May 16, 2021
2021 Liberty home opener mirrors 2019 start — with different outcome
How the Liberty moved past mistakes in 2019 to create a different outcome in 2021
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On opening night, New York had a lot to prove.
After a previous season that underwhelmed and frustrated fans, there was pressure on the Liberty to start the season strong and go out and be New York, one of the WNBA’s original and storied franchises.
The Liberty came out and won the first quarter, slowed down in the second and bounced back in the third. The entire contest was a back and forth affair with multiple ties and lead changes. Three Liberty players had scored in double digits including their franchise player, but would it be enough to lock up the victory amid double-digit turnovers? Could the Liberty take advantage of the Fever’s poor shooting performance from three? In the end, a young star would score the game winning bucket.
Which game am I talking about? Am I describing the events from this past Friday or am I instead recounting what happened the last time the Liberty began their season against the Fever. The description eerily applies to both.
It’s been almost two years since the Liberty’s home opener on May 24, 2019 at Westchester County Center. the team was coached by Katie Smith, Tina Charles was still the franchise player, Kia Nurse and Reshanda Gray both scored in double-digits alongside Charles and it was a rookie at the time named Teaira McCowan who scored the game winner as time expired.
In a two year span, a lot changed for New York. A new head coach, a roster overhaul and now a new home at Barclays Center. But even amid all of that change, the Liberty found themselves in a familiar position on Friday night. It could have all ended the same way it did in 2019, but it didn’t. This time around, Liberty found a way to win playing to their identity, something that wasn’t clearly established in 2019.
On Friday night, the Liberty took the shots they wanted. They took 26 three pointers and penetrating the paint while attempting 26 baskets. New York limited their mid-range attempts, taking only 14 long twos. On defense the Liberty forced the shots that they don’t want to take as the Fever took only 18 three-pointers and attempted 24 shots inside the arc, but outside the paint.
But, New York struggled as well, executing while still making mistakes. Turning the ball over 14 times and giving up 19 offensive rebounds are just some of what recalled the déjà vu. The Liberty only defeated the Fever by a single three-pointer. All of similarities aside, it was enough for New York to walk off the floor in celebration this time instead of with chagrin.
It wasn’t all just a dream
With less than 6 seconds left and with Sabrina Ionescu inbounding the ball, the Liberty had a plan. They had to read the defense and get the ball to players with the hot hand. Either Betnijah Laney, who scored 30 points, or Ionescu. It was all about the double screen. Laney broke free from Tiffany Mitchell and halted Danielle Robinson as Ionescu was running to get the hand-off from Kylee Shook.
Shook was set and Robinson was too small to get through. Laney turned slightly and watched from behind her right shoulder what was about to unfold. With Kylee Shook’s 6’4 frame standing in between Ionescu and a running Robinson, this was it. She knew that they executed and got the shot that they wanted. But, with her eyes wide open, she watched Ionescu haul up that final shot.
Liberty coach Walt Hopkins noted before the game that they were going to “feel out” how Ionescu was playing. He wanted to see how mobile she was and how her feet were could function defensively. He noted that they were going to put restrictions on the Liberty’s 2020 first overall pick.
When it was all said and done, Ionescu played almost 37 minutes scoring 25 points, dishing 11 assists, hauling down six boards and drilling four threes, two of which came in the final 40 seconds of regulation. And oh yeah, that game winner.
Throughout the course of the game, Ionescu found her teammates in multiple ways. Whether it was finding Shook and rookie Michaela Onyenwere cutting or dishing to Laney and Sami Whitcomb on the wing, she racked up more assists than the Fever had as a team.
With 7 points on 1-of-6 shooting after the first half, Ionescu started out slow. But she kept at it and proved why she’s the Liberty’s new franchise player.
“She has a pretty special way of rising to the moment, you get to see it every day in practice,” Hopkins said postgame. “But, those, those big time situations is where she really shines. It’s what she lives for. And, you know I’m pretty excited that she’s on my team.”
In postgame, Ionescu explained how she dreamt about the possibility, the idea that in her comeback game she’d hit the winning shot. She wasn’t up all night nervous or anxious as she had been before games in the past. Instead she was “just smiling” and taking in all of the details that she had once taken for granted including going through the motions during the pre-game layup lines.
But, amid taking and making that final shot, Ionescu wasn’t the only Liberty player to make a considerable impact on offense. Two years ago, the scoring gap between Charles and her teammates was wide. 20 points separated her and the two other top scorers. On Friday, however, the margin shrunk down to single digits.
A game all about the wings
Betnijah Laney was also there two years ago at Westchester County Center. While on the Fever, she missed both free throws that could have put the Fever in the lead with 13 seconds remaining in regulation. Back in 2019, she scored a measly four points on one shot.
Take a look at her now.
Before the game on Friday night, Hopkins was asked who fans should pay attention to who had gone under the radar. Without an ounce of hesitation he replied: “Betnijah.”
He saw the future. Laney scored 30 points on on 61 percent shooting including 4-of-5 from beyond the arc. She didn’t want to admit it, but she had a fire within. The toughness and focus exuded by her eyes gave away her hand, telling us exactly how she felt about playing against the team that ended up cutting her a year ago.
In postgame, she expressed how she felt like she was out-pacing the Fever’s defense as a lot of her threes came on transition. She knew who she was going up against. When asked after shoot around on Friday afternoon, Whitcomb explained how valuable she is especially against the Fever. Laney gave her new teammates feedback on how to guard the players she had previously played with.
