With a seven-point lead following a pair of missed free throws from the Sky’s Kahleah Copper, Sabrina Ionescu grabbed the defensive rebound and dribbled the ball up the right sideline near halfcourt. A tired group of Chicago defenders backed off on defense before the Liberty’s star point guard heaved a pass to Stefanie Dolson as the final seconds ticked off the scoreboard.
When the final buzzer sounded, Wintrust Arena in Chicago was silent. The Liberty had defeated the reigning WNBA champion Sky, 98-91, in Game 1 .
In her first year as New York’s head coach, a collected Sandy Brondello guided the franchise to its first playoff win since Sept. 23, 2015. Filled with exhilaration, Ionescu lifted her arms and let out her emotion as she walked to a team bench full of hugs and smiles after shocking the second-seeded Sky in the first game in the best-of-three series.
Though Ionescu is the fearless commander of the Liberty’s offense and the team’s leading scorer, she was only 22 percent of the reason why the Liberty were able to pull off the victory in the scoring column. Aside from Ionescu, Brondello played nine different players that included three other starters scoring 13 or more points and their team combined for 21 points off the bench.
“We found a way to win by staying together, competing and making plays when we needed to,” Brondello said after the game.
At the end of July, the playoffs looked bleak for New York. The Liberty sat 11-18 in the WNBA standings. New York couldn’t win in close games down the stretch and health also played a role. But after going 5-2 in August and earning a tight win against Atlanta in the regular-season finale to secure a playoff spot Sunday, the Liberty started a new season in the WNBA playoffs.
And with a victory in front of an energized crowd in Chicago, New York has the confidence that it can do more.
“We’ve been in this situation all year,” Ionescu told ESPN’s Holly Rowe after the game. “Early on, we were losing these games and we found out what it takes to win.”
New York’s victory was a case of sheer resilience against a lineup full of All-Star players, future Naismith Hall of Famers and the reigning WNBA Finals MVP. After all, New York had nothing to lose.
“Everybody counted us out and didn’t think we would make the playoffs… 20 percent chance to get in,” Ionescu told Rowe. “We used that as fuel to fire.”
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Neither team held a double-digit lead in the contest. After a clean first quarter with zero turnovers, Chicago looked primed to break open the game with two runs—a 7-0 and 9-0 run—in the second quarter. However, in the final four minutes of the second quarter, Chicago committed a half dozen turnovers. The Liberty took advantage of the Sky’s costly miscues with 14 points en route to a 15-3 run to take a 48-45 halftime lead.
The Liberty took control in the early part of the third and led by as many as nine points, fueled by huge buckets from Dolson, the glue to the team, and Laney.
“[Dolson] knows what it takes to win,” Ionescu said. “She’s been on a championship team.”
After multiple Liberty leads of six and eight points, the Sky brought the deficit to within two points before regaining the lead (74-73) thanks to a layup from Emma Meesseman heading into the fourth quarter.
Through the first couple minutes of the final period, all signs pointed to the reigning champs pulling away and New York falling into its trap of losing games down the stretch. But, following a massive timeout nearly halfway through the quarter, New York’s Marine Johannes facilitated the biggest play of the game when she lobbed a no-look pass behind her head to a wide-open Natasha Howard for a layup.
“I didn’t know [Johannes] was going to pass it or not,” Howard said after the game. “But I was ready … It kind of reminded me of a pass from Sue Bird.”
That play sparked the Liberty’s comeback efforts in the final minutes of the game. Chicago missed 10 of its 11 shots down the stretch, and New York used a 13-0 run over the final 2:54—to seal the victory.
When it mattered the most, New York didn’t fold. The Liberty played with urgency. While they did not play great for a full 40 minutes, New York made the defensive stops they needed and nailed the big shots with confidence.
New York could potentially close out the series Saturday should the Liberty defeat the Sky in Game 2 of the first round. At the least, the Liberty forced a pivotal Game 3 on their home court with Wednesday’s win.
If Chicago bounces back, it sets up a dueling win-or-go home game in the Big Apple, thanks to WNBA’s new playoff format. While the stakes in the series have been raised with a hungry Liberty squad determined to defy the odds, Ionescu remains as cool as the other side of the pillow.
“I love pressure,” Ionescu told Rowe after the game. “I want to be great. I want to do whatever it takes to help my team win.
One more victory sits between New York and a potential spot in the WNBA semifinals. The Liberty’s resilience will be tested again. But, after Wednesday’s victory, they are embracing the challenge.
“Why not us?” Ionescu said. “We believe in ourselves,”