September 19, 2021 

‘It’s only the beginning’: Liberty come together to end season on high note

How the New York Liberty left it all on the floor and got the win in their final regular-season game

BROOKLYN — Rebecca Allen had been here before. She had endured agonizing losing streaks down the back end of the regular season in a New York Liberty jersey. In 2018, the Liberty lost their final 13 games and the following year, New York ended their season with only two wins in their last 13 games.

She had also experienced a “win or go home” scenario at home the last time the Liberty had made the playoffs, falling at the hands of the Washington Mystics and Kristi Toliver’s 9 three-pointers.

And now in 2021, Allen was about to experience a mishmash of it all, riding an eight-game losing streak into one final home game against the Mystics that had playoff implications. Reflecting on what she remembered from four years ago, Allen called it bizarre how so much has changed in four years.

“There’s no KT on that team, thank God,” she told The Next. “But it’s also, our team is completely different as well. So this is a whole new game right? Like regardless of the history and everything that goes into it. This is a totally new game.”

Friday night not only was a new game but an opportunity to close the regular season with a cleaner slate. After appearing intimidated and diffident in the second half, the Liberty suffered a 98-69 blowout loss to the Sun on Wednesday night. The road performance was the antithesis of the type of characterization and reputation the Liberty had been working all season long to build.

The stingy defense that was supposed to be the team’s focal point had fallen by the wayside. The isolation style of basketball that the team wanted to leave behind had crept back in. And besides Allen, who’s played for this organization in all but one of the past six seasons, this team was still learning and figuring out what it means to play for and in New York.

Forty-eight hours later, New York found a way to win, defeating the Tina Charles led Mystics 91-80 and proving that they could end the regular season on a path to fixing the three items mentioned above. The way the Liberty won on Friday night was a referendum on the franchise’s rebuild, proclaiming the possibilities. On Friday night, the vision that was pitched by coach Walt Hopkins pre-pandemic didn’t look inconceivable as it did in the Wubble. On Friday night, the vision jumped off the page and onto the court, giving fans and stakeholders a taste of what and who this team is going to be in years to come.

Not only was how they snapped their losing streak poetic — against their former franchise player, denying her the playoffs while keeping their own chances alive — but the way the Liberty got there in 48 hours was symbolic of a shift.

It began with a film session and then a practice on Thursday where the team watched what they had done wrong in the games before while also learning a new defensive scheme that would allow New York to keep Charles in check, something they had failed to during the two other matchups against Washington where the Liberty allowed her to score over 30 points both times.

New York Liberty forward Natasha Howard (6) shoots during the WNBA game between the New York Liberty and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on September 15, 2021. Photo Credit: Chris Poss

The plan was to make the rest of the Mystics beat the Liberty, making sure Charles had no room to work on the block. In one day and a shootaround on Friday morning, they relearned their defensive rotations. Charles finished the game with 10 points on 5-of-9 shooting, 4 boards, and 7 assists. While Charles was focusing specifically on free throws during her pregame warmup, the Liberty didn’t put her on the line once. The Liberty took Charles out of her bread-and-butter, forcing her to become Point Tina

“It wasn’t so much the game plan as it was the execution, and the execution goes to them,” Hopkins said following the victory. “The credit goes to them on that because it wasn’t a crazy great game plan, it was just that they were determined to execute it.”

That determination was foreshadowed by Allen and Betnijah Laney who indicated in a presser following their shootaround on Friday morning how everyone was on the same page. “We need it,” Laney said. “It is as simple as that, we need this game and we all know that.”

Although Laney didn’t have her most efficient evening shooting the ball, she made the right reads to put her teammates in the best position to score and succeed. Her 11 assists, including two to Sabrina Ionescu within the final five minutes to secure the victory, mostly came on drives and kicks and in situations when the Mystics defense was double and sometimes triple-teaming her. 

Ionescu had 9 assists, with half of them on connections made on the pick-and-roll with Natasha Howard. On Friday the Liberty outscored the Mystics in the paint, 40-24. A year ago this would have been unheard of, but this is all how Hopkins had seen it.

