The season of freedom begins and ends with thrills

The dramatic end of the Liberty’s first playoff trip since 2017 brought up memories of the start of this season. In the opener against ...


The dramatic end of the Liberty’s first playoff trip since 2017 brought up memories of the start of this season.

In the opener against Indiana, Sabrina Ionescu netted a 3-point winner from the Barclays Center wing with four tenths of a second left and raised expectations to the top. The Liberty started the season 5-1 and looked like a playoff team, easily surpassing their winning streak in last season’s 2-20 debacle.

This time, with four-tenths of a second left in Thursday’s first-round knockout playoff, the Liberty, down by one point, had one last chance to knock down the Phoenix Mercury. As Sami Whitcomb retrieved the ball from the left side, the players cut and sprinted in choreography. The first option – a lob pass to the basket – wasn’t there, so Ionescu, coming out of a screen, lunged towards Whitcomb. Ionescu caught the pass well over the 3-point line and threw a moon shot over the outstretched arms of 6-foot-9 center Brittney Griner.

The last breath shot fell a foot shorter. The fade rider’s momentum, and contact with Griner, threw Ionescu back with an 83-82 loss. “It just hasn’t gone our way,” Liberty coach Walt Hopkins said.

With plenty to unpack after an exciting game, the Liberty entered the offseason with a lot of promise, with the ball and the franchise, in the hands of Ionescu. “I’m really excited for this next season, especially with this core of players sitting next to me, to be able to grow up from here,” said Ionescu, surrounded by Betnijah Laney, the team’s top scorer for season, and Natasha Howard, his top rebounder, at the post-game press conference.

After a transcendent career in Oregon that made her the easy pick as the No.1 pick in the 2020 Liberty Draft, Ionescu badly sprained an ankle in her third WNBA game and has missed the rest of his rookie season. This season she was hard to miss. His playing face stretched across the entrance to Barclays Center. Slam magazine dubbed her “The Next Queen of NY” on its April / May cover. She traded jokes in commercials with Chris Paul, 11-time NBA All-Star, who was in the stands for the playoff game.

Ionescu, 23, has led the league in jersey sales this season, just ahead of Seattle’s Sue Bird, who has played in the WNBA almost as long as Ionescu is alive. “She just did a really, really wonderful job of balancing expectations that might have been unrealistic for a rookie,” Hopkins said.

In his playoff debut, Ionescu finished with 14 points, 11 assists and 5 rebounds.

It takes years, even for prodigies, to develop their potential. Hopkins pointed to Skylar Diggins-Smith of Mercury, who, at 31, made his first Olympic team last summer and scored a record 22 points against Liberty. “She’s finally realizing her potential,” Hopkins said of Diggins-Smith.

“To get Sabrina to where she’s at – where she takes charge of a young team in stride, to execute, and to succeed, and to hit big shots, and to scream when someone talks to her and doesn’t.” not take from just anyone – it’s been really, really special, ”Hopkins said. “I’ve never had the chance to see someone grow as quickly as Sab, and it’s been a privilege, honestly.”

Even so, the team’s best player all season has been Laney, who posted a record 25 points against the Mercury. Howard led Liberty’s persistent defense with doubles and triples, limiting Griner’s ability to return to the game in the absence of Mercury goalkeeper Diana Taurasi, who did not play with an ankle injury. Ionescu, after playing the role of 2 goalkeepers in college, learned to play the lead role, becoming more of a facilitator than a finisher.

In just her sixth career professional game, Ionescu became the youngest player in league history to record a triple-double, with 26 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds in a win over Minnesota.

However, ankle tendonitis plagued Ionescu in June, and that, combined with Howard’s loss to a knee injury, slowed the team’s progress. The Olympic break helped Ionescu get back in shape, but the team’s play continued to fall and Liberty only won two games in the second half of the season. The Liberties started their last regular-season game on an eight-game losing streak, but pushed the Washington Mystics back to keep their slight playoff hopes.

With losses to the Mystics and Los Angeles Sparks on the final day of the regular season, the Liberty squeaked in the playoffs. “Nobody thought we would be in this position,” Laney said after the loss to Phoenix. “So the fact that we stayed together and got here and fought hard, I’m really excited for what’s going to happen in the future. “

Hopkins blamed the referee after the loss, although he didn’t have a problem with the calls in the dying moments of the game.

“There’s a lot I want to say about officiating in WNBA and the disrespect this team has received all season,” said Hopkins. “But I can’t say that, because the referees are faultless. They don’t need to go to a press conference after games. They don’t have to explain the mistakes they made, why they did what they are doing.

“I don’t know where the responsibility will come from, but it has to happen. It was a bad season. The way they treated us was bad.

Hopkins said the squad is held at a different level as it has many young players, including Ionescu and Michaela Onyenwere, who is the favorite for the Rookie of the Year award. Against Phoenix, she played less than nine minutes and didn’t score.

Laney is still building his resume, fueled by disappointment and setbacks. Since Chicago Sky drafted her in 2015, she’s been cut twice, by Sky and Fever, before finding a spot with Atlanta last year, when she won the Most Improved Player award. of the league. Then this season, she made her first all-star team, with the Liberty, and led the team with 16.8 points per game.

Against Phoenix, Laney landed her team’s last shot, with 2.7 seconds remaining, to tie the game at 82. But the Mercury handed the ball to Brianna Turner under the basket in the ensuing shootout. , and Whitcomb did it. Turner’s first free throw was missed, but she calmly pulled the second, to give the advantage to the Mercury.

After a time out, the Liberty had the last chance to win. When Ionescu hit the ground after the missed shot, Howard ran to help him up. Ionescu didn’t look angry or downcast when she left the pitch. Instead, she seemed to be betting that experience for the future.

She spoke about the film work she had in front of her in the offseason, the experience gained, the lessons learned. “We will start training camp at this level,” she said. “This is the foundation.”

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