We’re used to superstars doing superstar things in Brooklyn, and tonight was no exception. In front of an energetic Barclays Center crowd, the New York Liberty faced off against the best regular season team in the WNBA in 2021 and early 2022 title favorite, the Connecticut Sun. In a tightly contested, back-and-forth game, the Liberty prevailed and snagged their first win of the season by beating the Sun, 81-79 before 6,829 excited fans on Saturday night.
The crowd was the largest to watch a Liberty home game since August 2019 when they debuted in Brooklyn, before the pandemic, and drew 7,715 fans. Also, with the win, the Liberty snapped their nine-game losing streak against the Sun. The Liberty’s last win against the Sun came on July 11th, 2018, in a 79-76 victory at Connecticut.
The first half
It took a few minutes for the Liberty to enter the scorebook for the season. The Sun shut them out for the first four minutes of the game before Natasha Howard hit Jocelyn Willoughby on a backdoor cut on the baseline to officially get the party started.
In the second quarter, Sabrina Ionescu went to work. After a relatively quiet first quarter, the 2020 Draft’s No. 1 pick turned it up and started to make her mark on the game. She started to figure out the Sun defense and scored 13 of her game high 25 points in the second. Thanks to injuries, Ionescu didn’t attack the basket as much as you would have liked to see. With a new coaching staff and finally being 100 percent healthy, Ionescu made it a point to attack more often and had a lot of success going downhill.
At the break, the Liberty were up 38-30.
A friend of ours was in the house, Seth Curry of the Brooklyn Nets!
The Nets and Liberty have worked more closely over the last three years and seeing players on the NBA side pull up at WNBA arenas is always cool.
The second half
After halftime, it looked like the Liberty were about to break it open as they built an 11-point lead. However, the Sun started to get back in the game slowly but surely. They were able to regain the lead thanks to the excellence of Alyssa Thomas. AT lived at the rim and tied Ionescu for game high in points with 25. Throughout training camp, the Sun have made a point to push it more in transition and they scored 24 fast break points, with AT scoring nine of them.
The Sun were by far the best rebounding team in the WNBA last season, but the Liberty were able to hold their own and battle on the boards. Although they lost that battle by seven, being as close as they were was a victory in and of itself. A lot of that was thanks to the work of 6’4” rookie, Lorela Cubaj, out of Georgia Tech. Although she only registered three boards in the scorebook, she battled the Sun bigs on the boards and her boxing out helped create opportunities for her teammates.
The biggest matchup of the night was at the 4 between Natasha Howard and reigning 2021 WNBA MVP, Jonquel Jones. Howard had the assignment for most of the night and held the Sun superstar in check as she tied a career high with turnovers and only shot 6-17 from the field with only one free throw attempt. In the postgame, the Liberty’s new head caoch, Sandy Brondello, spoke about Howard’s excellence on defense:
“She’s quick to recover. Her IQ is on another level, she can execute what we want, and she plays tendencies well so she made it really, really hard on Jonquel. She got a few there, but it’s not because of a lack of effort. It was the result of a really good player making plays.”
Howard was also asked about the matchup against Jones and said:
Howard knew the challenge of defending JJ: “I know what I have to do. I’ve played against her many times. My team was behind me. Defense is my main focus, making her uncomfortable and not letting her score the 20-30 points she averages. We did it together as a team.” (Q: @busyxb)
— Myles (@MylesEhrlich) May 8, 2022
The game went back and forth in the fourth before the Liberty went ahead for good on an Ionescu 3-pointer with three minutes to go on this excellent after timeout play.
That possession exemplified the approach the Liberty hope to take this season. The ball moved around from side-to-side, they got the Sun defense into an impossible situation, and then got a clean look for one of their best shooters a clean look from downtown. In the postgame, Brondello spoke about how important ball movement is and why she wants the team to avoid the bad habits on offense that typified their 2021 season:
“Our focus was on moving the ball. We struggled early because we went back to 2021, not moving the ball. That’s not how we play, it’s ugly to watch, too. We just gotta keep moving the ball, we gotta trust each other and get from side-to-side, but making sure we’ve got two feet in the paint if we can.”
Ionescu stepped it up late and scored eight fourth quarter points. On the night, she finished 10-18 from the field and went 3-6 from 3-point range, taking over the game when she needed to. In the postgame, we asked about her ability to get downhill and figure out the Sun defense. Here’s how she responded:
“Yeah, just reading what they gave me. They trapped a lot of those screens and so, being able to attack the trap, we got great ball movement so I was able to get shots off of reversals and attacking. I think it was really just the patience and poise of our offense that led a lot of us to easy shots and shots that we normally make, and so I think that’s what we have to continue to do. We were a little sped up in the first quarter and then settled down and was able to see what we needed to attack and exploit.”
A night of returns
For the Liberty, tonight marked the return to basketball for Asia Durr (AD) and Jocelyn Willoughby. AD has been away from the game for two years as they battled long COVID. AD only played six minutes, but was moving well on the court while they were out there. AD was part of the second unit that helped bring some energy after the slow start and got the Liberty back in the game. Prior to the game, they spoke with reporter, Pepper Persley!
Willoughby was essential to the Liberty’s victory. The overall No. 10 pick from 2020 missed the entire 2021 season after suffering an Achilles tear prior to the start of the season, and she returned to the starting five in place of the injured Betnijah Laney. In 28 minutes, Willoughby scored 13 points, snagged five rebounds, and played tough defense all game long. In the fourth, she made one of the plays of the game that tied it up at 66 after the Sun overcame an eleven point second half deficit.
With Willoughby and AD back, the team has some more energy and defense to help diversify their attack. There’s still things to build on, but they’re off to a great start.
Tsais on hand
It was a family affair for Joe and Clara Wu Tsai who sat courtside with two of their three children.
Post-game, Tsai had his own congratulatory tweet…
Couldn’t have asked for a better season opener. We played tough against a physical team. Love the fight and belief in ourselves ❤️ https://t.co/4XalrxiVnc
— Joe Tsai (@joetsai1999) May 8, 2022
The Liberty play their first road game of the season on Wednesday night against the reigning WNBA Champions, the Chicago Sky. Tip is after 8:00 p.m. ET.