September 30, 2023
How the New York Liberty kept their lead in Game 3 of the WNBA semifinals
'That's just the maturity I think that we learned over the season'
UNCASVILLE, Conn. — The New York Liberty finally felt like themselves on Friday night. After two semifinal games at Barclays Center in which the Connecticut Sun had physical defense and better guard play on offense, the Liberty beat the Sun 92-81 on the road. New York took a 2-1 lead in the semifinals and is one win away from its first WNBA Finals berth since 2002.
What exactly does a return to form for the Liberty look like? All starters in double figures: check. WNBA MVP Breanna Stewart scoring an efficient 25 points: check. Outshooting and outrebounding their opponent: check.
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The Liberty began the evening with a 37-point first quarter that featured wide-open 3-pointers from guard Sabrina Ionescu; Stewart scoring at ease in transition and at all three levels; and guard Betnijah Laney scoring off her slashing, defense and off-ball movement.
“We know we want to come out and punch first,” Laney later told reporters. “We want to try to take all of the momentum that we can early on because that helps the flow of the game for us. Coming out, we wanted to execute as well as being disruptive on defense.”
But the Liberty cooled down following that explosive first quarter. The Sun outscored or tied New York in each of the following quarters. The Liberty missed many open threes and layups at the rim. Head coach Sandy Brondello told reporters postgame that the game “wouldn’t have been [as] close” if her team had made the wide-open shots it typically makes.
While the Liberty weren’t the sharpest across the 40 minutes, they were focused mainly on getting the job done. What was most eye-opening about the win was how New York responded each time the Sun went on a run to close the lead, which at its height ballooned to 22 points and at its low shrunk to nine points. The Sun neither tied nor led for the entire 40 minutes.
The Liberty were notorious for relenting large leads in the regular season, especially prior to the All-Star break. There was a win over the Indiana Fever in July that needed overtime after the Liberty had led by as many as 20. A week earlier, there was a 99-95 win over the Phoenix Mercury after the Liberty had surrendered another 20-point lead. And there was a home loss to the Chicago Sky in June in which the Liberty had led by as many as 19 and got outrebounded.
These regular-season moments represented the antithesis of who the Liberty wanted to be. They were the kryptonite for a team looking to challenge the Las Vegas Aces in the WNBA Finals. The Liberty’s tendency to lose their leads stemmed from two separate considerations. How did players respond when they missed shots? And could players coming off the bench sustain the energy and composure necessary to keep the team’s momentum?
Against Connecticut on Friday, both questions were answered.
The Liberty had a keen understanding of what was going to happen after the first quarter. Connecticut was down 21 points, and New York knew the Sun would go on runs. That didn’t mean the Liberty lead was going to dissipate; rather, it would just change.
Center Jonquel Jones spoke to reporters following the game about how the Liberty kept their lead. She explained that she and her teammates were always talking when Brondello would call timeouts to interrupt Sun runs. Ionescu addressed the group and said that her team couldn’t “drop our level.” Jones also made sure the group knew that Connecticut’s runs were a natural part of the game and what was at stake.
“I think everybody just kind of played a little bit harder,” Jones said. “We talked about just not taking the quickest shot when we got into our offense. I think in transition we had so many open looks tonight that we were able to take advantage of that. But getting into the half court, we understand that we have [to] slow down a little bit and just make them work defensively.”
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Guard Courtney Vandersloot added that the Liberty were able to quell each Sun run because her teammates made huge plays.
“Just being able to stop the bleeding, and that’s maturity,” Vandersloot said. “That’s kind of knowing what it takes to know that, ‘Okay, that was their turn. Now it’s our turn.’ And that’s just the maturity I think that we learned over the season.”
Those huge plays included a Laney three with four seconds left on the shot clock following a jump ball. That gave Liberty a 15-point lead with 5:25 left in regulation.
Those plays included Jones getting on the offensive glass and creating five extra chances for her team.
Stopping the bleeding also meant Ionescu making a 3-pointer in the middle of the third quarter to bring the Liberty lead back to 13 points.
