 4. They knew what was at stake.”
Jones played virtually the whole game, too, as did Sabrina Ionescu and Courtney Vandersloot. But while Jones and Stewart played like the MVPs they are, Laney’s contributions were right there with them. In a clinching game, she scored 21 points, grabbed seven rebounds, dished out five assists and turned the ball over just once all afternoon. It was a vintage Laney game, typical of how she’s embraced her role on this iteration of the Liberty. She didn’t lead the team in any of those categories, but New York needed every bit of her production.
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Part of that success came from New York emphasizing her role; Brondello understood that for all the brilliance of Jones and Stewart, a champion like Vandersloot and the transcendent shooting of former number one overall pick Ionescu, the player who was once cut by the Indiana Fever before reinventing herself as a shooter for Nicki Collen’s Atlanta Dream would be precisely the element to make this Liberty team so difficult to beat.
“B’s built like this,” Brondello said. “I mean, I know it was a little bit of a process early in the season. We were trying to work it out how it all combined, but I think we took off when we found B getting more integrated into the offense because she’s an amazing scorer. We just didn’t want it to just be B the defensive player. But we worked it out.”
Before the first quarter was complete, Laney had bulldozed Tiffany Hayes amid a finish at the rim and punished the Sun with a pair of threes, the second over the outstretched palm of Alyssa Thomas, for getting to her late on closeouts. The resulting joy — a double fist-pump, assistant coach Olaf Lange rising to high five her as she ran back on defense — is part of Laney’s duality with this team. She is simultaneously all business and gleeful participant in this championship run.
Just like Sunday’s win, the Liberty’s journey to the Finals hardly happens if Laney doesn’t buy in, join the team assembled by Jonathan Kolb and keep on doing all that was asked of her: to carry the load in 2021 amid Ionescu’s injury, to fight through her own injury and give all she could in 2022, and now, to provide the margin for New York. Laney mirrors what Brondello emphasizes to her team on every shot — “good to great.”
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Even her vanquished opponents couldn’t help but be happy for her in this moment of triumph; former Liberty teammate Rebecca Allen smiled brightly, despite the loss, as she recalled an embrace between the two at the end of the game.
Back in the winter of 2021, Kolb described Laney as one of “a group of players that are wanting to be in the gym and wanting to work on their games, and not only want to work on their games for themselves but for each other.”
Kolb was prophetic. Every bit of praise Brondello heaped on Laney Sunday evening was seconded by vigorous nods from Stewart and Jones.
They’d conceived a superteam this past winter. Brondello once again objected to the term on Sunday evening, despite New York standing just three wins from doing something no other Liberty team, super or otherwise, ever has: winning a WNBA title. Jones and Stewart said they still hadn’t really processed it. Laney spoke as if she’d seen the future back on the cold day in 2021 when she signed with a franchise coming off a 2-20 season.
None of what happened after transpires if Laney isn’t there to set the tone and make the plays.
“B is the ultimate professional,” Brondello said. “I love her growth, her commitment to this team, but she continues to get better individually with the work that she puts in day in, day out … she was injured last year but it’s great to see her back, better than ever.”
Even with a week until her next game, Laney was off the podium quickly when the final question was answered, a smile still set on her face, ready to enjoy the moment, get back to work and continue making more moments possible for the New York Liberty.