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Recap: Thrilling comeback, Allisha Gray block send Wings to playoffs in style

Allisha Gray blocked a Sabrina Ionescu shot at the buzzer to lift the Dallas Wings over the New York Liberty and into the 2021 WNBA playoffs.

New York Liberty v Dallas Wings
Kayla Thornton (jersey #6) greets Allisha Gray.
Photo by Cooper Neill/NBAE via Getty Images

Dallas Wings guard Allisha Gray jumped from one side of Sabrina Ionescu to the other after the latter stopped at the free throw line to adjust for a final shot with her New York Liberty down one on Saturday night. Ionescu put herself in a position to take a straightaway jump shot. Though she was leaning forward a little bit, her hands took the ball up in perfect form — she wasn’t at an awkward angle. But Gray, now on Ionescu’s left side and slightly behind her, reached out with her left hand and blocked the ball without fouling at 0.6 seconds remaining. Gray’s teammate Marina Mabrey, who finished with a game-high 21 points, grabbed the ball as time expired, sending the Wings to the playoffs with a 77-76 win at College Park Center in Arlington, Texas.

The Dallas fans went wild as they knew that Gray (13 points, 11 rebounds) and Kayla Thornton (13 points, five rebounds two steals), the two longest-tenured Wings who are both in their fifth year with the team, had played key roles in the contest.

Satou Sabally (13 points, three assists) was ultra-clutch in her first game back from an Achilles injury, scoring the Wings’ final five points to put them up 77-74. She made a gutsy three with two minutes to go that made it 75-74 and followed with a layup at 38 seconds left after two Liberty misses, including a failed 3-point attempt from her former Oregon teammate in Ionescu.

Sabally hadn’t played since July 11 and actually threw up during that final stretch.

“I think it was just your body telling you ‘ay, you’re doing a lot right now,” Sabally said. “I hope someone finds that video and gives it to me. It was just nerves I guess, just exhaustion. It has never happened to me before.”

On making the playoffs, she added, “it means results. It means having results for your hard work that we’ve put in. We had a hard season last year, we had a hard season this year, but we stuck through adversity. And I think that we’re a really young and upcoming team that can accomplish a lot, even in the playoffs.”

“First of all, I always give honor to God,” Thornton said. “It’s a blessing, we pulled it through. My teammates did an extreme, absolutely great job tonight, just sticking together. That was the biggest part. You know we’ve been through this, ya’ll’ve seen this, we get down and then we kind of get on our own little islands and we start trying to like think we gotta do it on our own. But we stuck together.”

The seventh-place Wings (13-17) are in the playoffs after facing the pressure to perform well with the top two draft picks and improve upon an 8-14 season where they missed the postseason. However, those two draftees, Charli Collier and Awak Kuier have not play big roles this year, yielding the credit of backing up stars Sabally, Mabrey and Arike Ogunbowale to four veterans: Gray, Thornton, Isabelle Harrison and Moriah Jefferson. Behind the play of those players, scintillating moments from Ogunbowale and breakout performances from Mabrey, the Wings showed potential from the jump, losing five close games and winning five others, including a June 6 triumph over the defending champion Seattle Storm, in their first 10.

After a win on Sept. 2, they moved two games ahead of the league’s ninth-place team at the time (New York) and first-year head coach Vickie Johnson was all smiles knowing that the team was in great position with five games to go. Though Dallas lost its next two games in embarrassing fashion — one to the lowly Atlanta Dream and one by 27 points to the Connecticut Sun — it stepped up in the face of a 13-point deficit with 9:19 to play on Saturday.

Thornton made a three to cut it to 10, sparking a 13-0 run that featured 10 points from her and tied the game. Mabrey made a triple that cut it to four with 6:50 to go and Thornton followed with back-to-back scores at 5:41 and 5:01.

A Natasha Howard layup off a nice assist from Ionescu put the Liberty back up by two with 3:01 remaining, but Mabrey made free throws to tie the game at 2:45. Ionescu free throws at 2:17 gave New York another two-point lead, but then Sabally did her thing. Howard barely got a layup up in traffic with 29.4 ticks remaining, cutting the Wings lead to one. Ogunbowale then missed a trey that would have made it a two-possession game with 8.4 seconds to go. Howard hauled in the rebound and New York’s final possession began on the Wings’ side after a timeout with 5.7 seconds to play.

After the game, Johnson was asked about making the playoffs in her first year at the helm in Dallas.

“It feels amazing,” she said. “The one thing we talked about before the game as a team: we don't want anybody else to determine our destiny. We wanted to do it on our own. ... It was great to see Satou back, Mabrey stepping up, playing incredible minutes, Gray getting that block at the end. It all started with defense and it ended with defense.”

Dallas led by as much as seven in the first. The Liberty were up one at halftime before winning the third 25-16.

Mabrey added eight rebounds and tied Ionescu (18 points, eight boards, two blocks) and Liberty guard/forward Betnijah Laney (19 points) with a game-high six assists. Howard notched 16 points, 11 rebounds and four assists and Sami Whitcomb (4-of-7 from beyond the arc) posted 12 points in defeat.

The Wings turned the ball over just six times.

Either the Liberty or the Washington Mystics could still surpass the Wings and drop them to the eighth seed, but right now Dallas is 1.5 games ahead of the eighth-place Mystics. New York (11-19) is a half a game behind Washington, so it is currently out of playoff position.