May 11, 2022 

The Liberty defeated the Sun by moving from the past and accepting the present

A new era at last for New York

BROOKLYN — On opening night, the New York Liberty wanted the crowd to enjoy the show. There was a quiet confidence but welcoming presence in Stefanie Dolson’s voice when she assumed the role not only as the starting center but also as the masters of ceremonies on Saturday night.

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“My team and I are extremely excited to play in front of all you fans,” Dolson said with the microphone in hand at center court right before tipoff. “We hope to give you a great season, a great game, but just enjoy the show.”

Saturday night began the second complete season that New York will play at Barclays Center, but it didn’t feel at all like last year. While the game itself felt familiar, the experience was rather still quite new. I’ve been writing this for years in consecutive seasons, but Saturday night had components of a new era for the New York Liberty franchise.

Opening night saw the return of the team’s fanbase. 6,829 people were at Barclays Center on Saturday, a number that, due to COVID, hasn’t been close to that large since the Liberty played their first regular-season game in Brooklyn on August 11, 2019, before pandemic times.

The 2020 10th overall draft pick Jocelyn Willoughby returned to the court and played in front of the home fans, including her family, for the first time in her young WNBA career. That first for Willoughby was delayed a year ago when she ruptured her Achilles during a scrimmage against the team New York played on Saturday, the Connecticut Sun.

Ellie the Elephant wasn’t new exactly, but the way the Liberty’s relatively new mascot performed felt like a return to form of what Ellie’s Predecessor Maddie was known for. In 2021, Ellie was mostly separate from her rightful partners in New York Liberty entrainment in the dance troop famously known as the Timeless Torches. Instead of the elevated platforms where they were positioned last season, the Torches and their younger counterparts, the Lil’ Torches, took center court or rather center stage alongside Ellie back where they all belong.

And last but not least, the team has a new coach in Sandy Brondello, who contemplated what the evening meant for her after spending the majority of her head coaching career across country at the helm of the Phoenix Mercury. Pregame, she expressed gratitude and at the postgame, she admitted that she wasn’t really nervous. But it felt different for Brondello to begin the WNBA season with many new faces. It felt somber to start the season without one who remains quite dear.

As the clock ticked down toward the seven-minute mark in the second quarter, Brondello walked to her left away from the bench and toward a new bright white insignia that laid next to the Black Lives Matter text that has now become customary on a WNBA court. Right in line with the “LAY” in the blue Barclays Center on court signage is now the logo BG 42, representing Brittney Griner, who still remains detained in Russia. Brondello walked toward those letters and numbers which represent someone she thinks about everyday.

When Brondello was asked about what the new insignia means to her, she at first couldn’t lookup. Her eyes welled thinking about Griner. She put her fingers in her eyes to wipe away the tears; she took a deep breath and put her two fists in front of her face. She placed one of her hands down while resting the right one on her face while looking down. She spoke with a quiver in her voice.

“You know, obviously BG is part of my family,” she said. “I coached her for a long time.”

She looked away, hesitated and stumbled on her words while so caught up in emotion. “I knew this would happen…” she stuttered, referencing the rain of sadness and wells of tears in her eyes. She threw her hands up and puts her elbows firmly on the table.

“I mean, I love that girl. She just really is, and I hope that she can come home soon…” Brondello shook her head, frustrated by the situation.

I can’t imagine what she is and what her family is going through, so um yeah, I think about her every day like many people in this league, but obviously, I have a close relationship for her, so yeah, I’m thinking of her.”

While Brondello had a moment, she had to snap back into getting mentally prepared for the home opener, the game that serves as a pitch to the fanbase, showing them what the Liberty can do. While there were certain moments on Saturday that appeared reminiscent of how New York walked away 1-0 in 2021, their Saturday 81-79 victory against the Sun proved how this young group has grown and evolved since Sabrina Ionescu’s game-winner against the Indiana Fever last May.

A first half reminiscent of 2021

The Liberty began the first quarter skittish and unsettled. New York turned the ball over three times within the first three minutes of play. The Connecticut Sun, the best defensive team in the league last season, trapped and double hedged both Sabrina and combo guard Sami Whitcomb.

