NY Liberty fans celebrate in the fourth quarter.
September 15, 2023: NY Liberty fans celebrate in the fourth quarter. Photo taken by Brian Fleurantin.

Liberty Have Sights Set on First-Round Sweep After Taking Game 1 Against Mystics

In front of a sold out, electric home crowd at Barclays Center, the New York Liberty defeated the Washington Mystics, 90-75, in Game 1 of the first round of the WNBA playoffs on Friday. 

This was New York’s first home playoff victory since 2015, and it did it in front of a crowd of more than 8,700. 

The Mystics had the edge early, leading the Liberty 29-23 at the end of the first quarter, building upon the momentum they sustained after beating the Liberty five days prior on a buzzer-beater from guard Brittney Sykes. Washington’s Natasha Cloud had six points and six assists in the quarter.

Betnijah Laney’s Impact

While the Liberty struggled shooting in the first half, they were able to outscore the Mystics 23-13 in the second quarter to lead 46-42 going into halftime. Much of this was due to Betnijah Laney setting the tone. Laney had 14 points and six rebounds at the half, including a buzzer-beating shot off a missed three to end the first half. 

Laney ended the game with 19 points and was also a force on the defensive end, often guarding the Mystics’ guards even in the backcourt and challenging her teammates to step up on defense as well. 

“We want to be there and to have her back and you know, we all feel like we have to step up defensively because she’s doing so much,” Jonquel Jones said about Laney. “We’re watching her literally work down the court, so we don’t want to let her down when she gets down there. So, I think she definitely is our leader defensively.”

Getting Hot In the Second Half

The Liberty came out much stronger in the second half, and it was time for Sabrina Ionescu to take over. 

In the third quarter, Ionescu helped to extend the Liberty lead to 69-57, scoring the last five points of the quarter with a deep three and a floater in the lane to set them up for the fourth. 

It was then when Ionescu completely took over, scoring 12 points on 4-of-5 shooting from three. While the Mystics tried to battle back from their deficit, Ionescu would not allow it. She made two threes within 80 seconds and her final shot came from 33 feet out with 12 seconds remaining, giving the Liberty a comfortable 15-point advantage to close out the game. 

Ionescu was on fire, scoring 29 points and a franchise playoff record seven three-pointers. She scored 20 of those points in the second half. 

In front of the Liberty faithful, waving their white “Light It Up” rally towels that were provided to every fan in attendance, Ionescu addressed the crowd after the game, saying, “The basket felt really big when I was shooting. To win this first game at home is huge.”

Trust and Teammates

Jonquel Jones also had a strong night, adding 20 points and 12 rebounds, her 11th postseason double-double. 

“I know that we can score with anybody, but when we’re locked in defensively, we take it to another level and I think that’s going to be our biggest emphasis,” Jones said. 

Breanna Stewart had another tough shooting night against Washington, going 3-of-16, but she contributed in other ways, including eight rebounds–four of them offensive–and three blocks. 

Even with a low-scoring game, Stewart said she had the support of her teammates who were able to step up in big moments. 

Courtney Vandersloot also made history during the game, becoming the fastest player in WNBA history to reach 300 playoff assists, passing Sue Bird, who was in attendance.

“If you look at this team, we have so much talent and anybody can step up at any moment” Stewart said, crediting Ionescu, Jones and Laney for their strong play. “We know we have a long way to go in this series and making sure we do whatever we can to get the win.” 

The Stars Came Out

September 15: Brooklyn Nets star Mikal Bridges. Image via Brooklyn NTS

Stars came out to watch the game, including WNBA legends Sheryl Swoopes and Bird and Liberty legend Teresa Weatherspoon. Also in attendance were tennis legend Billie Jean King, human rights and education activist Malala Yousafzai, actor and R&B singer H.E.R. and Brooklyn Nets guard Mikal Bridges donning his own Ionescu jersey. 

For the Mystics, Myisha Hines-Allen scored 21 points and Brittney Sykes added 16. 

The Liberty will face the Mystics again in Game 2 on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m., also streamed on ESPN2. It is a must-win game if the Mystics want to force a Game 3 at the Entertainment & Sports Arena in Washington, D.C.