October 19, 2023 

How the New York Liberty came up short in 2023 WNBA Finals

Brondello: 'I put the ball in the hands of the MVP because we trust her'

BROOKLYN — Betnijah Laney and Courtney Vandersloot shared a hug once the buzzer sounded near the New York Liberty bench. It was a long, meaningful squeeze. This embrace didn’t come after the Liberty made history as the first team to force a game 5 in the WNBA finals after being down 2-0. Instead, the embrace came as the Las Vegas Aces made history becoming the first team since the 2002 Los Angeles Sparks to win back-to-back WNBA championships. 

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The Liberty came up short in the final 8.8 seconds. They were down 70-69, and head coach Sandy Brondello called a timeout. Inside the huddle she spoke about how the plan was to get Breanna Stewart the ball and have her penetrate toward the rim to either make a basket or pick up a foul. “We gotta get the offensive board and if we miss, we’ve gotta foul,” she said in that huddle. She then turned to Stewart and then the team and said: “You can get to the rim and then rebound.”

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Sabrina Ionescu inbounded to Stewart, but the 2023 MVP was met by Alysha Clark, an opponent and former teammate who knows Stewart incredibly well. Clark was physical and played defense that forced Stewart to take almost three seconds off the clock by the time she kicked it out to Laney. Then Laney passed it to Vandersloot in the left corner pocket to take the final shot with 2.6 seconds left. Her shot went left and was in the air for so long Jonquel Jones was too late to get the rebound and score on the put back.

Once Brondello knew that it was over, her head and then the rest of her body bent down in a state of shock. The Liberty’s season had just ended and they lost Game 4 of the WNBA Finals, 70-69. The Liberty booked it off the floor and into the tunnel. They could not bear witnessing their rivals celebrating on their home floor. The 16,851 fans in the building were just as stunned as their home team, watching the Aces celebrate.

“We knew that their game plan was going to be to junk it up and make it difficult and that’s exactly what happened,” Stewart said in response to what made it so hard to force a Game 5. “Such a low scoring game, but we couldn’t get stops when we needed it and couldn’t get anything to drop. I mean I don’t know, credit to Vegas, they played well but we wanted to obviously force it to game five.”

A common pattern the Liberty faced this season was their defensive energy following missed shots. New York was 12-for-29 on shots in the paint. Their 12-point lead in the third quarter should have been larger if not for their missed layups at the rim.

Sabina Ionescu (20) does her night-night celebration pose at Barclays Center during the WNBA Finals. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Brondello was asked why that final play wasn’t run for Sabrina Ionescu, who threw up in a trash can right after making a deep three to bring the Liberty back within two points after being down as many as 7 earlier in the fourth quarter. Ionescu scored 13 points on 5-for-12 shooting including 3-for-7 from three. It wasn’t efficient but it was more efficient than Stewart who finished 3-for-17 from the field while notching 10 points, 14 rebounds and 5 assists.

“I put the ball in the hands of the MVP because we trust her,” Brondello replied to WFAN’s Danielle McCartan. “And it just didn’t work out today. Obviously Sabrina and her were in the action but it ended up with Breanna at the end so it was just her trying to make a play from there. I think I’d still do it again, I think that’s the right call.”

The trio of Brondello, Stewart and Vandersloot were shocked and despondent by the moment that had just transpired, losing by 1 in WNBA Finals game 4, took questions for 11 minutes. Stewart and Vandersloot sniffled through answering questions. Clearly they came from an emotional meeting in their locker room following that final buzzer.

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The players on the podium were asked to describe their level of disappointment. They both couldn’t put more than a couple of words out there. Stewart said one word, “high”, and Vandersloot uttered the superlative version of that: “Very high.”

As for the hug between Laney and Vandersloot: it was another example of how Laney knows when her teammates need that extra support in the most difficult of moments. It was difficult to learn a little bit more about that moment. When Brondello, Vandersloot and Stewart were up at the dais, reporters were limited to a question apiece.

“It’s hard to answer these questions right now because we’re so disappointed and it’s such an emotional time, but obviously we are proud that we had an opportunity to play for a championship,” Vandersloot said when asked about 2024.

There wasn’t an opportunity following those 11 minutes to ask Laney about that hug and why it mattered that she provided that emotional support to Vandersloot. There wasn’t an opportunity to ask Jonquel Jones, a player who had dominated in this series, why she struggled to dominate to get her team to a game 5. All other player requests, contra league rules built to replace locker room access and signed off on by the WNBPA were declined in Game 4 of the WNBA Finals.

When Vandersloot was finished with her media obligations, she returned to the locker room and then came out to give her wife Allie Quigley a giant hug. More tears from Vandersloot poured out, but Quigley was there to just hold her in that moment. Moments later Ionescu appeared outside of the Liberty’s locker room with a hood on wearing a sweat suit. In complete incognito mode, she made a beeline to get out of the halls that house all New York Liberty activities.

Then Laney, while holding her niece on her hip, walked past Vandersloot and Quigley and entered the locker room. Her mother Yolanda and another woman, who was holding a bouquet of flowers intended for Laney, followed Laney into the Liberty locker room.

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While the Liberty players made a beeline to make their way out of their home arena, the Aces were unrelenting in letting the entire Brooklyn building know who were the champions and who was on top. The boombox from 2022 returned but this time it was playing Drake’s “Back to Back” as the Aces went to the Barclays Center practice courts to take pictures with their 2023 championship hardware.

The Liberty didn’t accomplish their goal in 2023, but what was accomplished in 2023 was the bedrock for a WNBA rivalry with stakes and organic emotions at play. Sydney Colson, who played a pivotal role for the Aces in game 4, clapped back at Ionescu’s night-night celebration. One of Colson’s teammates prevented Ionescu from trying to pick Colson up once she tripped on the floor earlier during the game. This isn’t the end of the Liberty’s rising tensions for the Las Vegas Aces. If anything, it’s a tipping point and an inflection point for the future. 

Here’s hoping there’s a chance to tell that story as fully as possible.

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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