September 17, 2023 

In a Game 1 win, the New York Liberty went as Betnijah Laney did

How Laney thrived when the lights were brightest on Friday night

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — When Game 1 of the first playoff series the New York Liberty have ever hosted at Barclays Center tipped off on Friday, the Liberty hoped to set the tone early. They didn’t.

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New York allowed the Washington Mystics, the WNBA’s seventh-best offense during the regular season, to score 29 points in the first quarter. The first and last buckets of the quarter were made by Washington and were both threes.

Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello explained how she steadied her team following the first frame. The Liberty largely kept pace offensively, putting up 23 points. The idea was to remind the players that they needed to “lift” their “intensity” and scramble and fly around the court more. All week, the Liberty had practiced the high-level communication necessary to scramble, switch and rotate on the fly to react to Washington’s offense that’s predicated on penetration.

But while the Liberty were figuring out their flow on both sides of the ball early in the first half, wing Betnijah Laney, the player who embodies all of what Brondello wanted from the team, put the Liberty on her back.

Laney made two threes in the first quarter by taking advantage of the defense she was given. She caught Ariel Atkins going under a Jonquel Jones screen and then took advantage of Brittney Sykes and Elena Delle Donne playing drop coverage. There wasn’t any hesitation when she got the ball. She shot immediately and kept the Liberty in the game.

Following the Liberty’s 90-75 win, Washington head coach Eric Thibault referred to Laney as someone who has become a dangerous offensive threat in her career. That was something his team was slow to counter.

“Betnijah can do a bunch of things,” he said postgame. “She’s obviously a hugely improved shooter over the course of her career. She takes the toughest defensive assignments, and quite frankly, she made some shots tonight. She had some tough finishes around the rim. We could do a better job of closing down her driving lanes.”

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But if the Mystics closed down her driving lanes, that would leave more space for the Liberty’s other shooters, namely Sabrina Ionescu, to get off open shots. Ionescu did that in the second half, scoring 20 of her 29 points on 7-for-10 shooting, including 6-for-9 from three. But that was the whole point. Laney’s aggressiveness in the first half shifted the Mystics’ defense to try to curtail the hot hand in Laney, who was scoring at all three levels. 

Betnijah Laney looks for a place to pass the ball around Rebecca Allen's extended arms.
New York Liberty wing Betnijah Laney (44) looks to pass the ball as Connecticut Sun guard Rebecca Allen (9) defends her during a game at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., on Aug. 24, 2023. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

“The more spacing that we can have, the more room for [Laney] to be able to drive and go downhill and for [Jones] to establish herself inside,” Ionescu said postgame on how she was able to sink so many second-half threes.

But it’s not just that Laney was able to put points on the board. It was also the shift that she inspired across the Liberty. It was the process that she went through to make some of those looks at the rim. It was the fact that Laney was in the right place at the right time to outrebound and outhustle the Mystics. In the second quarter alone, Laney scored six second-chance points that were a consequence of her pursuing the basketball and outworking everyone around her.

“B’s been doing this for us all season long,” Brondello said postgame. “And it keeps getting better and better. You know what you’re going to get every single game. She’s going to go out and compete. She might not always score.”

But on Friday, she did, even hitting a dramatic shot just before the halftime buzzer. After setting a high screen for Ionescu to start the Liberty’s last offensive set of the half, she ran over to the weak side and got sneaky positioning on Delle Donne, Natasha Cloud and Sykes under the basket.

Ionescu kicked the ball out to Jones for a corner 3-pointer that she missed. On the miss, Laney had both of her neon sneakers in the paint. She and teammate Breanna Stewart rose to get the ball along with three Mystics. With one second left, the ball was tipped into Laney’s hands.

Without any indecision, Laney leaped and propelled the ball onto the backboard. It fell in as the red light flashed around the backboard and the shotclock. The Liberty were suddenly up by two scores, 44-40, entering the half. 

