Sky is the limit for playoff-bound Liberty
New York to battle defending WNBA champs in first round
The New York Liberty punched their ticket to the WNBA playoffs Sunday afternoon at Downtown’s Barclays Center.
Their reward? A best-of-three first-round playoff series against the reigning champion Chicago Sky.
The Liberty (16-20) entered the weekend needing at least a win over Atlanta to wrap up the seventh or eighth seed and their second consecutive postseason berth.
Clinging to an 80-79 lead entering the final minute of regulation, New York got a clutch 3-pointer from All-Star forward Natasha Howard to stretch the lead to four with 55 ticks on the clock.
“She makes big plays when we need it,” Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello said of what proved to be the game’s decisive shot.
All-Star point guard and freshly minted Eastern Conference Player of the Week Sabrina Ionescu hit a pair of free throws and Howard followed suit with two of her own as the Liberty held on for their third straight win in front of 7,561 satisfied fans on the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush.
“Just happy to be going to the playoffs, but obviously against a very good team,” said Brondello, who lost the WNBA Finals to Chicago last year when she was at the helm of the Phoenix Mercury.
“We’ll enjoy this today and move on to the next challenge,” she added.
Winners of six of their last eight overall, the seventh-seeded Liberty enter the playoffs as one of the league’s hottest teams.
But the No. 2 seed Sky (26-10) have been solid all year despite dropping two of three to close the campaign. They finished with the best record in the East, just behind the top-seeded Las Vegas Aces.
New York lost three of its four regular-season meetings to Chicago this year, including an 89-81 setback in the last encounter on July 29.
Chicago guard Courtney Vandersloot, likely to be running up and down the floor with Ionescu this week, scored 29 points and handed out nine assists to lead the Sky that night at Wintrust Arena, where this series will begin Wednesday night at 8 p.m.
The Liberty edged Chicago a week earlier in Brooklyn to snap a five-game skid and begin their run to the playoffs.
Ionescu converted a three-point play with just under 10 seconds remaining to pull that win out and sensed it was a turning point in a season full of ups-and-downs.
“That’s a big win for us to snap a five-game losing streak,” Ionescu said after her game-winning layup and free throw.
“Sometimes seeing a win is all you need to get a spark and win a game. We have a lot more games left. We’ll continue to get better and not stress about what seed we are.”
Regardless of seed, the Liberty know they are up against it.
Last year, it was Phoenix edging New York in a one-game playoff that ended the franchise’s hopes for its first-ever WNBA crown.
The Sky, who eventually beat the Mercury in five games in the WNBA Finals, topped Phoenix again on Sunday to avoid entering the playoffs on a three-game losing streak.
Now, New York will likely have to play its best basketball of the season to get past Chicago, which is trying to become the first WNBA team since the 2002 Los Angeles Sparks completed the feat.
“I think we found a way and grew as a team. We want sustainable success. … It’s the start of a journey,” Brondello noted.
A journey the Liberty are hoping ends with them holding aloft the WNBA championship trophy.
GIVE ME LIBERTY: Game 2 will also be in Chicago at noon while Game 3, if necessary, will be back in Brooklyn next Wednesday. … Ionescu averaged 16.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 6.0 assists while leading New York to a 3-1 record down the stretch to earn her fourth Player of the Week honor this season. … The Sky boast a WNBA-best 14-4 home record.
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