The New York Liberty snuck into the playoffs with a record four games under .500 and were major underdogs against the defending champion Chicago Sky. Anything can happen in the postseason, though, especially in a short best-of-three series. Something did happen on Wednesday night, as the Liberty stunned the Sky with a late fourth-quarter comeback to win 98-91 and take a 1-0 lead.
After Courtney Vandersloot scored to give the Sky a 91-85 lead with 3:31 remaining, it seemed the veteran squad would pull away and survive a scare in the first game of their title defense. Instead, the Liberty held them scoreless the rest of the way and closed the game on a 13-0 run that left Wintrust Arena silent.
Sabrina Ionescu finished with 22 points, seven rebounds and six assists to lead the way, while Natasha Howard went for 22 points and seven rebounds. Betnijah Laney added 17 points, five rebounds and five assists, and the Liberty as a team went 11 of 25 from 3-point land.
Candace Parker led the way for the Sky in defeat, registering 17 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. Kahleah Copper was the high-scorer with 21 points and eight rebounds, and Courtney Vandersloot contributed 13 points and 10 assists.
Game 2 is set for Saturday afternoon in Chicago, and it will now be a must-win for the Sky.
Here are some key takeaways from the game:
Liberty end game on 13-0 run
With 3:31 remaining in the fourth quarter, Courtney Vandersloot drove inside and converted one of her patented flip layups to push the Sky’s lead to six. It was a classic late-game play from the veteran point guard, and it seemed like it would be the beginning of the end for the Liberty. We’ve seen that type of game so often in the playoffs; an underdog has a nearly perfect performance but runs out of gas down the stretch.
Just 62 seconds later, however, the Liberty were in front. The comeback happened in a flash:
- Natasha Howard scored a layup off a brilliant feed from Marine Johannes to cut the deficit to four
- After Azura Stevens short-armed a wide-open layup, Sabrina Ionescu buried a 3-pointer to make it a one-point game
- Vandersloot missed a 3, and down on the other end Betnijah Laney found Howard for an easy layup to put the Liberty in front
Even then, though, you figured the Sky would wake up and figure out a way to win as they’ve done so many times this season. It never happened. They had their chances, such as a possession where they had two offensive rebounds and missed three shots with just over two minutes left. Or Emma Meesseman’s wide-open 3-pointer with 1:47 remaining that would have tied the game.
As bad as the Sky were down the stretch, the Liberty were equally as good. They not only took the lead; they pulled away and won comfortably. During their 13-0 run, they were 5 of 5 from the field and 2 of 2 from the free throw line. They played a perfect stretch of basketball and did so on the road against the defending champs.
Liberty carve up Sky’s aggressive defense
Turnovers were a massive issue for the Liberty this season, as they finished ninth in the league with a 19.3 turnover percentage. In other words, they turned the ball over on one out of every five possessions. It was little surprise, then, that the first time they tried to run a pick-and-roll, the Sky sent a trap to see how they would deal with the pressure.
On that possession, Betnijah Laney calmly stepped through and found Stefanie Dolson for a wide-open 3-pointer.
Plays like that became a trend over the course of the game. The Sky trapped, high-hedged and tried to put the Liberty’s ball-handlers under as much stress as possible. It didn’t work. Laney, Sabrina Ionescu and Marine Johannes carved up the Sky’s defensive scheme by making the smart pass over and over.
That trio each had at least five assists, and as a team the Liberty recorded 28 assists and only eight turnovers — their fewest in a game all season. Moving the ball led to open shots, which led to the Liberty shooting 49.3 percent from the field and 44 percent from 3-point land.
Here’s another perfect example to start the third quarter. The Sky trap Ionescu out of the pick-and-roll, and she calmly drops the ball off to a wide-open mid-range jumper.
For all the success the Liberty had making the simple play, a team with Johannes sometimes has to break out the spectacular as well. Late in the fourth quarter, the Frenchwoman started the team’s game-winning 13-0 run with one of the best passes you will ever see. Careening off a screen from Natasha Howard, she out ran the Sky’s trap and whipped the ball back to Howard over her head.
Heading into Game 2, it will be interesting to see if the Sky continue to play such aggressive defense or go to a more traditional scheme. On one hand, the Liberty were not consistent during the season and could easily have a 20-turnover game under similar circumstances. At the same time, the Liberty are one of the best shooting teams in the league, and if they handle the pressure well they will get open looks. Which, as they showed in Game 1, is bad news for their opponent.
Johannes the magician
Casual fans may not be familiar with Marine Johannes, who before coming over from France in the middle of the season had not played in the WNBA since 2019. But while she may not be a household name right now, that will change if the Liberty are able to go on a deep playoff run.
One of the most unique, entertaining and inventive players in all of basketball, she is quite literally a genius. Her daring and skill was on display all night long, as she finished with the loudest eight points and seven assists you’ll ever see. The aforementioned overhead pass to Howard was the best play of the night, but it was far from the only incredible moment.
Late in the first half, she took an outlet pass and pulled up for a deep 3 on a one-on-one fastbreak. She drained it plus the foul. That was an ill-advised shot, but the willingness to take it is what makes Johannes so much fun.
There was another pass that won’t get as much attention as the overhead dime but was nearly as ridiculous. Coming off the screen, she split the defenders with an absurd bounce pass.
With the Liberty now guaranteed to play at least three games this postseason, we should be in for some more Johannes magic.