October 2, 2023
Jonquel Jones’ dominance leads the Liberty to first finals appearance in 21 years
How Jonquel Jones showcased her best self against her former team to win the series
UNCASVILLE, Conn. — With 45 seconds left in regulation of Game 4 of the WNBA semifinals, Jonquel Jones read the inbounds pass perfectly. In a single possession game with the New York Liberty out in front 81-78, Tiffany Hayes wanted to get the ball to the Connecticut Sun’s most valuable player Alyssa Thomas. Jones, a former teammate of Thomas, knew exactly where Thomas was going to “pop out” to receive the pass. The 6’6 Liberty center was in position and tipped the ball behind Thomas. Jones was off to the races with Thomas trailing behind her.
Teammate Sabrina Ionescu felt like she was just a fan when she saw Jones tip the pass into the backcourt. “Go, Go, Go,” she screamed at her teammate. And that’s what Jones did. She ran down the floor chasing the ball, got a handle on it and then after two dribbles, she was fouled by Thomas under the rim while throwing the ball up to the basket.
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While at the line to take her free throws, Jones was greeted by a split the Moheghan Sun crowd. The Sun fans, who cheered her on for six seasons, were now yelling and clacking their bright orange thundersticks, hoping she would miss the free throws rather than make them. But following each free throw that Jones made in that moment, she also heard cheers for her too. There was a large contingent of New York Liberty fans in sections 16, 115 and 116 — some of which the team bussed over for this matinee game — and they wanted their team to know it.
After she made her free throws, the Sun called a timeout, and Ionescu approached Jones and let out a yell. Jones was having a moment in Game 4 and following the steal, foul and free throws, Ionescu had confidence that this game was going to go New York’s way.
“To see a five player be able to do that at her height and get a steal and push the break in transition was just the cherry on top,” Ionescu told reporters postgame. “And that’s when I knew we were going to win the game. She just stuck with it.”
Sticking with it has been a theme of Jones’ first season with the New York Liberty. She started the season slower following recovery from a foot injury while simultaneously learning how to play with different teammates in a completely different style than she’s previously played in the WNBA. But following the All-Star Break and right through the Commissioner’s Cup Championship game and now in the WNBA playoffs, Jones found her way.
The flow of Sunday’s Game 4 followed that same through-line. Jones began the game missing a couple of looks at the rim and turning the ball over. But then when Jones settled in, she played like an MVP, scoring from multiple levels, posting up, rolling to the basket and hitting timely threes. She attacked the offensive and defensive glass — collecting 15 rebounds, 20 percent of the total rebounds both teams tallied — and protected the rim and altered shots.
“A lot of it was just [Jonquel] working really bloody hard to get position,” Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello said about Jones’ 25 point, 15 rebound show-stopping performance. “That’s hard work, she’s got a lot of people around her at different times, but she was just massive. She’s a big target inside and when she’s playing dominant like that.”
When Brondello spoke of Jones’ performance, she didn’t just utter the points, post-ups, treys and poised free throws. She made sure to shout out that steal. Breanna Stewart chimed in: “The steal was huge.”
Brondello wasn’t done. She had more to say about that steal. “Yeah the steal was up there, that was lit, is that the word?” Jones, Stewart and Laney cracked up on the podium. Jones leaned over in her chair rocking back and forth. She was laughing so hard. Stewart laughed hard with a wide open toothy smile and Laney turned her head to her teammates, laughed and smiled.
“That’s what my son tells me, is that right?” Brondello asked her players and the reporters in the room. Jones, still in shock by Brondello’s comedic timing, uttered an “oh my god” as the entire room was still bursting out laughing.
“I’m very hip then,” Brondello said. “OHHHHH,” Jones replied followed by another laugh and a smile while covering her face with her hands.
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Jones’ 25-15 double-double on Sunday afternoon was her sixth consecutive. She is the first player in WNBA history to begin a postseason with six consecutive double-doubles. In Game 4 in particular, Jones fought through all the contact and physicality that came her way from an aggressive Connecticut defense that was fighting for their lives.
