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Liberty shock champs in playoff opener

Dramatic game-ending run puts Sky on brink of elimination

August 18, 2022 John Torenli, Sports Editor
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A regular season full of late-game disappointments and near-misses taught the New York Liberty a valuable lesson: how to finish up strong.

They did just that Wednesday night in Game 1 of their best-of-three opening-round playoff series against the defending WNBA champion Chicago Sky, rallying for an inspiring 98-91 victory in front of 7,524 stunned fans at Wintrust Arena.

Reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Month Sabrina Ionescu had 22 points, seven rebounds and six assists and fellow All-Star Natasha Howard added 22 points and seven boards as the Liberty scored the game’s final 13 points to put Chicago on the brink of elimination on its home floor.

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“We’ve been in this situation all year and early on we were losing these games,” said Ionescu, who suffered through a 1-7 start with her teammates before rallying to reach the postseason in the regular-season finale Sunday.

“But we found out what it takes to win and we showed that tonight,” she added. “We gotta do it again.”

They’ll get their chance in the Windy City on Saturday at high noon in Game 2 after posting the franchise’s first playoff win in nearly seven years.

Game 3, if necessary, will be back at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center on Tuesday.

But until then, the Liberty can savor besting the Sky down the stretch, turning a 91-85 deficit with 6:36 to play into a win they can build on this weekend.

“We’re resilient,” said New York head coach Sandy Brondello, who lost the WNBA Finals to Chicago last year at the helm of the Phoenix Mercury.

“It feels good, but it’s still one game,” she added. ‘We know they’re going to come in hungry next game.”

Rebekah Gardner and the Chicago Sky were dejected after dropping Game 1 of their first-round playoff series to the Liberty Wednesday night. AP Photo by Nam Y. Huh

The game-ending run began with Marine Johannes feeding Howard on a no-look pass for a quick layup followed by a 29-foot bomb from Ionescu, who finished 8-of-12 from the floor, including 3-of-6 from 3-point range.

Howard came through with another layup to give New York the lead for good, 92-91, with 2:12 remaining.

While the Sky clanged 10 of their final 11 shots, the Liberty caught fire when they needed to most.

Ionescu drilled a jumper from the foul line and Betnijah Laney stepped back and knocked down an 11-footer before hitting a pair of free throws with 39 ticks on the clock to cap the scoring.

“I just love pressure,” Ionescu said of her late-game heroics. “I want to be great and do whatever I can to help us win. It took everyone (tonight).”

Kahleah Copper scored 21 points, Allie Quigley added 18 and Candace Parker finished with 17 for Chicago, which will need to regroup quickly if it hopes to become the first WNBA team to repeat as champs since the 2001-02 Los Angeles Sparks.

Laney, the Liberty’s lone All-Star from a season ago, poured in 17 points and Stefanie Dolson had 13 for New York, which scored its most points ever in a playoff game.

“We’re feeling really good. We did what we had to do to win Game 1,” said Howard.

The Liberty suffered through three overtime defeats and endured a series of late-game collapses en route to a 9-17 record on July 21.

But they went 7-3 down the stretch and won their last three games just to earn the No. 7 seed with a dramatic victory over Atlanta at Barclays last weekend.

Now, they can look forward to Saturday’s matinee in Chicago knowing they have at least one win-or-go-home game waiting for them on the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush if they fail to close the Sky out in Game 2.

“We’re gonna try to win one here (Saturday), but everyone counted us out,” Ionescu insisted.

“Why not us? We believe in ourselves.”

Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello urged her team on down the stretch as they rallied past the Sky for a dramatic Game 1 win in Chicago Wednesday. AP Photo by Nam Y. Huh

GIVE ME LIBERTY: Chicago head coach James Wade voiced his displeasure with the WNBA’s new format for the opening round prior to Game 1. He took exception to the league not giving the higher seed a potential third and decisive game at home. “We worked all year to have home-court advantage,” Wade said Tuesday. “If you have a bad game, then home-court advantage goes to the lower seed. … You always want the deciding game, if there’s a Game 3, to be at the higher seed’s home. I’m not a fan of it at all; I don’t think any coaches are.” … New York’s last playoff win came on Sept. 23, 2015 in an 84-67 triumph over the Indiana Fever.

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