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Laney, Liberty recapture early-season magic

Betnijah Laney made a huge shot to give the New York Liberty the lead late and her team held on to defeat the Breanna Stewart-less and Sue Bird-less Seattle Storm.

Seattle Storm v New York Liberty
Betnijah Laney (jersey #44)
Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

The New York Liberty have had an up and down season and though the bad has slightly outweighed the good they sit in playoff position and on Wednesday night at Barclays Center in Brooklyn increased their seventh-place lead by recapturing some of the magic that led them to victory on opening night, which was the beginning of a 5-1 start.

In that game on May 14, the player tasked with turning the franchise’s fortunes around, Sabrina Ionescu, made her highly anticipated debut at Barclays and hit the game-winning three with 0.4 seconds left. One of the players tasked with starring while Ionescu, 2020’s No. 1 pick, develops, Betnijah Laney, dropped a game-high 30 points, while Ionescu had 25 to go along with 11 assists.

The formula for Liberty success in 2021 came through in Game 1 and Laney would go on to score 20-plus in each of the team’s first eight games en route to an All-Star Game appearance. Through six games, the Liberty were in second place, trailing only the 5-0 Connecticut Sun.

However, New York was 5-11 since entering Wednesday night, including an 88-78 loss to the Minnesota Lynx in its first game back from the Olympic break on Sunday. It was its third-straight defeat.

An opportunity for an easier-than-usual shot at a win over the Seattle Storm presented itself though, with U.S. Olympians Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird set to miss Wednesday night in order to rest. The Liberty took advantage as Laney made a bank shot from the top of the key with 17.6 seconds left to put them ahead for good, completing a 15-point comeback and negating the 35 points scored by Seattle’s third U.S. Olympian, Jewell Loyd.

“There was a timeout in the third where it was like a wake-up call type of timeout and they responded,” Liberty head coach Walt Hopkins said of his team. “Just a really, really mentally tough group. And they want to do things the right way.”

The Liberty won the game 83-79 by winning the fourth 21-7. Laney (17 points, seven rebounds, eight assists, two steals) picked up a steal with 7.1 seconds remaining and Sami Whitcomb (nine points) hit two free throws with 2.6 to go to ice the game.

Rebecca Allen came up big with 17 points, six boards, two steals and two blocks, while Ionescu was good for 10 points, seven boards and five helpers. Star offseason acquisition Natasha Howard added 10 points as well in her second game back from a knee injury and DiDi Richards (nine points) showed off the work she has put in on her 3-point shot with a 2-of-2 performance from beyond the arc. Richards also defended Loyd in the fourth and held her scoreless.

“DiDi Richards was integral in this,” Hopkins said. “We don’t win this game without DiDi, there’s no question about that. ... I would say that that’s the best way to talk about the fourth quarter is to talk about her.”

Offensively, Allen led the Liberty with nine points in the fourth (3-of-4 from distance). Ionescu threw a crosscourt inbound pass to her in the left corner that resulted in a made triple, which cut the Storm’s lead to 79-77 with 1:38 to play. Howard (6-foot-2) then scored inside on 6-foot-6 Mercedes Russell, her former Seattle teammate, with 1:10 to go to tie the game.

Wednesday marked the first time that both Howard and Whitcomb played against their former team.

Seattle’s Katie Lou Samuelson (15 points, two blocks) missed a three with 47 ticks remaining and Loyd couldn’t finish a putback layup after that. Howard secured the rebound off Loyd’s miss and the rest was Laney.

New York outshot the Storm 51.7 percent to 43.7 percent from the field and 48 percent (12-of-25) to 34.6 percent (9-of-26) from deep. Allen was 5-of-6 in the latter category. The Liberty were also 9-of-10 from the free throw line. They improve to 11-12 with the win, one game ahead of the eighth-place Dallas Wings and a game and a half ahead of the ninth-place Washington Mystics.

Seattle falls to 16-7, which puts it in third place, one game behind the first-place Las Vegas Aces and a half a game behind the second-place Sun. The Storm were in first place at the Olympic break and won the Commissioner’s Cup championship game toward the end of the break, but are 0-2 since regular-season play resumed. Stewart and Bird missed both games.