In the very first playoff game of the 2022 season on Wednesday night, the 7th-seeded New York Liberty shook up the belief that the Top 5 are head and shoulders above the 6, 7 and 8 seeds by defeating the 2nd-seeded Chicago Sky 98-91 at Wintrust Arena in Chicago.
“I think it was more just this proud feeling of we came here and we did what we needed to do and what nobody believed we could do,” Liberty superstar Sabrina Ionescu said of her emotions after the win. She had 22 points, seven rebounds, six assists and two steals and contributed five points to a game-closing 13-0 New York run. “I’ve been saying to this whole team, ‘Why not us?’ I know we had a 20 percent chance of even making it into the playoffs and here we are. We believe in ourselves and that’s all that matters …”
The Liberty were huge underdogs entering this best-of-three series, which they now lead 1-0. Huge underdogs in the sense that the Sky were 10-games better in the regular season, were considered to be much more talented and had the experience of winning the championship last year. But many people gave the Liberty a fighting chance and a big reason why was the restoration of their big three with the recent return of Betnijah Laney. ESPN analyst Andraya Carter also praised the team’s depth pregame.
Well, they didn’t need depth Wednesday night because that big three showed up. Ionescu was phenomenal and Natasha Howard (seven rebounds, three assists) also had 22 points with hers coming on 8-of-12 shooing from the field and 3-of-6 shooting from three. Laney added 17 points, five boards and five helpers. The Liberty really couldn’t have asked for a more solid performance from their stars to start off the postseason, especially considering this was just Laney’s sixth game back from knee surgery.
To make things even better, the splashy offseason acquisition who has been disappointing but was supposed to be the Liberty’s fourth-best player this season, Stefanie Dolson, stepped up with 13 points (3-of-4 from three), seven boards and three helpers. Dolson of course played for the Sky last year.
“She’s the glue to this team,” Ionescu said. “She’s been on a championship team, she’s played at the highest level, she knows what it takes to win and she sacrifices that for us every night. Whether she’s gonna need to score, she’s gonna need to pass, she’s gonna need to guard the best big man. She’s really adaptable and able to bring that every single night. And just overall a really unselfish player and that helps us get our offense moving. She was a huge piece for us winning tonight. She started off the game well, she made great passes. And we kind of hold her to that standard every night. She’s been a great leader and she’s kind of grown into that role.”
The Liberty’s fourth-leading scorer on the season behind their big three, Marine Johannès, had eight points, including a four-point play, and seven assists in 26 minutes and 54 seconds. She, Dolson and the big three all played north of 26 minutes. Everyone else on the Liberty saw south of 12 minutes of playing time and there were no other key contributors. So the Liberty truly got the job done with their five best players and not their depth.
The 13-0 run to close the game started with an incredible pass from Johannés over her head from beyond the arc to a wide-open Howard in the paint for an easy layup that cut it to 91-87 Chicago with 3:20 to play. Ionescu then hit a three over Candace Parker to cut it to one and another Howard layup gave the Liberty a 92-91 lead with 2:30 to go.
An Ionescu mid-range make and followed by four-straight points from Laney gave the Liberty all the breathing room they would need.
Parker finished with 17 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. All eyes were on 2021 Finals MVP Kahleah Copper, expecting another incredible playoff run and Copper delivered with 21 points and eight boards, but it wasn’t enough.
“You can’t guard her 1-on-1, she’s an elite player and she’s very athletic,” said Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello. “We weren’t pushing her into the crowd, we weren’t congesting her as well as we wanted to. So it’s just doing your work early and just trusting the players behind you. She still scored 21, but we kind of limited her a little later in the game and brought a little bit more help and made someone else try and shoot the ball.”
Allie Quigley added 18 points in defeat and her wife, Courtney Vandersloot, was good for 13 points and a game-high 10 assists. Azurá Stevens had a great game off the bench with 16 points on 6-of-8 shooting from the field (2-of-3 from three).
Game 2 will also be at Wintrust Arena (on Saturday), but Game 3, if necessary, will be at Barclays Center in Brooklyn (on Tuesday). This is somewhat controversial as it gives the lower-seeded team the home court advantage in the winner-take-all game, but the Liberty will take it. They’ve already done their job of stealing one in Chicago.
“It’s important that we won a (playoff) game for this organization and what they’ve done for us, for New York, for New York basketball,” Ionescu said. “But there’s a lot of games left in us, so we’re gonna have to come out and do that again.”
Recap from Sky perspective:
Liberty series preview:
Sky series preview:
Vandersloot and Ionescu are two of the most prolific distributors in the game; this year they were second and third in the league in assists per game, respectively. They were also both coached by Kelly Graves in college: Vandersloot at Gonzaga from 2007 to 2011 and Ionescu at Oregon from 2016 to 2020.
One reporter noticed the two of them talking before the second half began.
“Well I asked her to not pick me up full court, if you want me to be honest,” Ionescu said. “But it’s incredible what she’s done and just her ability to lead the game. We kinda share a connection — both coached by the same college coach. And so have had just a good relationship and I’m able to watch what she’s been able to do in this league and to do it every single night, night in and night out, and excel at the highest level, win championships and all that. So for me it’s just what she’s done on the court, but also the person that she is off the court and I’m able to kind of emulate that and really respect that as a player.”