But Jones was fighting too. She was battling for another opportunity to continue to write her WNBA story, one that still is without a championship. She wasn’t going to let her former team get in her way. She met the moment for herself and also her team, a franchise that hasn’t been to a finals in 21 years, head on.
Brondello used the term “relentlessly persistent” postgame when she described how the Liberty moved through Game 4 and weathered every Sun run with one of their own. That was also an apt way to describe the way in which Jones played. She didn’t stop battling and stayed poised even in moments when the entire Sun five player defense was hovering around her.
“I think she was ready for it,” teammate Stefanie Dolson told The Next about Jones. “She’d been on the Connecticut team that had been to the finals, almost to the finals, and has been close but never was able to win. So I know she was ready for this moment before it happened and she took it head on.”
While Jones was ready for the task at hand and delivered, she was stunned that what she and her teammates had set out to do back in February when she was traded, was actually happening. The Liberty are going to compete for a championship. That is now not an aspiration but rather a fact. Jones and Stewart sat at the dais on Sunday afternoon in a state of shock. Laney was on cloud nine and couldn’t stop smiling while in a daze of her own. Stewart explained how she really hasn’t fully processed how she and her teammates wrote WNBA and New York Liberty history by earning New York its first finals berth in over two decades. Jones, also stunned by that matter of fact, nodded her head up and down with her eyebrows raised.
The Liberty had just finished squeezing each other and shouting all around Mohegan Sun arena before sitting down to chat all about what they had just done.
“Like Stewie said I feel like I haven’t really had a chance,” Jones said when asked to reflect. “I really am just extremely happy that we’re able to say that we did this with the New York Liberty. And obviously still so much more to go and happy to say we’re still playing. But this definitely feels different to be on a different team but happy that it is with this team.”
Someone who was also feeling what it was like to be on the other side was another player involved in the Liberty’s three team trade to acquire Jones. Rebecca Allen watched her former team celebrate. While she watched with a sense of disappointment that her season had ended and that she wasn’t going to play a Game 5 in Brooklyn, that immediate frustration didn’t last long for Allen. When the players on both sides went to pay each other respects, Allen’s former Liberty teammates, coaches and other staff members were sure to make sure that the love was felt. When Laney saw Allen, she embraced the 6’2 wing and lifted her up off the ground with her hug. Then Allen was sought out by her Australian national team coaches in Brondello and Olaf Lange. Head athletic trainer Terri Acosta made sure she gave Allen a squeeze too.
“When you see how much has gone behind them getting to where they are, I’m proud of them too,” Allen said to reporters postgame. “Obviously like Sandy, Olaf have a place here in my heart. I’ve got all the admiration for them and respect…It didn’t come easy for them at all at the start.”
And that it did not. No one on the Liberty knows that fact better than Jones who didn’t give up when the going began rough. Ionescu made sure she communicated this when she spoke to reporters following the victory. What stood out to her all season long about Jones was her “demeanor,” how she treats her teammates and sets the standard for how everyone around the organization ought to treat one another.
“She’s always so supportive and it hasn’t been easy for her from the start to come into this system, to figure out what it’s like playing with all these players,” Ionescu said. “…and so to see how far she’s come with a smile on her face every single time has helped us get to where we’re at and we’re not here without her.”
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No, the Liberty aren’t in the WNBA Finals without Jones. Her patience, her beast mode, her drive and composure while in the zone helped her team achieve what was prophesied many months ago: an opportunity to patch up the championship sized hole that precedes the Liberty and their city at the current moment.
Jones walked off the floor at Mohegan Sun arena over a year ago watching another team celebrate rather than hers for the second time. Instead of disappointment and another round of heartbreak, this time Jones could smile, conduct the television postgame interview and give Laney a tight squeeze before embracing her fiancée and heading back to the locker room.
But while now the script has flipped and she was basking in how surreal the moment was, earning another trip to the finals, Jones and her teammates all know that they’ll enjoy this for a moment and then it’s back to work to prepare.
“I think it’s a blessing, the beauty of sports to be able to be with this team and be able to be going into finals and having an opportunity again,” Jones said. In less than a week, she will go into Las Vegas ready to leave it all on the court, with the desire to “ finally get one” of her own.
Howard Megdal contributed reporting to this story.
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.