Stewart bails out Liberty with 43 points
MVP favorite helps New York escape after blowing huge lead
Breanna Stewart’s second 40-point game of the season almost coincided with the Liberty’s worst loss of the campaign.
Until, of course, the front-runner for WNBA Most Valuable Player honors put them back on top after she and her teammates squandered all of a 20-point, second-half lead.
Stewart nailed a game-sealing shot over a pair of defenders with 18.5 seconds to go and added a free throw thereafter, finishing with 43 points and lifting New York past Phoenix, 99-95, Wednesday night in front of 7,151 fans at Downtown’s Barclays Center.
“We have Breanna Stewart. That helps,” Liberty coach Sandy Brondello responded when asked how her team survived its near collapse. “She’s a clutch player.”
Already an Eastern Conference Player of the Month and two-time Player of the Week, Stewart scored a franchise-record 45 points in the home opener vs. Indiana here on May 21.
She didn’t quite equal that total, or surpass it, but her big-play ability down the stretch bailed out a Liberty team that held a 73-53 lead six minutes into the third quarter.
By the time former New York forward Michaela Onyenwere snapped a 92-92 tie with a driving layup, the Liberty looked out of sorts and trailed with just under two minutes to play.
Jonquel Jones got it even on a layup off a feed from Sabrina Ionescu on New York’s ensuing trip and Stewart followed with a basket to put the conference-leading Liberty (12-4) back in front, 96-94, with 1:20 to go.
Onyenwere made a free throw to cut the lead to one point with 33 ticks remaining before Stewart took a feed from Courtney Vanderpool and stretched the advantage to three.
“Things don’t always go our way, but we continue to grind it out,” said Stewart, who became the first Liberty player to score at least 40 points in two games during a single season.
Stewart went 13-of-20 from the field, including 4-of-6 from 3-point range, while nailing all but two of her 16 free-throw attempts.
The two-time WNBA Finals MVP as a member of the Seattle Storm also ripped down a game-high 12 rebounds, handed out six assists, blocked a pair of shots and picked up a steal in 38 scintillating minutes.
“She’s just so dependable and reliable and willing to do whatever it needs to win,” Brondello said of Stewart. “We’re very happy to have her on our team.”
Betnijah Laney finished with 14 points, Jones had 13 and Ionescu added 11 points and a season-high nine assists and seven rebounds for New York, which opened this two-game homestand by making 44 percent (11-of-25) of its 3-pointers.
“It just helps that we’ve all been in these situations and we know what it takes to grind it out,” said Laney. “If we want to make our run for the championship, it will be (these) types of situations that win the game.”
Diana Taurasi poured in 23 points and Brittney Griner, playing in New York for the first time since her well-chronicled 10-month detainment in Russia last year, added 21 points and eight rebounds for the Mercury (3-13), who dropped their second straight and eighth in the last 10 contests.
Griner, who was here with her teammates but unable to play due to injury during Phoenix’s 89-71 loss at Barclays on June 18, received plenty of support from the Brooklyn crowd.
The Liberty set up a writing station to allow fans to pen letters in support of individuals detained wrongfully in other countries through the Bring Our Families Home organization.
“You don’t know how much it means when you’re in that situation and you get a letter like that,” Griner told the Associated Press.
“You don’t feel forgotten. It’s so easy to feel forgotten when you’re there. So just being able to get those letters to keep that going for other families. It just brings so much home. You know it’s a dangerous thing, but it brings so much hope.”
Winners of six of their last seven games, the Liberty will try to finish off this homestand in style Saturday afternoon at 2 p.m. vs. Seattle.
The game will be televised on ESPN.
GIVE ME LIBERTY: After hosting the Storm this weekend, the Liberty will head to Indiana Wednesday before the annual WNBA All-Star break. Stewart will captain the East team in the July 15 All-Star Game in Las Vegas. New York will return from the break July 19, hosting Dallas here at 1 p.m. … The Liberty have scored at least 90 points five times this year, including three 100-point efforts.
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