August 1, 2020 

Without Sabrina the Liberty show ‘true toughness’ in loss to the Dream

Without Sabrina Ionescu, how did the Liberty play their most competitive game of the season?

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Jazmine Jones of the New York Liberty enters the game on July 31, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. Photo via the New York Liberty’s twitter account.

There was a deleted twitter exchange between the Liberty and the Dream last night following the 84-78 Atlanta victory that represented the entire game in 30 words. Beginning the first and third quarters was difficult for the Liberty, as 12 out of their total 15 turnovers came in the odd frames.

But, as bizarre as it may sound, Atlanta’s petty tweet was correct, and in both halves it was Sabrina Ionescu who “plugged” the rest of the squad back in, and it didn’t even matter if she was in the room to witness it.

The first quarter began looking a lot like how the majority of Wednesday’s game against Dallas appeared. New York was stagnant, having trouble moving without the ball, and getting points on the board, trailing 12-0 within the first five minutes of play.

But then, Sabrina scored on her first drive to the basket, and all of a sudden, New York had new life. The Liberty went on a 13-6 run to end the first quarter and then an 11-3 run to conclude the second. This is the type of response that Walt Hopkins was encouraged by after the team had its most intense practice of the season following the poor showing against the Wings.

Hopkins became more “demonstrative” with his young group, after a long and painful rewatching of game two. For the first-year head coach, the amount of accountability “with every single detail” had to increase. He needed to push them harder, holding players “accountable for every single little thing.”

“We battled,” Hopkins told reporters post-game. “We battled most of the game. We really put ourselves in a hole to start the first quarter and to start the second half, but the way that we fought pretty much across the board with our team across the board was impressive and exciting. We responded to the things we talked about and the things we worked on.”

Veteran point guard Layshia Clarendon agreed with Hopkins’ assessment stating that the against the Dream, the Liberty put themselves in “a position to actually win a game.” Against Atlanta, the end of the fourth quarter provided this rookie laden squad with examples of “end of the game execution” and how to react when the game is within reach in the final two minutes.

“It’s a growth point,” they said. “If you look how many fouls and free throws we gave up and offensive boards alone, that’s the game. So I think that’s a really big growth point for us.”

With under six minutes left in the second quarter, Ionescu tied up the game with a left-side layup. But on transition and without a shot taken from Atlanta on the other end, Sabrina got her body in front of Blake Dietrick, and set the ball away to Clarendon, allowing the Liberty to get up the floor. Ionescu landed on the ground in a backward somersault while Clarendon began New York’s next offensive set.

But when the game clock hit 5:19, minutes later, the entire basketball universe stopped. After Betnijah Laney crossed the point guard at center court, Sabrina was on the ground, and in pain. She couldn’t get up. Trainer Terri Acosta and fellow first-year Neah Odom had to help her off the floor into the locker room.

After the game, Hopkins didn’t know much. All he could add was that GM Jonathan Kolb accompanied Ionescu to the hospital. Overnight and this morning, The Athletic and Holly Rowe reported that Sabrina’s X-Ray results on her left ankle came back negative.

The ACC held it down for New York on both ends

The Liberty may have to continue without Sabrina for a while, and it was performances from the Liberty’s ACC alumnae on both ends of the floor that proved that maybe, they can indeed do this. Excluding Sabrina, the entire rookie contingent put up over 64 percent of the team’s total points on the board after a game where Ionescu was responsible for 61 percent of the entire offense.

But going back to the social media shenanigans, Sabrina’s absence replugged the Liberty following her exit.

“We have a mindset when we get in the game, just run up and down the court and just be relentless and be tough,” said Jazmine Jones who went onto score 20 off the bench for the Liberty against the Dream. “Knowing that we’re very talented, we are very talented top the bottom and in our hands, we feel like we have a better bench, per se, because we have a lot of rookies who can play multiple positions, so it’s just fun that we have this kind of team that coach can put us in different kind of alignments and everything else to be successful.”

After getting her feet wet in game two, Jones came into game three with a vengeance and more energy than Courtney Williams could handle. There was a flash of defensive brilliance to conclude against Dallas, but Jones turned it up, turning defense into offense and shooting an efficient 6-10 from the field including two made three balls.

Jones has a smooth shimmy that allows for her to position herself in the lane to draw contact. She made six of her seven free throw attempts, proving that Jocelyn Willoughby isn’t the only rookie we should expect to get to the line.

“Jaz was fantastic,” Hopkins said of his rookie guard. “Her energy on both ends was just phenomenal. She’s blocking shots, pushing the ball, getting, to the free-throw line, knocking down shots. She was fantastic. She kept us in the game.”

Hopkins also put Jones in a place to lead the team once Ionescu went down and Clarendon’s fouls began pilling up. Toward the end of the second half, Jones handled the ball, taking the reins at the point for the first time since High School. Hopkins must have liked what he saw in practice.

