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Liberty look to grab first trophy in Vegas

Conference leaders clash for Commissioner's Cup title

August 15, 2023 John Torenli, Sports Editor Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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Sabrina Ionescu knows this isn’t the ultimate prize.

But for the New York Liberty, it could be the first championship hardware in an otherwise empty case.

“The most important trophy won’t be won tomorrow,” the All-Star point guard reminded the media Monday as the Liberty prepped for Tuesday’s clash in Las Vegas for the WNBA Commissioner’s Cup.

The Liberty (24-6) and reigning WNBA and Commissioner’s Cup champion Aces (27-3) have already split a couple of meetings this year, with each defending their home floor with blowout wins.

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Now, the two conference leaders have played themselves into the final of the league’s annual in-season tournament.

Las Vegas, which boasts the league’s best record and a perfect 15-0 mark at Michelob ULTRA Arena, stomped New York, 98-81, at home on June 29.

The Liberty struck back Aug. 6 at Downtown’s Barclays Center, rolling to a 99-61 rout in the second matchup between the teams favored to meet in the WNBA Finals come October.

“That’s a good old-fashioned ass-whooping,” Las Vegas coach Becky Hammon conceded that night on the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush.

“I don’t mind getting our ass whooped every now and then,” she added. “It’s a good reminder that you’re still human and you’ve got to go out and prove it every moment. Lord knows we’re going to see them plenty this year.”

New York has won a season-high six games in a row, including Sunday’s 100-89 triumph in Indiana, which featured Most Valuable Player candidate Breanna Stewart’s record-setting third 40-point effort of the campaign.

“Winning the Commissioner’s Cup is continuing to have bragging rights. And someone said that it would be one of the first pieces of hardware that we would take home as the Liberty,” Stewart, the MVP of the inaugural Cup game with Seattle in 2021, told the Associated Press.

“So using that as motivation and continuing to keep it in perspective, because ultimately our end goal is to win a WNBA championship,” she added.

Having already clinched a playoff spot and established the franchise record for wins in a season, the Liberty, who haven’t reached the WNBA Finals since 2002, are eager to take this trophy back to Brooklyn.

“It’s kind of a little fun midseason test to see where you’re at,” said Liberty point guard Courtney Vandersloot, who competed in similar tournaments overseas.

“It was a big deal. Especially in Turkey. … We played these midseason cups, called the Turkish Cup. They are competitive and it was money on the line. It was the same kind of thing.”

The money is always important in Sin City as winning team members will each get $30,000 while the losers settle for $10,000 apiece.

“It’s an opportunity to build chemistry, but also win money,” said Stewart. “It’s a big game, but we couldn’t focus on it until now.”

Liberty forward Breanna Stewart will be aiming for her second Commissioner’s Cup title in Las Vegas Tuesday. Photo by Brandon Todd/New York Liberty

The Aces, who had an eight-game winning streak snapped in Brooklyn earlier this month, have rebounded with three straight victories, including Sunday’s 86-65 triumph over visiting Atlanta.

Reigning MVP A’ja Wilson scored 21 points to lead five players in double figures for Vegas, which moved within two victories of the league record for wins in a season, established by the 2014 Phoenix Mercury, who went 29-5.

That team, widely considered the greatest in WNBA history, was led by current New York coach Sandy Brondello, who has helped the Liberty climb into the upper echelon with the help of offseason acquisitions like Stewart, Vandersloot and 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones.

Ionescu, the league’s top overall pick in 2020, endured a 2-20 campaign as a rookie and two first-round playoff exits before this banner season.

By her own admission, grabbing the Cup Tuesday won’t guarantee the Liberty anything come playoff time.

But it will serve as another indicator of how far New York has come since her first season was derailed by a severe ankle injury and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Being part of this organization kind of from the bottom and now working its way to the top, it’s always nice to see the steps that we’ve taken to be able to compete at the highest level,” Ionescu said.

Vandersloot, who lost last year’s Cup final vs. the Aces as a member of the Chicago Sky, didn’t want to downplay the importance of Tuesday’s epic showdown.

But New York and Vegas will meet again Thursday night before wrapping up their four-game regular-season series on the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush on Aug. 28.

“I would relate it more to like an early round playoff game,” Vandersloot said. “I think it’s a good start. I think it gives us as a franchise a good feeling getting through the rest of the season and the playoffs.”

Ionescu is expecting the Aces’ best effort, considering their perfect record at home and the thirst to avenge their only defeat in the last five weeks.

“We know they’re going to come out here on their home floor, not having lost here before, and wanting to come back from that loss that they had at our place,” she said.

“We have to go out and play our game and also understand that it’s us vs. us when we go out there,” Ionescu added. “We know we can take our game to the next level. And do that for 40 minutes.”

Tuesday’s Cup final will be available on Prime Video at 9 p.m. ET.

Point guard Courtney Vandersloot became the Liberty’s all-time single-season assists leader Sunday at Indiana. Photo by Brandon Todd/New York Liberty

GIVE ME LIBERTY: Vandersloot had a 1-for-7 shooting night in Sunday’s win at Indiana, but she did hand out a season-high 14 assists, giving her the most helpers in one year in franchise history. “It’s awesome. Such a historic club with a lot of great point guards,” said Vandersloot, who broke the team record established by Ionescu last season. … Stewart’s 42-point effort vs. the Fever followed her franchise-record 45-point performance against Indiana on May 21 and the 43 points she scored against Phoenix on July 5. She is the only player in league history to have three 40-point games in the same season and is only one behind Diana Taurasi for the career record. … After this two-game stop in Vegas, the Liberty will be in Phoenix Friday for the fourth of six consecutive road games.

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