Jones drives Liberty to Game 3 victory
Forward helps New York stave off elimination vs. Aces
New York Liberty forward Jonquel Jones knows what it’s like to lose a WNBA Finals to the Las Vegas Aces.
She doesn’t want to get used to the feeling.
“I was doing whatever I can to make sure this team gets the win,” Jones said after putting up 27 points, grabbing eight rebounds and blocking three shots in Sunday’s do-or-die 87-73 win over Las Vegas in Game 3 of the best-of-5 WNBA Finals before a record crowd of 17,143 at Barclays Center.
Jones, who has already lost a pair of championship series, including last year to these Aces (2-1) as a member of the Connecticut Sun, helped the Liberty (1-2) stave off elimination and set up Wednesday’s Game 4 on the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush.
“I just came in energized obviously that we had a new opportunity,” Jones said. “Playing with a lot of passion and not wanting to let the moment pass us by. That’s what I used to kind of fuel me.”
The 6-foot-6 Bahamian went a blistering 10-of-15 from the field, knocked down all but one of her four free throws and even contributed to New York’s previously faltering outside game by draining 3-of-4 shots from 3-point range.
“She was huge for us,” Liberty coach Sandy Brondello said of Jones, who failed to register a double-double for the first time in nine games this postseason, but still carried most of the load for a desperate squad.
“Those 3s changed the moment of the game a bit,” Brondello added. “The ball went in. Other games the balls weren’t going in for us. We got back to our identity. Proud of the effort and commitment and connection we had. Now we’ve got to do it again.”
Down 0-2 in the series after the first consecutive losses of their record-setting campaign, the Liberty can even things up and send the series back to Vegas for a decisive Game 5 Friday if they can remanufacture the inside grit and deft outside shooting that carried them to this point.
While Vegas tasted its initial defeat this postseason on the path to becoming the WNBA’s first back-to-back champions since the 2001-02 Los Angeles Sparks, New York can’t bask too long in the glory of capturing the franchise’s first Finals victory since 1999.
That triumph came in memorable fashion as Teresa Weatherspoon’s half-court heave at the buzzer sent the Liberty past the Houston Comets.
Houston went on to win that series, however, and New York is still seeking its first-ever WNBA crown in its fifth attempt, and first Finals berth since 2002.
The Aces had won seven in a row this postseason before running into the Liberty and a raucous Brooklyn crowd that rocked all levels of the Barclays Center after New York stretched a three-point halftime lead to 51-40 on Courtney Vandersloot’s jumper midway through the third quarter.
The attendance was the largest ever for any WNBA game.
“You can feel like a community is behind us and that makes it very special for the city of New York,” gushed Brondello.
Kelsey Plum scored a game-high 29 points, A’ja Wilson finished with 16 and Chelsea Gray added 11 for the Aces before leaving Game 3 in the fourth quarter with an apparent foot injury.
Gray’s status for Game 4 was still up in the air after Vegas cancelled its optional shootaround Monday morning.
“This is a good team we’re talking about, obviously a different feeling in their place,” Wilson said of the resilient Liberty. “We still have a chance to take care of business (in Game 4).”
The Aces had outscored their previous playoff opponents by an average of 17.3 points per contest.
Now, they face the prospect of playing a potential close-out game on the road without Gray, who has been a stalwart in Vegas’ backcourt alongside Plum and Jackie Young.
“I don’t think there’s any one person that’s going to step up and fill her shoes,” Aces coach Becky Hammon said of Gray, who is averaging 15.6 points and 6.8 assists in the playoffs.
“Everybody steps up and does a little bit more,” Hammon added.
The Liberty got some big step-ups in Game 3.
Aside from Jones’ virtuoso performance, WNBA Most Valuable Player Breanna Stewart had 20 points and 12 rebounds, Vandersloot and Betnijah Laney added 12 points apiece and Sabrina Ionescu handed out 11 assists to go with her nine points.
“We came up and we showed what we can do,” said Stewart, who went 8-of-16 from the field.
New York edged Vegas on the boards, 34-33, and also held the previously red-hot Aces to a 33 percent shooting effort from the field and only 10 third-quarter points.
“We got back to our identity defensively,” Brondello noted. “We can be a great defensive team, but you have to be locked in to do it, and we weren’t for two games.”
The Liberty were locked in for Game 3, but they must find their way back to Sin City this weekend by winning Game 4 if they hope to continue marching toward this borough’s first pro sports championship since 1955.
“Obviously we were battle-tested in Vegas and down 0-2,” Stewart pointed out. “Now, this series is 1-2 and we still have a chance. Now, I’m not looking past Wednesday.”
Tip-off for Wednesday’s Game 4 is scheduled for 8 p.m. Those who can’t make it to the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush can watch on ESPN.
GIVE ME LIBERTY: In losing their previous Finals appearances to Houston (1997, 1999 and 2000) and Los Angeles (2002), the Liberty had gone 0-3 at home before Sunday’s Game 3 win. … New York’s 13 made 3-pointers matched a postseason franchise record. … Kayla Thornton scored six of the Liberty’s seven bench points in Game 3 and also grabbed a pair of rebounds. … Game 5, if necessary, will be back in Vegas on Friday at 9 p.m.
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