May 19, 2024 

The New York Liberty are done playing catchup

Starting 3-0 and setting an attendance record at the home opener could make this the Liberty's year

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Breanna Stewart couldn’t wait to be back at Barclays Center after the way the New York Liberty left their fans for the last time last season. Her teammate and front court partner in Jonquel Jones agreed, nodding her head up and down in accordance with what Stewart had just said postgame following the Liberty’s 91-80 win over the Indiana Fever on Saturday. It was their third consecutive win to start the season. 

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Stewart and Jones also had an understanding that their home fans were also just as impatient to get back to Barclays Center. They were itching to be able to wear their seafoam and black, do the wave with Ellie the Elephant and watch the Liberty win on their home floor. 

The record breaking attendance in Brooklyn that afternoon proved that to be a case in point. Barclays Center sold out and packed 17,735 fans, the most the Liberty have ever had in the building. 

“Coming back, just showing them what we’ve improved on, what we’ve worked on,” Sabrina Ionescu said about the home crowd to a group of reporters postgame. “And really just being a part of the community I think has really helped us continue to fuel this crowd and use them to our advantage anytime a team comes in here. We want them to feel that energy and kind of be a defender for them so to say.”

Besides the attendance record, the Liberty earned more than $2 million in ticket revenue on Saturday, which the Associated Press reported was a WNBA record. That record is a confluence of the Liberty’s ever-growing presence in New York City and the hunger to see rookie Caitlin Clark wherever she goes. Ionescu explained that the Liberty’s home opener felt like a playoff game, and it can be argued that it had similar stakes to one. 

“It’s nothing like being home playing against another powerful team in front of your friends,” Kayla Thornton told The Next pregame. And while the Indiana Fever sit at 0-3 and at the bottom of the WNBA standings for now, they represent exactly what Thornton said: a powerful team that carries a lot of influence. 

The Clark fandom was well represented in the sea of sea-foam. While Liberty fans booed when any other Fever player was at the foul line, there was enough of a Clark contingent present to ooh, ahh, and cheer whenever she shot the ball. 

Caitlin Clark is defended by Liberty players
Caitlin Clark is defended by multiple Liberty players on May 18, 2024 during their home opener at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY. (Photo by. Brandon Todd/New York Liberty)

But alongside the records that were broken on Saturday, the energy that oozed in Brooklyn because of the home team and the young new superstar in Clark and rising star Aliyah Boston coming to town, there was a sense of comfort for the Liberty. There was a status quo, an expectation, and a little less chaos. 

When Thornton and Courtney Vandersloot woke up that morning for the team’s home opener, they both felt a different type of excitement compared to how it felt to begin a season and wake up for games on the road. While Vandersloot noted it tends to feel like a first day of school, she also addressed a comfort. Thornton felt this too. Alongside Stewart and Jones, both of them are in year two with this franchise, in this city and with sky high expectations that they need to shoulder as a team with this much talent in the largest media market in the world. 

But, gone are the days of the New York Liberty playing catchup against the rest of the league. Gone are the days of outsiders questioning if General Manager Jonathan Kolb’s ambitious vision could actually yield favorable results. Gone are the days of the New York Liberty having to prove to other teams that they can actually play together and for each other. 

After three games, New York’s starters (Ionescu, Jones, Laney-Hamilton, Stewart and Vandersloot), have a net rating of 33.6. Only the Connecticut starting lineup of Alyssa Thomas, DeWanna Bonner, Brionna Jones, Ty Harris and Dijonai Carrington has a better net rating (37.4) in only two games on the floor together. 

On Saturday afternoon, all five starters reached double-digit scoring alongside a much more balanced shot distribution. While Stewart lead the way with 24 points on 7-14 shooting, 5 rebounds, 4 steals, 3 blocks and 2 assists — very Stewart-type numbers — Ionescu had 12 points on 11 shots and 5 assists, Laney-Hamilton had 13 points on 10 shots,  4 assists and 3 rebounds, Jones had a 14-12 double-double on 6 shots and Vandersloot scored 10 points on 8 shots and had 5 assists and 4 rebounds. 

That group made 10-24 of their shots from three and were the first team in WNBA history to have all five starters make multiple treys in a regular season game. There were multiple moments when starters would make the extra pass because they noticed their teammate either had a better shot or was much more open. Stewart documented a lot of these moments on her Instagram post following the victory on Sunday morning documenting the first home win of the season. 

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Stewart is incredibly intentional about what she likes to show. She was intentional in her decision to bring Brittney Griner’s book “Coming Home” with her to the Fever’s home opener on a night when most of the women’s basketball world would be focused on Clark. Swiping through the highlights on the post after images of her wife and children are clips of moments when her teammates and Stewart shined the brightest. Four of the six video clips were of moments when the Liberty made the extra pass. This time, when Laney-Hamilton was standing in the corner without a defender in sight, her teammates found her instead of leaving her with her arms up. 