When Hopkins had initially explained his style of play to the media following the 2020 WNBA draft, there was initially confusion. Why were there so many larger guards and wings? Who in the world is going to defend the elite power forwards and centers in this league?

His explanation was then and still is now, that yes, the smaller, more athletic tweeners will have to guard larger and more muscular post players, but those muscular and larger post players will also have to guard a quicker and more athletic wing who can shoot.

“What you see is that the four players have a lot more trouble, the traditional fours, coming all the way out on the perimeter, guarding shooters,” Hopkins said almost a year and a half ago. “And when they do get close to [the shooters], they are so quick, they go right past [the traditional fours].”

That vision which initially sounded more precarious than innovative was on full display against the Mystics on Friday night. Bec Allen, who played both the three and the four on Friday night, guarded Charles, but Charles also had to guard her former teammate. 

Video extracted from WNBA League Pass.

After the missed three-ball from Leilani Mitchell at around the five-minute mark of the second quarter, Sami Whitcomb dove on the ground to bat the ball on the rebound to Ionescu who then slid to corral the ball into Natasha Howard’s hands. Howard spun, bobbled the ball, retained it and then found Whitcomb near the Liberty logo wide open. Whitcomb put down her dribble, and passed up ahead to her right where Allen was just waiting by the blue Barclays text on the opposite side of center court.  

Behind the arc, she was met by the former Liberty legend Charles and forced her to leave the paint. With the ball in her hands, Allen hesitates for a half a second and then blows right by Charles’ left shoulder, unleashing her speed. Once she got into the restricted area, seeing Charles had caught up, she kicked out to a wide-open Sabrina Ionescu who planted her feet, shot, and scored. 

The crowd roared after Ionescu’s three, which put the Liberty up 37-22 with 4:43 remaining in the half. They also tied the Mystics for recording the most three-point makes in a regular season on that shot, a record they’d pass on an Allen three around two minutes later. 

The Liberty had struggled all year long to develop its on-court chemistry. But after getting vulnerable earlier in the week, Friday’s win was an important step toward realizing Hopkins’ vision for the team — and ending the season on a high note.

On Thursday, each player wrote on the board different objectives that they all wanted to accomplish but also the objectives served another purpose for their teammates. These were goals that each player could hold each other accountable to. Ionescu saw a lot value in the exercise as it gave her insight into how she could help her teammates and understand what their internal struggles had been the entire season. 

She remembered a few that she wrote on the board. “Being in the moment, helping my teammates, lifting everyone around me, staying positive, finding happiness in everything I do and winning was the last one,” Ionescu said postgame. “I’m happy that we did that.”

On that same Thursday, general manager Jonathan Kolb sent the players a text message, reminding them who they were also playing this game for. They were playing each other, but they were also playing for the fans who have been put through the wringer in the past few years. 

“He sent us a message as well you know reminding us of how you’re fighting for that name on the front and then even though we’re not all from New York, we’re really taken in by the fans,” Allen said. “When they support us like we’re their own as well and so it’s playing for them.”

Before tipoff, Laney wanted to make that loud and clear. Although it was fan-appreciation night at Barclays Center, with playoff hopes on the line, Laney approached center court in an attempt to rile up the 3,615 folks who made it to Brooklyn.

“We need your energy,” she shouted. “We feed off y’all.”

Sami Whitcomb thought Laney’s plea worked. When a Liberty player hit any three-point shot, she believed the energy and the sound was deflating for the Mystics. She acknowledged postgame how hard it is to be on the other side on the road trying to play through the noise that isn’t on your side. 

Ionescu could feel the fans and their electricity and so much so that once the final buzzer sounded, and after she embraced Laney and Michaela Onyenwere, she ran off into the direction of the tunnel. While she was jogging away from being visible from the fans she gave them one last thank you. She brought both of her arms above her head, motioning for the crowd to roar.

“I think it’s really starting to feel like home for a lot of us and for a new team that’s hard to say,” Ionescu said. “​​And so, especially from us being really young and veterans that have played a lot of other teams I think we’re starting to come together and figure it out. And so, you know, whatever happens, the rest of the season, I don’t think it really matters. I think at the end of the day, we’re proud of what we’ve accomplished, but it’s only the beginning.”

Written by Jackie Powell

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