The maturity that Vandersloot mentioned permeated to the 25-year-old Ionescu, who knew when to take the shot that would interrupt a Connecticut run. “They were chipping away and I had a good look at the basket,” she said postgame. “And [I] wanted to make sure that we continued to keep our lead throughout the game, and so understanding the importance of taking it and continuing to just push the ball and make reads.”
The Liberty’s response to the Sun getting New York’s 18-point third-quarter lead down to 11 by the start of the fourth showed this maturity and development.
Stewart began the fourth on a personal 5-2 run. The battle between the two 2023 MVP candidates in Stewart and Connecticut forward Alyssa Thomas that had been expected in Game 2 came alive in the fourth quarter of Game 3.
Stewart began the quarter by backing down Sun wing DeWanna Bonner on the block, then pivoting and elevating for a mid-range jumper. Thomas responded with a mid-range jumper of her own.
Then Stewart got the ball from guard Marine Johannès on the right wing and faked out Sun guard Tiffany Hayes, who anticipated that Stewart and Johannès were going into a handoff. Once Hayes went under the screen that Stewart had set for the fake handoff, Stewart attacked Thomas. After two dribbles, Stewart did her best Johannès impression and fired a one-legged shot over Thomas. It banked in right as the whistle was called for an and-one.
At that moment, the MVP was cooking. She reminded the Sun and the entire state of Connecticut why she won this year’s award. The Liberty of June or July would have continued to feed Stewart following that 5-2 run. But on the Liberty’s next offensive possession, they did not.
Vandersloot probed into the paint and found Jones spaced in the right corner pocket. She stepped back in rhythm and hit a shot over the outstretched arms of Sun center Olivia Nelson-Ododa. The Sun needed a timeout. When the Liberty players went to the bench, Brondello met them more than halfway and put both hands up for Jones to slap. She was pleased.
“I think it just comes the more time we play together, the understanding of each other in the system,” Brondello said postgame about that sequence. “We preach [going from] good to great [shots], paint to great, and that’s why we’re getting those open threes. And we really worked on our spacing.”
It’s notable that Vandersloot was confident in the Liberty principles in that moment rather than resorting to what had been more comfortable in the past: feeding Stewart.
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During that entire sequence — the Stewart run into the Jones three — an unexpected presence was on the floor for New York. Johannès earned 17 minutes in Friday’s victory, the most she’s recorded all postseason.
While Johannès only hit one step-back 3-pointer in three shot attempts, it was her decision making and defensive intensity that helped the Liberty maintain their momentum without Ionescu or Vandersloot on the floor. It was Johannès who was heavily involved in creating shots for her teammates. While she didn’t register an assist, she made quick decisions and continued to move the ball, whipping it around to Stewart and Vandersloot with confidence.
“That’s the situation coming from the bench: You have to stay ready,” Johannès told The Next postgame.
Before finishing her answer, assistant coach Olaf Lange peeked down the hall, smiling at his player while listening to her discuss her impactful performance. “I accept my role,” she said. “I will always try to be ready for my team. I think I was like, ‘The team needs me.'”
Even when she missed two open threes, she followed her teammates’ lead. She had to keep going. “If you miss some good shots or some layups, we didn’t care,” she said.
Johannès also realized that her team needed her on the defensive end, especially after Hayes scored 30 points in Game 2. She admitted that she was most focused on executing the defensive scheme in part because Brondello made a lot of changes. The Liberty shuffled between man-to-man coverage, zone and a triangle-style scheme that is a hybrid of the two.
When the Liberty watched the film from Game 2, it became clear how the players had to hold each other accountable in Game 3. “I just felt like we just weren’t fighting over screens, and the guards felt like the post players could be a little bit better in help,” Jones said. “And when we watched the film, we realized that it was both of us. I could be in a better position and they can do a better job of fighting over as well.”
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The Liberty return to the film room on Saturday before Game 4 on Sunday. Stewart noted postgame that she believes the Liberty still haven’t played their best. Jones knows that Sunday won’t be a “cakewalk” because the Sun will be fighting for their season. While making the WNBA Finals lingers in the background, the Liberty know they have to focus on what’s right in front of them, not what’s down the road.
“One game and we’re putting ourselves into the finals,” Stewart said. “And [we’re] having that focus and that idea of not looking any further than that, and also just realizing that this one tonight put momentum back on our side.”
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.