With the pressure so suffocating to begin the first half, the ball stuck to the right side of the floor, leading to turnovers and easy scores from the Sun on the other end. After an 8-0 Connecticut run to begin the first; Brondello called a timeout to stop the bleeding.

“We just had to move the ball,” Brondello said postgame about what adjustments she preached during that first pause. “It’s like they kind of went back to 2021 and I’m like nope, that’s not how we play here; we need to move the ball. We gotta trust each other.’ As I said, especially like a great defensive team like Connecticut, it’s like we just had to move the ball. That’s as simple as I said, you gotta get the easy ones, you gotta make sure it’s reversed, second and third side.”

Defensively the Liberty needed some help. The Sun have some of the most physical and strong posts in the league. While Dolson was in foul trouble, New York brought rookie Lorela Cubaj off the bench and her presence immediately changed the game.

In 17 minutes, Cubaj collected three rebounds, dished two assists and scored her first WNBA points. While on paper, her minutes don’t look super impactful, she did exactly what the coaching staff wanted her to do.

“Lo[rela] for us is more of a rebounder, a screener, a roller, and she’ll have to bring a lot of energy to the game, so she really has to focus on that, “Liberty assistant coach Olaf Lange told The Next the day before the game. “It’s not much about scoring.”

He explained that with a rookie post player, the goal is not to overwhelm but rather give the player two or three ways in which they can impact the flow of the game. In her 17-plus minutes, Cubaj checked every box that Lange laid out. She got on the glass, set two straight screens that led to Ionescu and Whitcomb threes and brought enough energy to make touches more difficult for Sun post trio Brionna Jones, Alyssa Thomas and Jonquel Jones.

Are rookies making an impact in the home opener? That’s an instant recall back to 2021 when Michaela Onyenwere put the league on notice with her athleticism and shotmaking from beyond the arc. But another similarity to last May’s opener was how Ionescu’s play elevated her team. In the second quarter alone, Ionescu shot 5-7 from the field, scoring 13 points of her 25 total points and two rebounds, two assists and two steals.

At the end of the first half, the Liberty led the Sun 38-30 on an 11-0 run. But a lead after two quarters meant nothing in 2021. The team’s constant issue was starting the third quarter awake and with energy. How would the Liberty look after a halftime period that featured a performance of Ellie impersonating Mary J. Blige? Would they have that same self-assurance that Ellie had strutting her stuff while wearing a cheetah print bodysuit and a long curly light brown wig? Could the Liberty show that they were tougher than a year ago?

Natasha Howard is feeling it in a game against the Connecticut Sun, where she proved she’s a two-way player in this league. Photo Credit: Josh Sawyer.

Defending like its 2022 and also playing bully-ball

There were a lot of questions about Natasha Howard’s 2021 campaign. For starters, her second game in seafoam and black resulted in an MCL sprain. And when she returned, she struggled to show the Liberty the type of athleticism and defensive talent they traded for. Under Walt Hopkins’ system, Howard played the five in smaller lineups. She also guarded fives last season, making it more difficult for Howard to play on the perimeter. Brondello’s tweak to how the Liberty play includes Howard playing the power forward position and guarding opposing fours.

After a couple of easier makes for Jonquel Jones in transition, Howard put on a masterclass defensive performance playing against the reigning MVP.

“Natasha Howard is a really great defender, that’s how it worked,” Brondello said about her defense postgame. “She’s quick to recover. Her IQ is on another level. She can execute what we want and you know she plays tendencies well, so she made it really hard for Jonquel to get…you know, she got a few there, but that’s not because of a lack of effort. “

When Howard was asked about the challenge of guarding Jones, her response was nonchalant. Instead, she smiled like a cheshire cat admitting that for her, this wasn’t a challenge and that defense has “always been [her] thing.”

