Liberty Advance to WNBA Semifinals After OT Thriller Against Mystics
In a back-and-forth thriller at Barclays Center on Tuesday, the New York Liberty defeated the Washington Mystics, 90-85, in overtime, advancing to their first WNBA playoff semifinals since 2015.
The win, in front of a sellout crowd of more than 9,200, also marks the Liberty’s first three-game series sweep since 2000.
The first quarter was evenly matched as New York took a 21-18 lead going into the second. After a rough shooting night in Game 1, Liberty forward Breanna Stewart got off to a hot start in Game 2, scoring 11 points in the first quarter. Betnijah Laney also had nine points, including an acrobatic lay-in off a no-look pass from Sabrina Ionescu to get the large Liberty faithful crowd going.
In the second quarter, the Liberty took over, outscoring the Mystics 25-17 to take an 11-point lead into halftime. Ionescu made two three-pointers in the quarter, her only threes of the night, to propel the Liberty in the second.
Both Jonquel Jones and Kayla Thornton got after rebounds and also had some timely putbacks. The Mystics had eight turnovers in the first half, compared to four for the Liberty.
The Mystics Playing With Their Season On the Line
Even while facing a deficit, the Mystics took over in the third in a fight for their season to continue. Led by Natasha Cloud with eight points, and six points from Myisha Hines-Allen, Washington was able to get within three to end the quarter.
The fourth quarter began with Brittney Sykes making a corner three to tie the game at 59. Both teams went back and forth before Cloud and the Mystics were able to extend their lead to six with just under four minutes remaining in the game.
With many of the Liberty players making clear that they did not want to go into a difficult Mystics home environment for Game 3, they fought to overcome the late deficit in Game 2. New York had one of their poorer three-point shooting nights, only going 4-of-23, yet one of the biggest and most timely shots of the game was a three that came from Laney–their only three of the second half–to get the Liberty within one with 2:18 remaining.
“She is someone who knows what she is good at and is confident and these are the moments she lives for,” Stewart said about Laney’s play.
The Liberty were then able to extend their own lead to three after shots by Jones and Stewart, but Sykes tied the game again with 33 seconds remaining, silencing the crowd while running back up the court.
Clutch Play Down the Stretch
Washington took a 76-74 lead after two free throws from Cloud, who then fouled Ionescu with 12.1 seconds left in the fourth. Ionescu missed the first free throw and intentionally missed the second, allowing Jones to come up with a huge offensive rebound. Jones was fouled and was able to calmly hit her own free throws to tie the game at 76 and send both teams into overtime.
Jones finished the game with 19 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks. The Liberty outrebounded Washington 52-42, including some game-changing offensive rebounds from Jones.
Washington made it difficult for both Ionescu and Courtney Vandersloot, especially during the second half, consistently denying them the ball, which led to Stewart often taking over the role of point guard to bring the ball up the court.
“We stayed the course,” Stewart said. “We didn’t stop playing until the final buzzer.”
Powered by free throw shooting from Stewart and two baskets from Vandersloot, the Liberty defense kept the Mystics at bay during overtime and forced late turnovers to secure the victory.
Stewart led the Liberty in scoring with 27 points and added nine rebounds. She remained composed throughout the game, going 6-of-6 from the free throw line in overtime.
Natasha Cloud’s Big Night
For the Mystics, Brittney Sykes contributed 14 points and Ariel Atkins had 13, but it was Natasha Cloud for whom the Liberty could not find an answer. She had a career-high 33 points, nine assists and six rebounds and was applauded walking to the tunnel at the end of the game by Liberty fans for her performance.
“It was a great environment to play in,” Cloud said. “Like these are things that we dreamed of since the time we were kids so to feel that love coming off the court, it just was a reiteration to me that I really did leave everything that I could on the floor.”
This came after comments Cloud made on Monday insisting that she would guard Ionescu for all 40 minutes in Game 2. Ionescu finished the game with 11 points, nine rebounds and five assists, but highlighted the Liberty’s ability for anyone to step up.
After their matchup, Cloud and Ionescu hugged it out following the game.
“I know I talk s—, and I know I was in Sabrina’s stuff and I know I took a few hard fouls on her,” Cloud said. “Even though I take that villain role in the game, I have a lot of respect for Sabrina and who Sabrina is, what she is to our league, who she is as a player.”
Home Court Advantage
The Liberty also celebrated Noche Latina night during Game 2, highlighted by various performances, and every fan in attendance was given a Noche Latina-themed rally towel.
The Liberty were able to capitalize on their homecourt advantage, including some celebrity appearances. WNBA legend and Stewart’s former teammate Sue Bird, Ted Lasso star Jason Sudeikis, rapper Fat Joe, Knicks legend Carmelo Anthony and members of the Brooklyn Nets were all in attendance to cheer New York to victory.
“This is when we knew we wanted to play our best basketball and we understood that we had to come together,” Jones told ESPN’s Holly Rowe In front of the electric crowd. “We’ve had a lot of hard tests during the season that have gotten us ready for this moment and we’re here.”
The Liberty will face the winner of the three-game series between the Connecticut Sun (3) and the Minnesota Lynx (6) beginning at home on Sept. 24. New York went 4-0 against Connecticut in the regular season and 2-1 against Minnesota.