Liberty season ends with thrilling loss in WNBA playoffs

The dramatic end to Liberty’s first playoff trip since 2017 brought back memories of the start of this season.

In the opener against Indiana, Sabrina Ionescu nailed a match-winning three-pointer from the flank at Barclays Center with four-tenths of a second to go, sending expectations skyrocketing. The Liberty started the season 5-1 and looked like a playoff team, easily surpassing their win tally from last season’s 2-20 debacle.

This time, with four-tenths of a second left in the first round of Thursday’s single-elimination playoff, the Liberty, one point behind, had one last chance to upset the Phoenix Mercury. As Sami Whitcomb entered the ball from the left, players cut and sprinted in choreography. The first option – a lob pass towards the basket – was not there, so Ionescu, coming off a screen, flashed at Whitcomb. Ionescu caught the pass from way past the three-point line, launching a moonshot over Brittney Griner’s outstretched arms, mid-foot.

The last shot came a meter short. The fadeaway jumper’s momentum and contact with Griner caused Ionescu to slip backwards with a loss of 83-82. “It just didn’t go the way we wanted,” said Liberty Coach Walt Hopkins.

With much to unpack after an exciting game, the Liberty went into the off-season with a lot of promise, with the ball and the franchise in Ionescu’s hands. “I’m really looking forward to next season, especially with this core group of players next to me, to be able to grow from here,” said Ionescu, flanked by Betnijah Laney, the team’s top scorer for the season, and Natasha Howard, the top scorer. rebounder, at the post-game press conference.

After an all-out Oregon career that made her the easy pick as the #1 overall roster for the Liberty in 2020, Ionescu severely sprained an ankle in her third WNBA game and missed the rest of her rookie season. She was hard to miss this season. Her competition face stretched across the entrance to Barclays Center. Slam Magazine called her the “The Next Queen of NY” on its April/May cover. She exchanged jokes in commercials with 11-time NBA All-Star Chris Paul, who was in the stands for the playoff game.

Ionescu, 23, has led the league in jersey sales this season, ahead of Seattle’s Sue Bird, who has played in the WNBA for nearly as long as Ionescu lives. “She just did a really great job of balancing expectations that might have been unrealistic for a rookie,” Hopkins said.

In her playoff debut, Ionescu finished with 14 points, a game-high 11 assists and 5 rebounds.

It takes years, even for child prodigies, to grow to their potential. Hopkins pointed to the Mercury’s Skylar Diggins-Smith, who made her first Olympic team last summer at age 31, scoring a team-high 22 points against the Liberty. “She’s finally realizing her potential,” Hopkins said of Diggins-Smith.

“For Sabrina to get where she is – where she takes over a young team, to perform, and to find success, and to take big hits, and to yell back when someone talks to her and doesn’t take it from her …everyone — it’s been really special,” Hopkins said. “I’ve never been able to see anyone evolve as quickly as Sab, and it’s honestly been a privilege.”

Still, Laney, the team’s best player all season, was 25 points in the game against the Mercury. Howard led Liberty’s sustained defense with doubles and triples, limiting Griner’s ability to take over in the absence of Mercury guard Diana Taurasi, who was not playing with an ankle injury. After starring as a 2-guard in college, Ionescu has learned to play the point and become more of a facilitator than a finisher.

In just her sixth professional game, Ionescu became the youngest player in league history to record a triple-double, with 26 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds in a win against Minnesota.

However, ankle tendonitis limped on Ionescu in June, and that, coupled with Howard’s loss to a knee injury, blocked the team’s progress. The Olympic break helped Ionescu get back into shape, but the team’s play continued to plummet and the Liberty won just two games into the second half of the season. The Liberty entered their final game of the regular season with an eight-game loss, but held off the Washington Mystics to keep their small hopes of a playoff alive.

With losses to the Mystics and Los Angeles Sparks on the final day of the regular season, the Liberty peeped into the postseason. “Nobody thought we would be in this position,” Laney said after the Phoenix loss. “So the fact that we’ve stuck together and made it here and fought hard, I’m really excited for what’s to come in the future.”

Hopkins blamed the referee after the loss, although he had no problem with the calls in the game’s waning moments.

“There are a lot of things I want to say about serving with the WNBA and the disrespect this team has received all season,” said Hopkins. “But I can’t say that because referees are impeccable. They don’t have to go to a press conference after the games. They don’t have to explain what mistakes they made, why they did what they do.

“I don’t know where the responsibility comes from, but it has to be done. It was a bad season. The way they treated us was bad.”

Hopkins said the team was held to a different standard because there were so many young players, including Ionescu and Michaela Onyenwere, who is the favorite for the Rookie of the Year Award. Against Phoenix, she played less than nine minutes and did not score.

Laney is still working on her resume, fueled by disappointments and setbacks. Since the Chicago Sky drafted her in 2015, she was cut twice, by the Sky and the Fever, before finding a spot at Atlanta last year when she won the league’s Most Improved Player Award. Then she made her first All-Star team this season, with the Liberty, leading the team with 16.8 points per game.

Against Phoenix, Laney made her team’s final shot, with 2.7 seconds left, to tie the game at 82. But the Mercury got the ball to Brianna Turner under the basket during the ensuing incoming play and Whitcomb made a wrong on her. Turner’s first free throw rimmed, but she calmly made the second to give the Mercury the lead.

After a timeout, the Liberty had its last chance to win. When Ionescu hit the floor after the missed shot, Howard ran to help her to her feet. Ionescu didn’t look angry or taken aback as she left the field. Instead, she looked like she was reserving this experience for the future.

She talked about the film work she had ahead of her in the off-season, the experience gained, the lessons learned. “We’re going to start a training camp at this level,” she said. “This is the basics.”

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