Howard studied how Jones moves offensively. She anticipated when Jones would shift into her spin move or her fade away. Howard anticipated the angles by which Jones forces herself into the paint. With under seven minutes remaining in the third quarter, Howard dug down at Jones’ handle and forced her to throw a pass that bounced off the tip of one of Whitcomb’s hands. Cue the Liberty pick six.

But amid the Liberty’s much more focused defense, the Sun still went on their late third quarter 11-0 run, a stretch when Alyssa Thomas scored eight of those 11 points. How did the Liberty battle back once New York was down as many as five points in the middle of the fourth?

Jocelyn Willoughby shoots the ball from beyond the arc. Photo Credit: Josh Sawyer

“Just being tough,” Jocelyn Willoughby said postgame. “There were moments where we were losing 50-50 balls and we weren’t getting rebounds and you’re not going to get them all. But I think there’s a point where we were like, if we want this game, we have to do it all. There’s nothing that can be left on the table. So hang your hats on the defensive end and really being tough; I think that was a change for us as well.”

Dolson concurred with Willoughby, adding that New York wouldn’t have won the game without grabbing eight fourth-quarter rebounds, only one shy of the Sun, a team known to dominate on the boards. “They try to bully people, and I think we bullied them back,” Dolson said.

Speaking of Willoughby, she had half of the Liberty’s fourth-quarter rebounds and scored 6 of New York’s 23 fourth-quarter points to boot. Brondello believed that Willoughby’s driving finger roll layup with less than two minutes remaining that included a Eurostep and an and-one was what changed the game for New York, putting the momentum in the Liberty’s direction for good.

The swagger and intuition of Sabrina Ionescu

Following Willoughby’s empathic and-one, Ionescu rushed to the five player huddle before Willoughby would take her free throw. Then, with her eyebrows furrowed, Ionescu let her team have that fire inside of her. “Finish the fucking game,” she barked to her teammates through the gum she was chewing in her mouth.

Moments later, with around 24 seconds left in regulation and the New York Liberty up 79-76, head coach Brondello laid out a plan of action for her team during a timeout called by Connecticut Sun head coach Curt Miller. “You gotta rebound, I’ll get a timeout and then I’ll get Sab[rina Ionescu] back in here,” she said.

Following her pep talk, New York’s veteran leaders added to the conversation before returning to the court. Whitcomb let out an impassioned “C’MON,” Betniijah Laney, who sat out this game due to a re-aggravated right knee, reminded her team to box out and Howard closed the huddle by instructing her team to yell “Fight on three,” followed by a one-two-three lead up chant coming from the 3X WNBA champion.

As the huddle faded, Willoughby asked Brondello: “Do you want me to stay on AT?” referring to Connecticut’s leading scorer Thomas. Brondello’s master plan to counter the Sun’s offense was to insert Onyenwere for Ionescu, allowing Willoughby to guard Thomas and Onyenwere to keep an eye on DiJonai Carrington.

While Ionescu wasn’t in the game while her team attempted to get another stop, she leaned forward while looking on from the corner of the floor that intersected with the baseline and the Liberty bench. Once Willoughby contested Jasmine Thomas’ missed three and corralled the rebound, Ionescu appeared stoic. But not for long. After more Willoughby three throws, Ionescu was still standing near the bench, watching her team’s defense try to seal the deal.

Once Thomas fired another off the mark three that was well contested by Willoughby and then Whitcomb collected the ball on the ricochet, Ionescu had seen all she needed to. She lifted her arms above her head, forming a V. The deal was sealed, the win secured.

Around a year ago against Indiana, Ionescu mentioned that she dreamt the night before that she was going to hit a game-winner. It was something she felt deep within her. A year later, what did she feel the night before this opening night win?

She had a sixth sense that she and her team would get their second home-opening win in a row.

“I just had this weird feeling that we were going to come out with knowing how many fans were here,” she said. “It was really exciting to be able to kind of showcase to everyone that’s been watching the work that we’ve put in with the new coaching staff and a lot of new players.”

But in classic Ionescu fashion, she left the dais with the message that there’s “of course more work to do.” A year later, and another dramatic home-opening victory for the New York Liberty.

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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