Ionescu, Liberty guard Courtney Vandersloot and Jones fist-pumped emphatically following the shot. Guard Marine Johannès was on her feet and excitedly flung her Gatorade towel.

Forward Nyara Sabally was the first to give Laney a two-handed high-five. Forward/guard Jocelyn Willoughby gave her a chest bump and a roar. Laney flashed a bright and toothy smile.

“Plays like that give us momentum,” Laney later said about her buzzer-beater. “It just gives us good energy, something to feed off of. And being able to have that play going into the half, knowing we did something well and feel good coming out, it just fuels us.”

That sequence propelled Jones and Stewart to follow Laney’s lead and get on the glass. In the second half, Jones and Stewart combined to rebound the ball 11 times, more than half of their overall combined total of 20 on Friday.

Along with her 20 points and eight boards, Laney spent a majority of the game picking up Sykes full court.

“A lot of times we go as she goes, especially on the defensive end. And she’s up in guards, picking up full court,” Jones said to a group of reporters following the Game 1 win. “We want to be able to have her back and we all feel like we have to step up defensively because she’s doing so much. We are watching her literally work down the court. So we don’t want to let her down when she gets down there.”

It’s notable that the Liberty’s first-year stars in Jones and Stewart don’t want to let down Laney, one of the architects of the multi-year build to establish the Liberty as a destination franchise. Even on a team with so much talent, Laney is at the center of making sure she and her teammates don’t lose sight of the toughness required to win during the playoffs. Talent alone doesn’t win a championship. According to Jones, Laney embodies that and is symbolic of who the Liberty strive to be at all times.

Betnijah Laney drives the ball with her left hand as Elena Delle Donne trails her.
New York Liberty wing Betnijah Laney (44) drives to the basket with Washington Mystics forward Elena Delle Donne (11) trailing her during a WNBA playoff game at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Sept. 15, 2023. (Photo credit: Brandon Todd/ New York Liberty)

All these attributes are part of why it had been a priority since at least the middle of the regular season for the Liberty to sign the 29-year-old to an extension. After Laney agreed to terms, she earned a giant hug from Ionescu in the Liberty’s training room. It was something that Ionescu had been hoping for.

But Laney being in New York for the long term wasn’t always clear cut, dating back to the winter when Vandersloot was signed to lead the backcourt. How would the cap money work? Would the Liberty have to trade Laney?

There was also the question of whether Laney would want to play a bigger role elsewhere, especially because her role from 2021 and 2022 had changed drastically — in fact, the most out of anyone still on the Liberty roster from the past two years.

“She’s had to adjust, and I think it’s been amazing to watch her game because we’re not putting her in a box,” Liberty general manager Jonathan Kolb said when addressing her extension. “She’s found ways to impact the games that actually can put us over the top against some teams. It’s been new wrinkles we’ve been adding, and so for that, it was really special to have her agree to be here.”

What hasn’t changed for Laney since 2021 is how she steps up when it really matters. Brondello hasn’t forgotten the game-tying banked 3-pointer that Laney hit with less than 10 seconds left almost two years ago in the playoffs against the team Brondello was coaching at the time, the Phoenix Mercury.

Betnijah Laney smiles and hugs her  teammate Courtney Vandersloot.
New York Liberty wing Betnijah Laney (44) embraces guard Courtney Vandersloot (22) during a WNBA playoff game at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Sept. 15, 2023. (Photo credit: Brandon Todd/ New York Liberty)

Friday was a chance for the Liberty to get their first home playoff win in eight years. The stage was set, the lights were bright and Laney didn’t take it lightly. She couldn’t.

“I know what’s at stake, but I just try to be the best me that I can be,” she said postgame, “and come out and be aggressive. And I think that’s all that there is to it. I know it’s playoffs, but for me, it’s a game for the next step to our goal.”

The key in both Laney’s performance on Friday and her extension is in that last phrase: “our goal.” Her understanding of how the journey to a championship is bigger than herself has been and will continue to be, central to New York’s success this season.

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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