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As Liberty stay alive in playoff race, the future in New York is bright

(Jesse Louie/Just Women's Sports)

BROOKLYN, NY — The day before the Liberty took the Barclays Center court for the last time this season, in a game they had to win to remain in the playoff hunt, coach Walt Hopkins organized a film session.

The Liberty came out of the Olympic break in mid-August with control of their own destiny. Instead, they lost nine of 10, including a 29-point thumping by the No. 1 Sun on Wednesday, and entered Friday night’s regular season finale against the Mystics with their postseason chances hanging on by a thread.

So on Thursday, Hopkins took them through a film session where everything was on the table. The players and coaches aired frustrations, held each other accountable and bought into the team-oriented culture they’re building in New York.

“I think that one of the reasons that they’ve continued to respond well all season is that they really do trust one another, they trust the staff,” Hopkins said before the game. “So the primary focus for them is not just that we’re doing this for now, but we’re doing this because we’re building something. Every single game matters and the way that we play matters.”

The Liberty came out Friday night and played for the present and the future, holding off a resurgent Mystics team in the second half to win 91-80 in front of their home crowd.

For the Liberty to earn their first playoff berth since 2017, they need both the Mystics and Sparks to lose Sunday and they would advance with the head-to-head advantage.

The way Hopkins and the players talked after the game, Sunday’s results are not top of mind. For them, Friday night’s game was about proving to themselves that they’re capable of executing when the stakes are highest. Whether they carry those lessons into a postseason or next season, they walked away feeling proud of their effort and growth.

“We were faced with an opportunity to say, ‘Not this time. Not tonight,’” guard Sami Whitcomb said after the game. “We’re establishing that level of excellence we want to move forward with.

“Hopefully it’s the postseason for us where we get to really expand on that, but if it’s not, we’ve set the tone for us moving forward.”

Whitcomb has been a revelation for the Liberty since they acquired her and Natasha Howard in a trade with the Seattle Storm in February. Howard led New York with 24 points and 10 rebounds Friday night, while Whitcomb tallied 13 points and seven rebounds.

Whitcomb and Howard bring experience and championship pedigree to the Liberty, with five WNBA titles between them. Hopkins has leaned on them and Betnijah Laney to set the tone for this young team. Leading Rookie of the Year candidate Michaela Onyenwere, for one, has taken the veterans’ advice to heart.

“You can grow apart, you can break apart — our team has never done that,” Onyenwere said. “We’ve had every reason to do that in these hard games and we haven’t done that, so I think that says a lot about our team morale and team chemistry.”

The team’s support has been especially valuable for Sabrina Ionescu, who battled through injury and adjusting to the point guard role this season.

On Friday night, Ionescu looked like the player the Liberty drafted first overall in 2020, the one who left the University of Oregon as one of the most decorated college players of all time. She filled up the stat sheet with 22 points, nine assists and five rebounds, helping the Liberty close out the game with eight points in the fourth quarter while rallying the fans with her energy.

Ionescu’s play was one of many reasons the Liberty are bullish about their future.

“I think that the way we lost the games down the stretch was very much what young teams do,” Hopkins said. “Just give us a little time. We’re gonna be a problem.”

“Whatever happens the rest of the season, I don’t think it really matters,” Ionescu said. “At the end of the day, we’re proud of what we’ve accomplished, but it’s only the beginning. I’m really excited to see what the future holds for this team.”