May 29, 2023
What fueled the Liberty’s second-half surge against the Sun?
How New York's defense punched back against Connecticut on Saturday
BROOKLYN, N.Y. — When the Liberty got three straight defensive stops — a sequence that the team calls a “kill” — in the third quarter, wing Betnijah Laney knew that she and her team were in striking distance and more than capable of grabbing their first lead since the first quarter against the Connecticut Sun on Saturday afternoon. And exactly a minute later following those three stops that’s exactly what the New York Liberty did on a wide open 3-pointer at the top of the key from Courtney Vandersloot.
“I think once we got that and then you know we got the lead, I think that was the turning point,” Laney told The Next.
The Liberty held the Sun to 27 points in the second half after allowing Connecticut to score 38 in the prior half, helping the Liberty pull off an 81-65 win on Saturday in front of a network television audience on CBS.
The clear tale of two halves began with the Liberty succumbing to the defensive swarming that is baked into the very essence of the Sun. Point forward Alyssa Thomas led the way continuing her defensive player of the year campaign, bodying up Breanna Stewart early and making each look she got incredibly difficult. The Sun put two on ball screens and blew up a lot of New York’s early pick and rolls. Sabrina Ionescu and Jonquel Jones rushed early shots in the shot clock, the spacing was off and New York had difficulty finding second side actions.
To Vandersloot it all felt “familiar” to how the Liberty performed in their first game of the season against the Mystics. The stagnation on offense and the shots not falling resulted in lackadaisical defense. The Liberty’s game plan was to force the Sun to get their offense from the perimeter rather than the paint, but that didn’t mean lethargy on closeouts.
“I thought we were sleeping in the first half, to be quite honest,” head coach Sandy Brondello said postgame. “That’s what I told them at half time and we were a way better team than what we’re playing and we weren’t being aggressive.”
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What would a loss to the Sun at home say about the Liberty? Was the uber-talented super team not tough enough? Could they not play defense at a high level? Could they not push back? Could they not beat teams with top veteran talent?
Before the game, Ionescu was asked how she mentally prepares for playing against the Sun, a team that asserts its physicality. She noted that this wasn’t something she isn’t used to and that her team needed to be the aggressors and punch first. “We’re going to make sure that their physicality and their tempo doesn’t speed us up and we’re the aggressors,” she said.
That did not happen to start. But what — or rather who — flipped the switch?
A domino effect led by Kayla Thornton
When Kayla Thornton checked in for Laney with 3:49 left in the first quarter, she had to get her bearings, and figure out the flow of the game. She missed a layup on a cut to the basket on a pass that darted out of the hands of a reeling Ionescu. She was caught in a trap, a literal one on a ball screen.
But once the clock turned to the second quarter, Thornton tried again, found some space and Stefanie Dolson found her cutting backdoor. Playing in New York’s system has been a work in progress for Thornton. She came from Dallas in the Jonquel Jones trade primarily playing the four as a floor spacer.
“She’s one of those who has to become a cutter for us,” assistant coach Olaf Lange told The Next a couple of days before the start of the season. “Bec Allen, that was her other than shooting, that really was cutting well for us and creating a lot of openings just through cutting and committing people. I think [Thornton’s] learning to do that but cutting is the thing she has to do well. She’s always spaced reasonably well because she can shoot the three and she’s done that in Dallas at the four.”
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Cutting and being an agent for ball movement, check. But that wasn’t all Thornton would create in her 26+ minutes of play on Saturday afternoon. She matched the energy of Thomas and the rest of the entire Connecticut contingent with her seven rebounds, four of which were offensive. Two of those o-boards came with over four minutes left in the third quarter. The Liberty were down 45-44 and following a missed transition three by Stewart, Thornton followed the ball once it was tipped by the hand of Allen. She batted it away from Thomas and threw it back to Ionescu while the shot clock reset.
