August 8, 2023
The message the New York Liberty sent the Las Vegas Aces
‘We’re a team that plays hard’
BROOKLYN — A sea of seafoam rained on the Las Vegas Aces’ parade on Sunday afternoon at the Barclays Center. The New York Liberty defeated the Aces in dramatic fashion, 99-61, and poured on 17 total threes, one shy of tying the all time record of 18, set by… the 2022 Liberty against the Aces.
The 11,418 people in attendance Sunday afternoon— the most ever at a Liberty game in Brooklyn — made it so hard to hear that head coach Sandy Brondello had to press her right hand into the ear that had the earpiece she used to talk to the ABC broadcast team of Ryan Ruocco and Rebecca Lobo.
Each time the Liberty hit a three and especially during New York’s explosive 30 point third quarter, Breanna Stewart could hear and feel the crowd. She told the fans during her postgame television interview that she wanted this to be the new standard for Liberty home games.
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But how did the Liberty beat down on a team that exposed them a bit over a month ago? The Athletic’s Sabreena Merchant broke down how exactly teams can give themselves a chance to beat the Aces, a team that had only two losses prior to Sunday and was chasing a .900 winning percentage, a league record set by the 1998 Houston Comets. Merchant noted that to beat the Aces, a team has to frustrate A’ja Wilson, win the possession battle, score efficiently and get a little bit of luck.
The Liberty walked away on Sunday able to check all of those boxes:
- New York held Wilson to 9 points on 2-14 shooting.
- The Liberty finished with 76 field goal attempts to 70 from the defending champs.
- The Liberty scored 36 points in the paint and shot 50 percent from the field including 44.7 percent from three.
- Las Vegas finished the game with a 32.9 percent field goal percentage. When was the last time that happened? The Aces shot 30.9 percent from the field on October 3, 2021, when they lost to the Brondello-coached Phoenix Mercury in the semifinals.
While the Liberty checked all of those boxes and played better than their budding rival, Courtney Vandersloot was surprised by the margin all the same.
“I didn’t think that what was going to happen, happened,” Vandersloot told reporters following the game. “Like I keep saying, this is a great team. They were going to make a run and we were ready for and I think it kind of helped us just continue to lock in. Third quarters haven’t always been our best. And that was something that we discussed and you know, we focused on coming into it and it had to have been our best third quarter of the year.”
As Vandersloot said, for a team who had struggled in third quarters and has struggled to hold onto leads all season long, how did New York uphold their lead over Vegas from 3:45 left in the second quarter all throughout the entire second half?
Head coach Sandy Brondello and a bunch of the players continued to repeat the phrase that they all felt like the team was “locked in” throughout the 40 minutes, a common basketball cliché. But how exactly did Brondello communicate exactly what she needed to during halftime to hold Vegas to 17 total second half points?
During the postgame press conference, Brondello mentioned that halftime was about reminding the players of the “little details” including not over helping, something that the Liberty succumbed to in the second quarter.
“Don’t be patting yourself on the back right now because we haven’t done shit, okay?” Brondello said in a video the team posted to its social media channels. “We haven’t done shit. But what we have to do is do what we did in the first half but better.”
That sounds more motivational than not, and it helped provide the oomph necessary for the Liberty to decisively earn a statement win over the best team in the WNBA. Who and what helped the Liberty stay so locked in?
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Sabrina Ionescu met the moment when it mattered
Ionescu set the tone early. Her first score of the afternoon came at the 7:11 mark in the first quarter and was indicative of how she’d play the entire 40 minutes. She did not relent.
It was a putback layup following her own miss. She spent the first quarter and beginning of the second hounding the smaller Kelsey Plum. Ionescu hit a driving floater to give the Liberty a 23-22 lead while she kept Plum galloping slightly behind right on her hip. She played with intention and began the game attacking downhill to open up the three point line.
“I was the bigger guard today with Plum guarding me and so making sure that I could use my strength and speed to be able to get downhill and I think I had a couple in the paint and mid range shots and that opened up the three-point line,” she said postgame.
While Ionescu’s downhill attack kept the Liberty in the game early, the moment that got the crowd on their feet was when Ionescu drilled back-to-back treys to give the Liberty a 29-22 lead. While Ionescu celebrated both shots, Liberty legend Sue Wicks stood tall with her long arms in the air from her seat along the baseline.
Ionescu would drain four more threes, three in that second quarter alone, to take her to 23 first-half points. She finished the afternoon with a 31 point, 7 assist, and 5 rebound performance against Las Vegas after putting up a much less spectacular stat line against the defending champs back in June.
Lighting up an opponent when it matters most is in Ionescu’s DNA. Her collegiate and professional career has been incumbent on how often and timely she meets certain moments. When the New York Liberty have needed to prove something, Ionescu has had her fingerprints all over it. While Ionescu spoke about how she gives the same effort and level of mental focus to each game she plays in following the game, she understood the moment as she always does. She knew there wasn’t room for error when competing against the best team in the WNBA.
“We had so many fans,” she said. “There was a build up around this game and for us it was a message. They got us at their place really good and we wanted to make sure that we came in ready and we were able to show our fans but also ourselves the improvement that we’ve had over the last couple of months since we’ve last seen them. And we’re excited to continue to build because we haven’t reached our full potential yet.”
The Liberty finally showed their defensive potential
Brondello called her team’s defensive performance on Sunday one of their best. The Liberty had a game plan that they executed with resolve. It was a gamble, but a gamble that absolutely worked.