Defensively there has also been growth. While head coach Sandy Brondello addressed how disappointed she was with the team’s defensive intensity in the first game at Washington, she noticed an improvement during game 2 in Indiana. “You can see it at the point of the screen,” she said pregame on Saturday. “We knew who was coming off. We executed our game plan as well as we could. And we had a few breakdowns, of course, but the intention was there and I think that’s the most important thing.”

There’s a deeper understanding of when the shots aren’t falling, the defensive intensity has to be present in order to win games. There’s more effort in transition. During the postgame press conference on Saturday, Jones mentioned that there’s a concerted effort to build “wall behind the ball.” 

Another growth point is New York’s complacency, something Ionescu and Brondello both addressed at different points on Saturday. Brondello didn’t beat around the bush prior to tip off as she explained what the goal that afternoon was. The Liberty beat the Fever by almost 40 points on Thursday night. Could they beat the same team again?

“An area of growth for us is continuing to have that killer mentality,” she said. “So let’s see how we go. That’s the goal. We have to make sure we can win consecutive games with the same energy and intensity.”

Ioenscu added: “I think last year, we would kind of take our foot off the gas and understand we had a blowout when we come here and just relax instead of understanding every game is important.”

New York was united in their goals for the afternoon. Those included not only getting the win, but also showing their fans, and the world watching at home, who the top dogs in the WNBA really are. They were the 2023 runner-ups, after all. 

While there’s an understanding across teams to collectively grow the WNBA, and Clark remains a huge tool in doing that, New York made multiple statements against the Fever on Thursday and then again on Saturday afternoon. The Liberty, subtly (or maybe not so subtly) welcomed the 2024 No.1 overall pick to the league. 

The most buzz-worthy moments included the very hard screen Stewart set on Clark in the first quarter, and then of course Ionescu’s fake pass and then three while Clark was guarding her. 

And don’t forget about Laney-Hamilton’s consistent two-way presence getting in Clark’s face on the defensive end while also driving and playmaking. There was a pro-level sequence from the Liberty’s lead wing stopper with 5:30 left in the second quarter when she drove on Clark sending her to the ground, and then she spun around and passed the ball to Liberty rookie Leonie Fiebich who was standing in the left corner pocket without a defender. This came all after Clark scored on Laney-Hamilton and sent her to the floor after Clark hit her defender in the face. 

Why does this matter? Laney-Hamilton didn’t care that she didn’t score on Clark herself. Rather, she wanted to make sure her team did. Fiebich was wide open and sunk her first WNBA three. 

And speaking of the bench, while it is the starting five that has established chemistry, Brondello understands that her project while the season is young is to get her bench players in. She wants to get those bench players — Fiebich, Ivana Dojkić, and Kennedy Burke — all comfortable. In addition to returners in Thornton and Nyara Sabally, those players all got over ten minutes of playing time. This is something that was almost inconceivable in 2023. 

“There’s still areas that we know we can get better and we will with time but to be able to go to the bench and for them to bring in some energy,” New York’s head coach said. “And they’re still learning. We can’t look too much deeply into it because they’ve only played together a hot minute.” 

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But, back to making the extra pass. This wasn’t just done literally, but figuratively as well. Did anyone notice the ESPN postgame when sideline reporter Holly Rowe essentially conducted an interview with the entire roster? When Rowe acknowledged how off-season acquisition Burke was back in the WNBA, Stewart pulled her in a bit more so the television camera could see her better. 

The Liberty began their 2024 journey at home sending a message. Was Kelsey Plum’s comment about how much the Liberty care for one another in the back of their minds? That remains to be seen. 

But what was obvious on Saturday afternoon was that the pomp and circumstance that’s expected at Barclays Center is rising to an even-higher level. CeLiberty Row — the name given to where celebrities sit when they come to Liberty games — supported a theme: legends in sports. Everyone from Billie Jean King, Sue Bird, Megan Rapinoe, Dawn Staley, Michelle Wie West,  Pau Gasol and Ted Lasso (I mean Jason Sudeikis) were in the Liberty’s house. 

At halftime, Ellie not only headlined alongside the Liberty’s other dancers as her backup, but she pulled off three different costume changes in less than 10 minutes. It was reminiscent of what a global pop star does when they arrive on a red carpet or perform at a Super Bowl. 

And the Liberty had a new introductory video, which included the starting five wearing glamorous and spunky outfits inspired by their personalities while grooving on a sea foam-colored replica of a New York City subway. 

Ionescu begins the montage saying “you know what it is!” And it’s true — the fans do know what this team is and who they are. Laney-Hamilton follows that up in her all-pink get up and says “it’s time for me and my girls to get busy.” Stewart interjects: “This is the remix.”  

Jones instructs for the background music to drop as the highlights of the Liberty’s greatness flash on the screen. Laney-Hamilton instructs her team to “do what we do.” And then the final mic drop is from Stewart in all white with some shades on. “Let’s run it,” she says. On Saturday afternoon, that’s exactly what the Liberty did.

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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.

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