Brooklyn Boro

Liberty grab final WNBA playoff spot

Losses by Washington and L.A. give New York No. 8 seed

September 21, 2021 John Torenli, Sports Editor
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The New York Liberty walked off the floor at Downtown’s Barclays Center Friday night relieved that they had ended an eight-game losing streak in their regular-season finale.

Forty-eight hours later, they found themselves in the WNBA playoffs for the first time since 2017.

Natasha Howard scored 24 points and Sabrina Ionescu added 22 as the Liberty held off the Washington Mystics, 91-80, Friday in front of 3,615 fans on the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush.

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Though they had posted their first victory since Aug. 18 and just their second win in the past 13 contests, the Liberty (12-20) left the hardwood knowing they had a slim chance to get into the postseason after finishing with the league’s worst record in each of the previous two campaigns.

“It would be a tremendous experience for us,” Liberty head coach Walt Hopkins said of what was then just a postseason pipe dream.

“The amount of experiences we can get are so important for the development of the team. It would mean a lot to everybody. We’re hopeful.”

All of Hopkins hopes and wishes were fulfilled Sunday.

Washington (12-20) lost in Minnesota and Los Angeles (12-20) lost at Dallas, leaving all three playoff hopefuls with identical records.

New York took the final spot due to its head-to-head record against the Mystics and Sparks, respectively.

Liberty All-Star Betnijah Laney believes New York has a chance to advance in Thursday night’s single-elimination playoff game in Phoenix. AP Photo by Noah K. Murray

And now, the Liberty will be in Phoenix Thursday night at 10 p.m. ET for a single-elimination showdown against the fifth-seeded Mercury (19-13), who took two of three meetings from New York this season, including back-to-back wins at Barclays from Aug. 25-27.

“I feel really good about the way (the regular season) ended against Washington,” Hopkins said Monday as his team prepared for the trip to Phoenix.

“That was a playoff game for us. The way we responded with everyone focused on the right things. … I really saw our team figure something out.”

Whether they can figure out a Mercury team that outscored them by a combined 45 points during the two-game set in Brooklyn last month is another question.

The Liberty did beat the Mercury in Phoenix on Jun. 13, but they have managed just six wins overall since, including Friday’s season-saving triumph at Barclays.

“It’s nice,” Hopkins said of the playoff berth.

“It’s definitely something that wasn’t a must-have this year.”

But the Liberty will take it.

And they’ll take their chances against the Mercury, who are led by All-Star forward Brittney Griner, Thursday night with a shot at even more playoff experience on the line.

“Our last game gave us a really good amount of momentum and showed us what we are capable of when we are locked in for 40 minutes,” said Liberty All-Star Betnijah Laney.

“We just need to go out with the same mindset. That’s what we did on Friday and that’s what we need to do again (Thursday in Phoenix).”

Phoenix forward Brittney Griner averaged better than 20 points per game this season for the fifth-seeded Mercury. AP Photo by Michael Conroy

GIVE ME LIBERTY: Michaela Onyenwere, the Liberty’s first-round pick in this year’s WNBA Draft, virtually wrapped up the league’s Rookie of the Year award this week. She was named WNBA Rookie of the Month for September, marking the fourth consecutive month she has received the coveted honor. She joins previous Rookie of the Year winners A’ja Wilson (2018), Breanna Stewart (2016), Elena Delle Donne (2013), and Tina Charles (2010) as one of only five players to have swept the awards since they were instituted in 2010. Onyenwere averaged 7.0 points and 2.5 rebounds in four games this month, highlighted by her 14-point outing against Connecticut on Sept. 15. … Ionescu has scored at least 10 points in 11 straight games since the Olympic break. … Laney tied a career best with 11 assists vs. Washington last Friday.

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