The bet that Brondello made was to crowd the paint and force the Aces and A’ja Wilson in particular to make the difficult pass. The Aces didn’t make a three until Alysha Clark hit a wide open shot on a Wilson kick out with 6:28 left in the second quarter. The 2X MVP drew four Liberty defenders, which set up the Clark shot and score.
But making Wilson — the player who is the catalyst to the Aces’ success — uncomfortable and unable to play in space was critical for New York. The trio of Stewart, Jonquel Jones and Betnijah Laney, players who all have All-Defensive credits on their resumes, defended with haste, aggressiveness and purpose. When Wilson was driving past Stewart, Laney made sure to dig down and Jones was ready as the second line of defense to challenge Wilson at the rim.
But the Liberty didn’t play outside themselves defensively, either. Ionescu and Vandersloot, the less skilled defenders in the Liberty’s starting five, found ways to play effective defensive minutes with more heart and focus, two intangibles that Brondello believes are more important to defense than pure athleticism. Ionescu in particular moved her feet a bit quicker and read the passing lanes with more intent. Vandersloot used her speed and kept close to Chelsea Gray at the point of attack.
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“Great defensive teams it’s not one player, it’s everyone being engaged and doing their job and that was one of our better efforts,” Brondello said. “And sometimes it’s just playing harder. Getting through a screen and knowing where we want the help coming from and executing the scout.”
And executing the scout meant making the Aces think a bit more. The Liberty forced Las Vegas out of transition and into the half and quarter court. Jones explained postgame that the Aces play at their best when they can flow up and down the court without much stoppage. The Liberty had to break their rhythm, and did so by controlling the pace and making the Aces play New York Liberty basketball.
“It felt like everybody really had that intentionality, that purpose,” she said. “And like knowing exactly what was going on. It was never like,’ Oh, are we hedging here’? Or what’s going on?’ And like everybody had that… I definitely felt like everybody had my back out there.”
New York played their brand of basketball for their city
New York Liberty basketball has long been founded on how much the players can embody the city they are playing for. Teresa Weatherspoon has always said that New York Liberty players need to identify with the fight, hustle, bustle, grit and relentlessness of New York.
On Sunday afternoon, the Liberty sent that message. “The statement that we made was we’re a team that plays hard,” Stewart said. “And especially when we really lock in and are on the same page defensively and offensively, it’s hard to stop.”
While the Liberty struggled in the first half of the season securing rebounds and creating second chance opportunities, plays that come from effort, New York had 20 second second chance points to Vegas’ zero. The Liberty had 11 offensive rebounds, 5 of which came from Jones.
“I mean we’ve been talking about that all season long, we want to be a great rebounding team,” Brondello said in response to the Liberty winning the rebounding battle, 48-24. “I think since the All-Star break that’s where we really got going. A lot of credit goes to our two bigs here but all the guards getting in as well. But JJ has been a monster. Just establishing herself down low and being relentless.”
The Liberty put their bodies on the line all afternoon. Stewart registered a monster block while trailing the streaking Kiersten Bell, who’d received a bullet of a pass from Gray.
“We’re not giving up anything easy,” Stewart said. “Continuing to fight…I know my teammates were excited. I know I saw JJ. It’s just plays like that continue to give us momentum. I think we had a bunch of 50-50 balls. Kayla [Thornton] was on the ground and I flew over Kayla. Just plays like that where we’re all having fun, competing and really playing hard.”
And Laney, a player who has built her career on that kind of hustle, was responsible for the hockey assist that created Ionescu’s first three. Laney flipped the ball over to Courtney Vandersloot as she was falling out of bounds near the Aces’ bench.
Following the final buzzer, Liberty fans celebrated through the Barclays Center concourse. While there were a ton of modern Liberty jerseys sprinkled throughout, one fan in particular lingered wearing a shirt that read “Liberty Loyal, I’ve been here since day one.” That means something to the 2023 roster.
“I think even since I’ve been here, our fans have been pretty amazing,” Laney said. “And so to just be able to give them a show, give them something to look forward to, to have their loyalty pay off, for us to get to where we are now. I think it just means a lot that they give us so much. And so it’s only right for us to try and return the favor as much as possible.”
The Liberty still haven’t reached their summit
In order to continue that journey to return that favor to the fanbase that has been craving a championship for almost three decades, the Liberty know that beating the Aces once isn’t a cause to put the foot on the break.
Brondello, who must utter the phrase “never too high or too low” at least 5 times a week, had a similar sentiment following the game.
“We don’t win a championship today,” she said. “We played a really good game so I’m really, really happy but Vegas is great, they just had a bad night. We’ve been there before. So we’re not patting ourselves on the back. We have to get ready to beat Chicago now.”
Even in the middle of the game on Sunday, Brondello’s assistant coach and spouse Olaf Lange gestured to Ionescu not to get too fired up. Following a give and go between Ionescu and Stewart, which gave the Liberty an 18-point lead, Ionescu stomped her feet on the floor while yelling with her hands clenched in fists. She turned to the bench where Lange lowered his left hand a couple of times, reminding his star to stay focused and calm.
“We’re not sitting here jumping for joy that we beat them,” Ionescu said. “I think for us it’s just a wake up call of how good we can actually be and that’s the standard of New York basketball and now we have to continue to get better throughout the next month.”
And the Liberty have a lot of room to improve and that begins with their bench chemistry and production. While Brondello praised the performance of Thornton, she acknowledged that the Liberty’s bench is an “advantage” rather than a handicap. That will begin with the Liberty’s reintegration of Stefanie Dolson, who’s been out since June 25 with an ankle sprain, but expected back this week.
Can Dolson unlock even more for New York? With three more games against Las Vegas this month alone, including the Commissioners’ Cup, we’ll soon find out.
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.