Internal animosity or not, Laney still made it a point to give McCowan a squeeze before the opening tip on Friday night. But she also knows that where she is what was meant to be.
Game one was significant for the Rutgers alumna, who had grown up spending her summers in Brooklyn. After being on teams that weren’t on the east coast, Laney could finally have her tribe in the stands supporting her. While it’s her rule not to see anyone before a game, she was excited to finally be reunited with her loved ones after it was all said and done on Friday night. When she was asked about if this moment of playing in New York had finally sunk in, she explained that she really felt the emotions of the moment when she first arrived in training camp.
“I’m here,” she said. “I’m here where I want to be.”
Speaking of family, Onyenwere had her entire crew, including her now-famous grandmother in attendance on Friday night. In her discussions with the Hopkins and assistant Jacki Gemelos, she knew that her goals for her first WNBA game were just as follows: be aggressive, look for open kick outs and hit the open three.
She did just that, setting an all-time New York Liberty record for most points scored in a debut. She shot 50 percent from the field including an impressive 3-of-6 from three point range. After the game, Hopkins noted that amid all of the uncertainty regarding Onyenwere and her shot from deep, he and his staff knew all along that this type of performance is what she’s capable of every single night.
Her shooting aside, Hopkins believes that once the rookie gets more reps, the more confident she’ll be in using her athleticism and speed to her advantage, even when the matchups on defense have her undersized.
“If she gets matched up against an opposing big, yes, she’s gonna have her hands full on the defensive end,” Hopkins said. “But I think where she can continue to grow is understanding the advantage she has on the other end, and learning to exploit it a little bit better.”
Ionescu believes that the “sky is the limit” for Onyenwere, and she knows that she’ll get there, calling her former Pac-12 rival “an absolute killer.” She was impressed with not only Onyenwere’s composure in her first ever WNBA game, but also her grit.
“I’m just so happy that she’s on our side and not on the other side,” Ionescu said.
Spurts of defense that sealed the deal
With under 22 seconds left in regulation, Hopkins made a switch. He thought Ionescu had to rest. “I thought she got a little tired, there down the stretch in the fourth and so we went away from her,” he said.
She and Whitcomb exited and rookie Richards and sophomore Jazmine Jones entered. This was purposeful. The Liberty put their best defensive front on the court to get a stop.
The word ‘Defense’ repeated thrice in bold seafoam above the Liberty bench, and down below Tiffany Mitchell was in charge of inbounding the ball.
She had to get it past a more vertical Richards. Mitchell opted to pass it to her left where Fever point guard Danielle Robinson was waiting. Jazmine Jones hustled out of the key and into the backcourt to meet Robinson now with the ball. Jones overwhelmed her. With knees bent and eyes contact locked between the two guards, Jones went for the ball, batting Robinson’s handle like an Abyssinian cat.
With the clock ticking down, Robinson had to advance the ball. She found Kelsey Mitchell right outside the top of the key, but Laney was watching her like a hawk with her arms up ready to contest. Jones shifted away from Robinson to help Laney by sticking her right knee in Mitchell’s path. In a Seafoam sandwich, Mitchell’s pivot foot dragged and she shuffled to get out, but it was too late.
The whistle blew as the official’s right arm rose and she rolled her hands in a circle. Laney clapped her hands together and Jones pumped both fists: mission accomplished.
The second unit changed the game for the Liberty defensively in the second half. Hopkins felt the shift.
“I thought DiDi [Richards] and Reshanda [Gray] both really were tide changes,” Hopkins said. “When they came in the rebounding changed. The pace of the game changed we really got out and ran.”
The parallels to 2019 didn’t stop at how the final minutes played out. Gray’s return to the Liberty after spending the 2020 season with the Los Angeles Sparks added an additional sense of déjà vu.
The Liberty had Gray waiting in the wings leading up to Friday night’s game. With injuries to Neah Odom and Jocelyn Willoughby, New York needed someone who they knew who could come in and set an example defensively and in the post.
“She’s just a player that gets after it,” Laney said the afternoon before the game. “She plays hard every single second that she’s on the floor.”
Between Gray outrunning McCowan to score and Richards using her 6’2 frame to jump in front of 6’4 veteran post Jantel Lavender and take the ball coast-to-coast, the Liberty had their moments of defensive swag.
But they didn’t have enough for Hopkins, who wants more in the future. He felt that at times New York looked passive especially on the boards, especially given that the Liberty gave up 22 second chance points and 19 offensive boards. He noted that the responsibility doesn’t only fall to Shook, who was battling with McCowan all evening, but rather to the guards and the player at the four spot.
The problem was obviously the offensive rebounds. And again I don’t think was always on the bigs. A lot of the time it was on our guards, not cracking down and really being aggressive crashing. I thought we had some some pretty good performances. [Ionescu] had six rebounds. Sami [Whitcomb] had five, Betnijah [Laney] had five. Michaela [Onyenwere] had five. With Michaela at the at the four spot, at the quad spot for us, she’s really just got to get more than that. Our fours are gonna have to be hyper aggressive getting those boards, as are our guards.
But amid the Liberty’s glaring issues on defense and some sloppy turnovers as well, they accomplished something they couldn’t two years ago: they got the win. Two years later, they shot the ball 7% higher and defended the ball a bit smarter.
Two years later, at a new home with a new mascot and with new fans, there was a renewed energy.
“This was huge for us to get [a win] at home we needed this,” Ionescu said. “I think more than anyone.”
A fresh spirit surrounded one of the league’s premiere franchises, at last.