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Liberty raise Commissioner’s Cup in Vegas

Hand Aces first home loss to win tournament crown

August 16, 2023 John Torenli, Sports Editor Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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It’s certainly not the championship the New York Liberty are chasing this season.

But the Commissioner’s Cup is the first title trophy in franchise history.

And it’s coming back to Downtown Brooklyn.

Marine Johannes scored 17 points on dead-eye shooting off the bench and Jonquel Jones grabbed Most Valuable Player honors with her 11th double-double of the season as the Liberty ran past league-best Las Vegas, 82-63, Tuesday night to grab the WNBA’s in-season tournament crown.

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“The Commissioner’s Cup was definitely a step in the right direction for us as a team to put the pieces together toward the ultimate goal, which is to win a WNBA championship,” said Jones, who helped New York to a whopping 49-28 advantage on the boards.

The 8,967 fans at Michelob ULTRA Arena came to see the league’s two “Super Teams” meet for the third time this year after each took a game on its home floor.

Unbeaten in their previous 15 home contests, the Aces (27-3) found themselves getting outshot, especially from long range, outhustled and outscored, 50-29, in the second half.

Johannes went 6-of-8 from the floor, including 5-of-7 from 3-point range, in only 14 minutes on the hardwood to help New York to a 15-for-35 effort from beyond the arc on a night Las Vegas managed to hit only five of its 26 3-pointers.

Jones finished with 16 points, 15 rebounds and a pair of blocked shots to help the Liberty (24-6) become the third Commissioner’s Cup champions in league history.

The Aces won the coveted trophy and the WNBA crown last year and Seattle, spearheaded by Liberty forward and league MVP candidate Breanna Stewart, grabbed the inaugural Cup.

Commissioner’s Cup Final MVP Jonquel Jones celebrates with Breanna Stewart as the Liberty won the WNBA’s in-season tournament in Las Vegas Tuesday night. AP Photo by Steve Marcus

Stewart, who posted her WNBA record third 40-point game of the season Sunday at Indiana, finished with 13 points despite 4-of-16 shooting.

“That’s why you play. You play to win,” said Stewart. “To be able to take advantage of these opportunities, and Commissioner’s Cup is one that’s different from all the rest because it’s in-season.”

Fellow All-Star Sabrina Ionescu had nine of her 12 points in the fourth quarter to go with eight rebounds and Courtney Vandersloot added 11 points and 10 assists for New York, which grabbed the winner’s share of $30,000 per player while Vegas players settled for $10,000 apiece.

“You have this one game for the trophy and the money,” Stewart noted. “The ability for us to lock in and see what we had right now in August is something I’m really proud of.”

Jackie Young scored 16 points and Kelsey Plum and Chelsea Gray added 15 apiece for the Aces, who hadn’t lost in their home arena since last August to Seattle during the playoffs.

Reigning league MVP A’ja Wilson was limited to nine points — all the in first half — on 2-of-10 shooting as Vegas, the league’s highest-scoring team, was held to 65 points or fewer by New York for the second time in nine days.

“New York’s defense has gotten better,” said Aces coach Becky Hammon. “Before that, that was a separation factor for us. I ask a lot of our big four, night in and night out. And when they’re not flowing or hitting [shots], it gets real tough.”

Though the game won’t count toward either teams regular-season record, the Liberty, losers of four previous trips to the WNBA Finals, can relish climbing to the top of the heap against the reigning champs.

“This is why we all came here,” said Stewart. “We came to win games, to contend for WNBA championships. One of our goals was to win the Commissioner’s Cup, and we did that.”

The teams, who will clash again in Sin City on Thursday and Aug. 28 in Brooklyn, have been touted all year as the favorites to meet in this year’s WNBA Finals.

Thus far, the Liberty hold a 2-1 advantage, but none of the games has been compelling to the end.

On June 29, the Aces cruised to a 98-81 rout of visiting New York, but the Liberty answered with a resounding 99-61 triumph at Barclays on Aug. 6 before the largest crowd ever (11,418) to witness a WNBA game in Brooklyn since the franchise relocated in 2021.

This one was close at the half as Vegas held a 34-32 edge. But the Liberty went on a 15-5 run to close the third quarter, highlighted by back-to-back 3-pointers from Kayla Thornton.

By the time Ionescu, the league’s reigning 3-Point Shootout champion, drilled back-to-back shots from beyond the arc early in the final period, New York left Vegas in the dust for good with a 66-52 cushion.

Now, all the Liberty have to do is get up for the challenge of beating the Aces again within 48 hours of this marquee matchup.

“Things have been coming better and better for us after the All-Star [Game],” New York coach Sandy Brondello said. “We knew we were going to be a good team. We knew it would take some time to get the chemistry together.”

Sabrina Ionescu and the Liberty dove for loose balls and outhustled the league-best Aces for the Commissioner’s Cup title Tuesday in Las Vegas. AP Photo by Steve Marcus

GIVE ME LIBERTY: … After Thursday night’s rematch in Vegas, the Liberty will continue their season-high six-game road trip Friday in Phoenix. … Callen-Lorde, the global leader in LGBTQ+ health care, awarded the prize money for Tuesday night’s Cup final. “In New York, when the Liberty wins we all win!,” said Donnie Roberts, Senior Director of Development and Communications at Callen-Lorde. “Callen-Lorde is proud to be your partner and we are grateful for your commitment to our mission to provide affirming healthcare for LGBTQ+ people and supportive, sex-positive healthcare for all women.” … The Liberty’s co-tenants, the Brooklyn Nets, announced their in-season group tournament play schedule on Tuesday. The Nets will visit Chicago on Nov. 3 and Boston on Nov. 10 before hosting Orlando on Nov. 14 and Toronto on Nov. 28. Following Group Play, eight teams will advance to the Knockout Rounds, beginning Dec. 4. Single-elimination games will be played in the quarterfinals, semifinals and championship. The title game will be at Las Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena on Dec. 9.

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