Sabrina Ionescu thrust her hands into the air, threw her head back and screamed. As the buzzer sounded on her team’s 98-91 upset of the defending champion Chicago Sky in Game 1 of the first round, Ionescu was flooded with emotion.
Happiness, relief, exhaustion and pride. The Liberty guard felt it all after the franchise’s first playoff win since 2015.
“We came here and did what we needed to do, and what nobody believed we could do,” she said.
The Liberty still have to win one more game to take the best-of-three series and move onto the semifinals, but the win on Wednesday proved something the Liberty have long known: It’s possible.
“I’ve been saying to this team, ‘Why not us?’ I know we had a 20 percent chance of even making it to the playoffs, and here we are,” Ionescu said. “We believe in ourselves and that’s all that matters. We are going to try and get another one.”
The win wasn’t a fluke. The Liberty know that. The Sky know, too. And they both know that New York, as the No. 7 seed, needs just one more win to advance and send last year’s title winner home.
If you don’t believe Ionescu’s sentiment of “why not” the Liberty, then allow me to present the evidence.
There’s precedent for the Liberty playing the Sky close. They matched up four times in the regular season, and aside from a lopsided 83-50 Chicago win in the second game of the season, every contest has been tight.
New York lost by two, 88-86, on June 12, when Ionescu recorded her first triple-double of the season with 27 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists.
The Liberty secured their first win over the Sky on July 23, when Ionescu completed a 3-point play with 9.7 seconds left, ending a six-game winning streak by Chicago.
And in their most recent matchup on July 29, the Sky secured an eight-point win despite the Liberty keeping it close with double-figure scoring from Ionescu, Natasha Howard, Stefanie Dolson and Marine Johannès.
Each time they’ve played the Sky, the Liberty have gained confidence. Each one of those matchups further proved the mindset that New York has what it takes to play with Chicago.
When you look at the Liberty’s roster makeup, it’s hard to believe this team went into the playoffs with a 16-20 record. They have one of the deepest teams in the league, with top-to-bottom talent.
That starts with Ionescu and her 17.4 points, 7.1 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game, but it certainly doesn’t end there. Howard is a two-time All-Star who averages 15.1 points per game, but more importantly, she’s a veteran who’s been a part of three WNBA championship teams. She knows how to win in the postseason and demonstrated that in a big way Wednesday with 22 points, seven boards and three assists. Howard also played 34 minutes, the most after Ionescu.
Dolson, who was a part of Chicago’s championship-winning team last year, contributed 13 points and seven rebounds in Wednesday’s win. She was crucial to the Liberty’s offense, making three 3-pointers, and as a 6-foot-5 center, her shooting ability stretches the defense and creates more openings for her teammates.
👀 did you see that ? MJ’s over the back dish to Flash!#Ownthecrown pic.twitter.com/F1FTHLv6VX— New York Liberty (@nyliberty) August 18, 2022
👀 did you see that ? MJ’s over the back dish to Flash!#Ownthecrown pic.twitter.com/F1FTHLv6VX
But the two pieces that are the most important to New York’s potential playoff success are Betnijah Laney and Johannès.
Laney was dominant last season for New York, averaging 16.8 points per game and earning her first All-Star bid. She missed significant time this year with a knee injury that required surgery. Wednesday’s win was only her fifth game back for the Liberty, but she looked to be at the top of her game, recording 17 points, five rebounds and five assists. With 1:23 left on the clock, Laney hit a step-back jumper to give her team a five-point advantage. She then made two free throws with 38.9 seconds remaining for the 98-91 lead that ended up being the final score. Her return was crucial to the Liberty winning their last three games to even get to the playoffs, and she remains a key piece in their quest to upset the Sky.
Johannès, meanwhile, has been making a splash with her flashy style since she joined the team on June 6. But her flair shouldn’t be confused with gaudiness. The guard is creative, but everything she does has purpose. Take last night’s over-the-back pass to Howard. It drew excitement from the crowd and praise on Twitter, but that’s not why she did it. Johannès threw the ball backwards because the angle of her defender didn’t allow her to swivel for a direct pass to Howard. Johannès brings excitement to the Liberty, but more importantly, she provides a playmaking ability that complements Ionescu and creates more opportunities for New York’s offense.
The Sky held a 91-85 lead when Courtney Vandersloot made a layup with 3:32 left on the clock. From there, Chicago didn’t score again. The Liberty closed the game on a 13-0 run in which the Sky went 0-for-8 from the field, with multiple turnovers and head-scratching decisions.
“I think we panicked a little bit,” Azurá Stevens said. “And not forced, but maybe a little bit. We were down and we were trying to get back. I feel like we haven’t panicked all year.”
While the Sky looked nervous down the stretch, the Liberty remained stoic and chipped away at the six-point deficit before eventually taking and building the lead.
That leads back to the confidence the Liberty developed by playing the Sky close in their previous meetings. They’ve seen on three separate occasions that they can keep up with the defending champions, and on Wednesday that belief guided the Liberty to victory.
The Liberty made 11 3-pointers against the Sky on Wednesday, shooting at a 44 percent clip, with seven players knocking down at least one shot from long-range. They score 36.5 percent of their points from beyond the arc, which leads the league. That’s a defensive nightmare. When everyone can shoot 3s, it means the defense can’t ignore any one player, and the constant need to close-out to 3-point range opens lanes to the basket and entry passes to the post. Especially when some of the 3-point threats are bigs. Dolson and Han Xu force teams to defend well beyond the arc, meaning shot-blockers aren’t anywhere near the hoop.
Plus, with their ability to knock down 3s, the Liberty are always within striking distance.
The final piece to the puzzle is the playoff format. With last season’s layout, the Sky, as the team with the second-best record, would have received a double bye. Instead, they are playing a three-game series.
Games 1 and 2 take place in Chicago, but Game 3 will be in New York, meaning the Liberty have a shot to sweep the series on the road on Saturday. But if they lose, they then get home-court advantage for the series-deciding contest, a scenario Sky head coach James Wade decried on Tuesday.
“You go into a series, especially in this format, and you just need to steal one,” Liberty coach Sandy Brondello said.
The Liberty have done that. Now, with two chances to finish the job and advance to their first semifinal series since 2015, they need to steal just one more.
Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.