Brooklyn Boro

Liberty look for clean sweep of Fever

Face rookie phenom Clark in Indiana on Saturday night

July 5, 2024 By John Torenli, Sports Editor Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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All-Star rookie phenom Caitlin Clark has had her ups and downs during her much-anticipated first foray into the WNBA.

Against the New York Liberty, however, she’s experienced mostly downs, along with her Indiana teammates.

The league leaders from Brooklyn will look to continue that trend as they set out to complete a four-game season-series sweep of Clark and the Fever Saturday afternoon at Gainbridge Fieldhouse.

Clark entered the WNBA with even more fanfare than Liberty All-Star guard Sabrina Ionescu, the No. 1 overall pick for New York in 2020.

The 6-foot Iowa alum left the NCAA earlier this year as its all-time leading scorer and a two-time Wooden Award winner as the best player in the nation.

Ionescu also won two Woodens and departed the University of Oregon with the most triple-doubles in NCAA women’s basketball history.

Though Indiana (8-13) is still on the outside looking in at one of the final two WNBA playoff spots, one-half game behind Chicago and Atlanta as of Wednesday, it hasn’t been able to contend with the Liberty (17-3).

And Clark, who is averaging 16.7 points per game while ranking third in the league with 7.1 assists per contest, is struggling against New York as well.

She is averaging 11.3 points, her second lowest total vs. any opponent, and 5.0 assists through the first three meetings.

Clark put up nine points on 2-of-8 shooting in her first encounter with the Liberty on May 16 in Indiana, walking off the floor with a sobering 102-86 loss in her home debut.

Two days later at Downtown’s Barclays Center, Clark played much better, amassing 22 points, six rebounds and eight assists, albeit in a 91-80 defeat.

The teams met again on June 2 in Brooklyn during the Commissioner’s Cup portion of the regular season.

Clark suffered through her worst game of the year, managing just three points on 1-of-10 shooting to go with two rebounds and five assists in 29 lackluster minutes of a 104-68 drubbing.

Ionescu didn’t hesitate when asked afterward if Clark had been the focus of New York’s defense, which ranks third in the WNBA with 77.7 points allowed per game.

“I think collectively as a team, we understand who kind of the head of the monster is on that team and we are trying to just make everything tough and difficult,” Ionescu said.

“But she’ll figure it out. It’s not that big of a deal to have a game like that.”

All-Star and reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Month Sabrina Ionescu will shoot for a four-game season-series sweep of Indiana Saturday. AP Photo by Michael Conroy

Ionescu, the reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Month, proved prophetic.

Clark upped her overall performance almost immediately thereafter, averaging 15.0 points, 6.1 rebounds and 7.2 assists in June.

She had 13 points, six boards and 11 assists in Tuesday night’s 88-69 loss to reigning back-to-back WNBA champion Las Vegas, helping to draw the largest crowd for a regular-season game the league had seen since 1999.

The 20,366 gathered at Michelob ULTRA Arena accounted for the fifth-best attendance in WNBA history.

“I think we missed quite a few shots that we usually make,” Clark lamented. “It’s tough to beat a team like this not being able to score the ball at the rate they did.”

The Liberty had no such trouble in their own marquee matchup Tuesday night at Barclays.

After learning that she and teammates Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones had earned All-Star selections, Ionescu played through illness to put up 17 points in a rousing 76-67 triumph over Minnesota.

The Liberty avenged their Commissioner’s Cup championship game loss to the Lynx a week earlier and re-established themselves as the favorite to grab their first-ever WNBA title this year.

“Obviously, this was a huge game. It’s a regular-season game. But they’re 2-0 against us and this was personal,” Ionescu insisted.

Jones led the way with 21 points and 12 rebounds, emerging from a mini-slump that saw her net just eight points on 2-of-8 shooting in her previous two games.

“They tried to congest (the paint) a lot, and as usual our guards are getting downhill. And I just played in that space,” she said of her 8-of-13 effort from the field.

New York yielded only eight points to Minnesota over the final 10 minutes, showing off the tenacious defense that has baffled Clark at times this year.

“Defense is about hard work. It’s about whether you’re willing to do it or not,” said Liberty coach Sandy Brondello.

“That was great team defense, everyone was locked in,” added Jones.

New York will try to lock in and lock down Clark for the fourth time Saturday.

Tip-off is at 1 p.m., and the game will be televised nationally on CBS.

All-Star forward Jonquel Jones and the Liberty will shoot for their 14th win in the last 15 regular-season games Saturday in Indiana. AP Photo by Frank Franklin II

GIVE ME LIBERTY: After Indiana, the Liberty will close out their two-game trip in Connecticut on Wednesday at 11 a.m. As of Wednesday, the Sun (15-4) were 1 1/2 games behind New York for the league’s best record. … Indiana has dropped three of its last four contests since a season-high four-game winning streak from June 13-21. The Fever have lost nine in a row to the Liberty dating to a 92-86 triumph on May 13, 2022.

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