After Ionescu missed a pull-up outside of the key, it was Thornton again. The ball rattled off the rim and onto the backboard and she had already moved from the wing and into the paint. She skyrocketed over Natisha Hiedeman while Thomas and Brionna Jones were just standing and watching. Ionescu was watching from afar and let out a scream. It was Liberty ball once again.
“I think today, we missed an energy and a little hustle,” Thornton said postgame about the first half. “So I thought you know, I’ll come in and do that. And you know, it paid off.” On the final boxscore, Thornton finished with a +19 rating, the highest on her team. So far during this young season, the Liberty’s net rating is at 20.34 when Thornton’s on the floor. And in the 53 minutes so far without her, New York’s net drops to -11.58.
This was something that Brondello noticed following the final buzzer. She mentioned this to Thornton while they were walking back to the locker room. “I just said just how important she is to our success,” Brondello said. “She might not take one shot, but she’s still going to be so important because of what she brings. She’s not a high usage player, but she’s fine with that.”
What’s most striking about Thornton’s impact is how it affects her teammates around her. When the Liberty returned to the locker room following the first half, Brondello motivated her team to wake up defensively, but there wasn’t much said from Thornton. Her comrade in playing hard in Laney knew exactly what both of them needed to do.
The pair triggered what Thornton referred to as a domino effect that spread to the rest of starters and players on the bench. Ionescu’s reaction to Thornton’s consecutive offensive rebounds was a case in point.
“Once the player sees it, it kind of impacts everybody else,” Thornton said. “And I think that’s kind of what happened. We got one offensive rebound. So, you know, we saw the hustle. So everybody was like all right, let’s go, so you know, it’s a domino effect.”
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Superstars can play defense too
The way Thornton crashed the glass and the way Laney slashed and imposed her way through screens woke up Stewart, a player that in 2022 was also a front runner for defensive player of the year.
In the second half, Stewart finished with five of her six total steals and two of her four total blocks. This doesn’t account for the numerous deflections that do not appear on public stat sheets. During the postgame presser, it was Vandersloot that was admiring Stewart’s stat line, especially all the blocks and steals. “I played against it a lot and she’s super long and it makes it difficult,” she said. “Some lanes that look open are not when Stewie’s on the floor.”
But it wasn’t just getting into passing lanes that fueled Stewart’s defensive playmaking. She found a way to guard Thomas tightly one-on-one, forcing her to travel and cough up the ball while slashing in the lane or going into her trademark spin move.
Stewart was the first to admit that the Liberty wouldn’t have ended the afternoon with a 2-1 record without Thornton. When she was asked about how Thornton’s energy played a role and spread like a wildfire throughout the team, Stewart’s immediate reaction was a toothless smile and a comment that would be bleeped out on the recording of the postgame presser.
“When KT was coming to New York, I was like ‘Shit, this is great’,” Stewart said. “I don’t have to go against her. Because if you’ve been guarded by KT, it’s like physical, she’s like in you, she’s like in all the things. And she had some huge rebounds for us. She knew exactly what she should be.
“Perfect spacing, perfect cutting, continuing to kind of make those plays that you know, she’s just working hard, she’s blue collar, doing that little things that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet, but everyone knows the impact that she had. And that’s what we need every single night because she’s going to be huge for us as we get going.”
It was exactly what got the Liberty’s starters going in the third quarter, and what allowed the starters to reclaim their confidence. Back to that first kill in the third quarter. It began with a Vandersloot deflection and steal, was followed by a Laney steal and score and concluded with a Stewart block. To get there, the Liberty woke up from their first half slumber and decided to be on high alert for any of Connecticut’s mistakes. New York found Hiedeman and Jones holding onto the ball for too long and Tiffany Hayes slashed right within the reach of Stewart’s Reed Richards-like long arms.
This was an observation of Sun head coach Stephanie White during her own postmortem of the game. “They have a really high IQ team that takes advantage when you make mistakes,” she said.
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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.