Liberty take first ‘punch’ of WNBA Finals

Drop Game 1 in Las Vegas as defending champion Aces roll

October 13, 2023 John Torenli, Sports Editor
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The Liberty absorbed the first blow from the Las Vegas Aces in the WNBA Finals.

But New York coach Sandy Brondello believes her resilient unit is ready to strike back.

“They took the first punch and now we have to respond,” Brondello said Sunday after New York suffered a 99-82 loss in Game 1 of the best-of-5 series before a capacity crowd of 10,300 at Michelob ULTRA Arena.

The Liberty (0-1) staked themselves to a 49-46 halftime lead before WNBA Most Valuable Player Breanna Stewart knocked down a pull-up jumper to extend the advantage to five points early in the third quarter.

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Kelsey Plum responded with a basket off a feed from A’ja Wilson and the defending champion Aces (1-0) scored 14 of the next 18 points to take the lead for good.

Plum and Jackie Young scored 26 points apiece, Chelsea Gray had 20 and Wilson finished with 19 as Vegas improved to 24-1 at home this season, not counting the Aces’ Commissioner’s Cup championship game loss to the Liberty in Sin City on Aug. 15.

Marine Johannes (left) scored 14 points off the bench Sunday, but New York dropped the opener of the WNBA Finals in Las Vegas. Photo: John Locher, AP

“It’s kind of like Jackie and (Plum) are doing this really hard work, and then the ball goes into Chelsea and it’s just dicing everything,” Aces coach Becky Hammon said.

“It was a really nice combination. Our trio of guards were pretty ridiculous.”

New York’s backcourt wasn’t up to the task in the much-anticipated opener as Liberty guards Sabrina Ionescu and Courtney Vandersloot went a combined 6-of-18 from the field, including 3-of-10 from 3-point range.

“Their defense was as good as I’ve ever seen it,” Brondello ceded. “We’ve got to play with better poise and we can exploit it the next time.”

Game 2 is Wednesday night at 9 p.m. ET in Vegas and will be televised by ESPN.

Touted by experts and oddsmakers as the teams destined to meet in this series, the Liberty and Aces have played six times this year, including the regular season, and have split those encounters.

New York can ill-afford to go down 0-2 to a team that is eager to become the league’s first back-to-back titleholder since the 2001-02 Los Angeles Sparks.

Brondello watched her team get outrebounded, 34-30, and get outscored, 20-9, at the free-throw line in the opener.

“One-on-one defense was critical for us, and they got the upper hand in this game,” Brondello said. “We’ve got to make them work a little bit harder. There were too many open layups at the rim.”

The Liberty also weren’t able to get their offense going in the second half as the Aces won the third quarter by nine points and final period by 10.

“We can obviously learn a lot from this and we can play better,” Brondello said. “That’s what we have to remember.

“We haven’t lost two in a row all season long,” she added. “And we’re going to know that we responded the right way. I trust these players.”

Sabrina Ionescu, who set the WNBA record for made 3-pointers this year, only managed to hit one in the opener of the Finals. Photo: John Locher, AP

Stewart scored 21 points and fellow forward Jonquel Jones added 16 points and 10 rebounds for New York, which is seeking its first-ever WNBA crown and is playing in its first Finals since 2002.

The inside tandem of Stewart and Jones had their way with interior opponents in the first two rounds, vanquishing Washington and Connecticut with hard work along the boards and second-chance baskets.

That wasn’t the case in Game 1 as the Aces crashed the boards and made llfe difficult for Stewart and Jones.

“I think in the second half, the ball stopped and got stuck a little bit,” Stewart noted. “That made it easier for them to clog the paint on (Jones) and myself. We need to continue to keep moving and trust what got us here.”

What got the Liberty here was a collection of star players up front and reserves willing to pay the price to make this the greatest season in Liberty history.

Another loss in Vegas might put New York in desperation mode for the first time this year.

A win, however, would send the Liberty back to Downtown Brooklyn with a chance to grab our borough’s first pro sports championship since 1955.

Either way, Brondello has to keep her charges focused on the task at hand.

“It’s playoff basketball. You can’t get too high or too low,” she insisted.

GIVE ME LIBERTY: Jones, who lost a pair of WNBA Finals during her first six seasons in Connecticut, posted her seventh double-double in as many appearances this postseason in Game 1. She has 17 career playoff double-doubles. … Liberty reserve sharp-shooter Marine Johannes scored 14 points in the opener, going 4-of-7 from 3-point range. … Game 3 is back in Brooklyn on Sunday at 3 p.m. That contest will be televised by ABC.

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