Game two of the NY Liberty’s semi-final series with the Connecticut Sun got off to a slow start in front of a sellout crowd of 10,000 roaring fans at Barclays Center on Tuesday.
It took a total team effort by the NY Liberty to defeat the Connecticut Sun 84-77, with Betnijah Laney (20 points), Courtney Vandersloot (19 points), and double-doubles for Stewart (11 points, 13 rebounds) and Jonquel Jones (12 rebounds, 11 points) pushing NY to the victory.
Emotions ran high in the game after the Sun’s Alyssa Thomas lost the Kia MVP award to Liberty’s forward Breanna Stewart hours before tipoff, making Stewart the first player in NY Liberty History to receive the honor.
The score was in single digits at the 4:42 mark of the 1st period, with the NY Liberty leading 9-7 before an official’s time-out stopped the action. Jonquel Jones’ 9 points in the opening frame helped stem the tide of the 13-2 run the Connecticut Sun went on from the 3:23 mark of the first to the 0:37 mark to close the opening quarter leading the home team 22-16.
Connecticut Sun’s guard Tiffany Hayes lit up the Liberty with 12 of the Sun’s 22 first-quarter points on 5-6 shooting from the field en route to her game-high 30 points.
Sun’s ball handlers used dribble penetration to easily attack the rim, creating space for themselves or finding open teammates who ran back cuts on the ball watching Liberty defenders. This forced an unlikely adjustment from Liberty coach Sandy Brondello, who put her players in a zone defense to wall off the penetration.
Coach Brondello’s adjustment paid off as New York responded with an 18-7 run from the 6:50 mark of the second to the 0:59 mark of the quarter. The Liberty forced the Sun’s players to move the ball side to side and settle for outside shots, helping her team limit the visitors to six points in the paint for the 2nd period and go into intermission trailing 42-38.
In the second half, the Liberty used the zone defense and improved 3-point shooting to offset the low-scoring night from recently crowned MVP Breanna Stewart, who ended the first half with just 4pts on 0-5 shooting. Stewart contributed in other areas, recording 11 rebounds and 5 blocked shots for the game, and often dove to the floor for loose balls.
New York went on an 11-0 run from the 7:17 mark of the third to the 4:14 mark of the quarter to build momentum in a game, as Coach Brondello said “We knew we had to win and win on our home court”
The Liberty went on a 10-2 run from the 8:40 mark of the fourth to the 7:06 mark of the final quarter and took control of the game to secure a series-tying victory.
About utilizing the seldom-used zone defense, Liberty’s guard Sabrina Ionescu said “We’re gonna go back and figure out how to win the game with man (defense)”. Ionescu shot 100% (10-10) from the free throw line and recorded five assists and two rebounds. Her 10 made free throws without a miss tied the Liberty single-game postseason record.
The series continues Friday, September 29 at the Mohegan Sun, as NY travels to Connecticut to play its first road game of the 2023 WNBA Playoffs.