Liberty on the brink back in Brooklyn

Face elimination vs. Aces in Game 3 of WNBA Finals at Barclays

October 14, 2023 John Torenli, Sports Editor
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A season teeming with historic promise has come down to one with no margin for error for the New York Liberty.

“Win or go home!” is what they usually call a potential elimination game.

But the Liberty are coming home to Downtown Brooklyn on Sunday with the hope of saving and extending the winningest campaign this franchise has ever had in Game 3 of the WNBA Finals at Barclays Center.

“We’ve got to find some urgency. We’ve got to find some pride in how we’re playing,” said Liberty coach Sandy Brondello after her unit suffered a wire-to-wire 104-76 Game 2 loss Wednesday night in front of 10,232 fans at Michelob ULTRA Arena.

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The New York Liberty look glum on the bench Wednesday night in Las Vegas after falling into an 0-2 hole in the WNBA Finals. Photo: John Locher, AP

New York (0-2), still desperately seeking its first championship since entering the league during its inaugural season in 1997, lost consecutive games for the first time this year in troubling fashion Wednesday night.

The defending champion Aces (2-0) opened Game 2 on a staggering 19-2 run and never looked back, moving within one victory of becoming the first back-to-back titleholders the league has seen since the 2001-02 Los Angeles Sparks.

“Basketball is a game of runs,” said Vegas forward A’ja Wilson after putting up game highs of 26 points and 15 rebounds. “They’re a great team, so we have to continue to put our foot on the gas.”

Wilson became just the third player in Finals history with at least 25 points and 15 boards, joining Liberty forwards Jonquel Jones and Breanna Stewart on that short list.

Jones and Stewart accomplished the feat with their previous franchises, Connecticut and Seattle, respectively.

Now, the duo faces the grim reality of not delivering our borough’s first pro sports title since 1955, something both signed up for when they came here via trade and free agency last winter.

“It’s disappointing,” admitted Stewart, who finished with 14 points and 13 rebounds, but shot just 6-of-17 from the floor, including 1-of-6 from 3-point range.

“We still have a lot of basketball to be played,” she added. “But this is the Finals. There should be no reason why we’re not ready to go from the start.”

Jackie Young scored 24 points and Kelsey Plum added 23 for the Aces, who also got 14 points and 11 rebounds from Chelsea Gray as their backcourt continued to outplay New York’s struggling guards.

Backcourt mates Sabrina Ionescu and Courtney Vandersloot combined for 19 points on 5-of-19 shooting.

Ionescu, who established the WNBA record for 3-pointers made in a season this year, finished 2-for-7 from long range and has only knocked down a trio of 3s in the series.

“It started with our defense,” said Gray. “We kept our pressure up, our physicality and we were able to play with our flow offensively.”

A’ja Wilson and Jackie Young hoot and holler during Las Vegas’ easy Game 2 win over the Liberty at Michelob ULTRA Arena Wednesday night. Photo, John Locher, AP

“Key word is team,” added Plum, who matched Young with a game-high 26 points in Vegas’ Game 1 triumph last Sunday. “That’s what we’ve done all season. We’re a very united front. We protected our home court.”

Now, New York will have to do the same in front of what should be a capacity crowd on the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush at 3 p.m. on Sunday.

“First thing, Vegas is playing their best basketball at the moment,” said Brondello. “For us, we haven’t taken steps forward. We haven’t shown it. We’re disappointed. We’re better than this.”

The Liberty misfired on all but one of their first 10 shots while the Aces lit up the scoreboard, building a 22-point lead in the second quarter.

But New York struck back behind Jones, who poured in 16 points during a dominant run before the half that resulted in a 12-2 burst for the Liberty.

Down 52-44 at the half, the Liberty couldn’t keep close as Vegas ran away for good with a 17-3 run.

“We have to respond. Things are a little too easy for them,” said Jones, who totaled 22 points and 10 rebounds for her eighth double-double in as many games this postseason. “We have to dig and come out with some more grit.”

The Aces haven’t blinked during the first two games of this series, but the Liberty are searching for answers as the teams fly across the country.

“This is not easy. That’s a very, very tough team,” Plum ceded. “We know they’re gonna come out and give us everything we want in New York.”

“As frustrating as it is, we still have an opportunity,” said Stewart. “We’re gonna fight and we’re gonna do whatever we have to do to get that win.”

According to Brondello, the Liberty have been lacking the grit necessary to push past the Aces, a team they beat in three of five meetings during the regular season, including the Commissioner’s Cup championship game in Vegas on Aug. 15.

“We didn’t have any toughness. We had no resistance,” she admitted. “The challenge is to go home and win on Sunday.”

At this point, there is no other option.

GIVE ME LIBERTY: Seven of the previous eight teams facing elimination in Game 3 of the WNBA Finals suffered losses. … New York had rebounded from its previous nine losses this year before dropping a second straight in Vegas Wednesday. … After coming off the bench to put up 14 points in Game 1, Liberty guard Marine Johannes managed only three points on 1-of-4 shooting in Game 2. … Game 3 will tip-off at 3 p.m. and will be televised by ABC. Game 4, if necessary, will also be in Brooklyn on Wednesday night at 8 p.m.

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