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Liberty look to lock down Aces again

Cup champions can complete two-game sweep in Las Vegas

August 17, 2023 John Torenli, Sports Editor Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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If defense wins championships, the New York Liberty have already proven they can bring the WNBA’s best offense to a halt.

They can also beat them badly on the boards.

They’ll try to do both for the third time in a row when they complete a two-game set in Las Vegas on Thursday night against the league-leading Aces.

“It gives us some extra confidence. To be able to do it for a second time,” said 2023 Commissioner’s Cup Most Valuable Player Jonquel Jones Tuesday after helping New York bully its way to an 82-63 win over Vegas in the third installment of the WNBA’s in-season tournament championship.

“We know exactly what our level of play is and what we can do on the court,” added Jones, who finished with 16 points and 15 rebounds to as the Liberty secured their first-ever title trophy since the league was founded in 1997.

The Aces (27-3) are averaging 94.0 points per game this year, 5.5 more than the Liberty (24-6) are putting up through their first 30 contests.

But in the last two meetings between the league’s “Super Teams”, Vegas’ otherwise prolific offense has been shut down after rolling to a relatively easy 98-81 rout of visiting New York on June 29.

On Aug. 6 at Downtown’s Barclays Center, the Liberty smothered the Aces, 99-61, in a game Vegas coach Becky Hammon called “an ass-whooping.”

Tuesday’s blowout win in Sin City was another example of how New York has been able to slow down the league’s most explosive squad, which shot a sizzling 58 percent, including 43 percent from 3-point range, against it in the initial meeting.

Sabrina Ionescu pumps her fist as the Liberty beat league-best Vegas for the second straight time Tuesday night in Sin City. Photo by Brandon Todd/New York Liberty

The Aces shot just 33 percent from the floor and were even more dismal from 3-point range, finishing at 19 percent on a 5-of-26 performance.

Though Vegas has been without injured star and primary ball-handler Candace Parker, Hammon was again miffed by her team’s lack of offensive consistency.

“New York’s defense has gotten better,” Hammon ceded. “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.”

Reigning WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson was clearly off her game against the tenacious Liberty defense, finishing with nine points on 2-of-10 shooting as Vegas lost for the first time in 16 home contests this year.

New York is ranked third in the league with 80.7 points allowed per game, but has been especially stingy of late, holding five of its last six opponents to 73 points or fewer.

The Liberty also held a whopping 49-28 advantage over Vegas in rebounding during Tuesday’s game and finished with a 48-24 edge along the boards in their previous win over the Aces in Brooklyn.

Jones has accounted for 29 of those 97 caroms against Vegas in the last two meetings.

“She’s just a double-double machine,” Liberty coach Sandy Brondello said of Jones, who has put up at least 10 points and 10 rebounds on 11 occasions this season.

MVP candidate Breanna Stewart is averaging a team-best 9.2 rebounds for New York, which has reeled off a season-high seven consecutive wins.

The 2021 Commissioner’s Cup MVP as a member of the Seattle Storm has already put together a record three 40-point games this season, but was held to 13 on 4-of-16 shooting in Tuesday’s clash with Vegas.

While leading scorers Stewart and Wilson both struggled offensively for their respective squads, the Liberty emerged victorious because of their depth.

Marine Johannes scored a game-high 17 points in only 14 minutes off the bench and Kayla Thornton added eight points, including back-to-back 3-pointers during New York’s decisive third-quarter run.

“I was just excited about the game. I know it was a big day for us,” said Johannes, who buried five of the Liberty’s 15 3-pointers.

New York’s bench players outscored Vegas’ reserves by a 28-8 count in the opener of this previously unscheduled series.

“As we built this team out, we said our bench will be our strength,” added Brondello. “We built it deep.”

Deep enough to grab the Liberty’s first-ever WNBA championship come October?

Brondello wasn’t interested in claiming that just yet, despite her team’s recent mastery of the defending champions.

“We’ve still got to play Vegas (Thursday),” she reminded everyone. “We’ve got to continue building our chemistry.”

Marine Johannes scored a game-high 17 points in the Liberty’s Commissioner’s Cup win over Vegas Tuesday night. Photo by Brandon Todd/New York Liberty

GIVE ME LIBERTY: Though Tuesday’s Commissioner’s Cup Final didn’t count toward either team’s regular-season record, the Liberty will be out to hand the Aces their first back-to-back losses since Aug. 2-4 of last year. … The Liberty will enter Thursday’s rematch three games behind Vegas for the best record in the league and three lengths in front of Connecticut for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. … After finishing up in Vegas, New York will head to Phoenix Friday. The Liberty will then be off until next Thursday, when they visit Connecticut. They’ll go to Minnesota on Aug. 26 before returning to Brooklyn on Aug. 28 for their final regular-season meeting with Vegas.

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