“I was nervous a little bit because it’s been a minute since I actually played point guard…I was nervous but I was comfortable at the same time, because in practice the last couple days when we were going starters versus the reserves, we were going five-on-five he had me run the point with the second group,” she said.

Now back to the first quarter. With the veteran bigs Amanda Zahui B. and Kiah Stokes still looking way out of sorts, the Liberty needed some sort of spark from the post. With four and a half minutes left in the first quarter, enter Kylee Shook.

In the first two contests, the 13th overall draft pick had looked hesitant. But against the Dream, her presence was integral, finally getting her shot to go down on offense and finding her fabulous footwork on defense.

Shook wasn’t stagnant when she entered. She cut on a passes from Sabrina and Clarendon. She nailed her turn-around jumper on a pass from Jones, which according to her, Shook has been “doing forever.” She looked confident and comfortable on the low post and was patient with her defenders.

Jones has paid very close attention to Shook’s professional journey, telling reporters that her teammate of four-plus years just needs to be “out of her own head.”

“I tell Kylee all the time, ‘bro it’s basketball, it’s basketball, we’ve been doing it for so long, just go out there and do what you do, you’re gonna be fine,’” Jones said. “But once she gets out of the nervous stage, Kylee’s gonna be great and it was fun playing on the court with her and it felt like we were back at Louisville for a second.”

Also, Jocelyn ‘Willough-three’ didn’t back down. Her first half was rough. She was driving and speeding past defenders, but she couldn’t quite get her layups to fall. But a slow start and Sabrina’s departure “plugged [her] back in.”

In the fourth quarter, Willoughby also kept New York within reach of a victory on Friday night. Within less than three minutes leading up to the two-minute warning, the rookie forward drilled two-three balls and a mid-range jumper to get the Liberty within four points of the Dream.

“In the first quarter, we were down, we hadn’t scored, but we kept fighting, we kept on fighting,” Jones said reflecting on the loss. “That’s how resilient we are, and knowing that we could have gave up when Sabrina went down, but somebody had to step up, we need to keep fighting, keep fighting. So we just showed true toughness especially from the last game to this game and from practice from yesterday.”

And Willoughby and Shook were tough on defense. With over a minute and a half left, Willoughby kept her eyes and her feet on Dream sharpshooter Laney and Shook pivoted to apply a hard block on Elizabeth Williams, the receiver of Laney’s pass. While Atlanta retained possession, a shot clock violation followed.

The Liberty’s ACC alumnae blocked seven of eleven total blocked shots for New York, which included two apiece from Jones, Shook, and Willoughby. The defense is there, it just will need to be consistent. It’s a process.

The Liberty have to ‘huddle up’ to assess the future

Sabrina Ionescu #20 of the New York Liberty drives tothe basket against the Atlanta Dream on July 31, 2020 at Feld EntertainmentCenter in Palmetto, Florida. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via GettyImages.

Kolb and Hopkins weren’t rushing getting another player into the Wubble, but with Ionescu out for potentially the rest of the season, they’ve got to start executing and altering their scenario plan.

“We’re going to huddle up and talk about it,” Hopkins said regarding how they move forward. “There’s not a lot of ready-to-go options hanging around. We are going to have to huddle up and see if we can get Kia right, and hopefully, it’s not too serious with Sabrina.”

While I’ve laid out a few prospects to choose from to fill out the roster, someone who can handle the ball now becomes a consideration. Clarendon’s load ought to be managed, but Hopkins also made it clear that moving forward, the Liberty will continue to lean on Layshia, noting that although she “got a little extra physical” and eventually fouled out, they create contact, something New York will need. “She worked her butt off and we’re going to need her, we’re going need her going forward big time,” he said.

Clarendon was forthright when she said losing Ionescu in the middle of the game was tough. Already the veteran explained how being a point guard requires a lot of balancing and delegating, but with Ionescu gone along with Kia Nurse still recovering, the challenge only elevates. They will need to embrace their role as a scorer as well.

“So that’s even a newer role for me that I’m learning with all of these young players, that I’m embracing and trying to draw a lot of contact and be the person who can try to get a bucket for us,” she said.

But amid the frustration, uncertainty, and anguish, Clarendon provided some reassurance and some insight into the dynamic between the coaches and the players. During a moment when most coaches would be frustrated and upset with their player who fouled out, they noted that Hopkins took a different approach.

“He came over and he showed me the stats sheet and he pointed to the six threes that I shot because that’s obviously not been a part of my game, but that’s something that I want to take more and keep getting better at, so we celebrated the fact that I shot six threes in a game, and it’s a big thing that I was confident enough to shoot six threes,” they said.

Attention to detail is important for New York and will remain indispensable regardless of its connotation, positive or negative. Growth is the focus for the Liberty not only for the first years but for everyone. It doesn’t matter if New York has to unplug itself, Atlanta, but what truly matters is how and when they plug back in.

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.

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