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Ionescu’s go-ahead 3-point play delivers potential momentum-shifting win for Liberty

Sandy Brondello didn't hesitate to put the ball in Sabrina Ionescu’s hands late and the New York Liberty picked up a huge win. Will it be enough to spark a playoff-clinching run?

Chicago Sky v New York Liberty Photo by Catalina Fragoso/NBAE via Getty Images

After a final 4:50 played within three points and a final 3:11 with six lead changes, the New York Liberty (10-17) emerged with an 83-80 victory over the first-place Chicago Sky (21-7) Saturday night at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, snapping a five-game losing streak and snapping the Sky’s six-game winning streak.

The surprising win is meaningful for the Liberty’s playoff hopes as they have now taken at least one from Chicago in a two-game stretch against the Sky and face an easier schedule the rest of the way (New York is 1.5 games out of the final playoff spot with nine games to go). It was highlighted by a Sabrina Ionescu go-ahead 3-point play with nine seconds left followed by a game-sealing rebound and free throws from Michaela Onyenwere. Chicago’s Emma Meesseman missed a deep desperation three to tie off the back rim at the buzzer.

“I was putting the ball into Sab’s hand,” Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello said of her plan with 19 seconds left. “Sab loves that moment, she lives for that moment. ... Really proud of her, she’s so tough-minded.”

“Honestly I was just taking whatever the defense was gonna give, whether that was gonna be a shot or getting to the basket or a dump off,” said Ionescu, who yet again flirted with a triple-double (17 points, eight rebounds, nine assists). “I wasn’t really trying to predict what I wanted. I really just wanted to read in that moment.

“At the end of the day, the game wasn’t over. There was a lot of time on the clock and so that’s really what I was trying to preach was just stay in the moment. One, make the free throw, but two, just stay locked in cuz I knew that they were gonna have time to come down and take a shot and we knew what happened last game (against Chicago). So, I think it’s just staying poised and confident — not getting too high or too low. Yeah we were up one, but there’s so much time against the defending champions. So I think that was kind of my message, but obviously it’s nice to be up one.”

As discussed here, the Liberty were No. 7 in our midseason power rankings and seemed poised to make a playoff push before losing their first four after the All-Star break and moving into panic mode. Those four games were against either the Las Vegas Aces (20-8), Connecticut Sun (18-9) or Washington Mystics (17-11), so a very difficult stretch. But the Liberty looked pretty bad in a 108-74 loss to the Aces and an 82-63 loss to the Sun, the latter of which saw them lose the fourth by 16.

On Saturday, the Liberty nearly blew a 10-point fourth-quarter lead, but found a way to be clutch in the end and win a close game.

“It just shows resilience for us,” Ionescu said. “We’ve been in this position. The last game we played against them we lost on a buzzer. I think it just shows two minutes left in the game we’re down, we took good shots, we’re continuing to learn from our mistakes. And Michaela had a game-winning rebound, free throws. It just shows all of us collectively are coming in and doing our jobs and when we do that we have a really good chance of winning. So everyone from the starters to the bench players showed a lot of fight and grit tonight and it’s really nice to be rewarded with the win.”

Perhaps this win will give the Liberty the confidence to beat Chicago in back-to-back games. However, the next one will be more difficult as it will be on the road. After that, the Liberty will play eight-straight games against teams that currently have losing records and that are competing with them for the final playoff spots.

New York’s lone All-Star from a year ago, Betnijah Laney is due to return from a knee injury for the team’s next game, which is scheduled for next Friday. With her, New York has a much better shot at making the playoffs and would also be very interesting to watch in the postseason.

Defeating the Sky without Laney and with easier games coming up was simply huge.

“I think it’s a starting point,” Ionescu said. “You gotta start somewhere. And that was a big win for us to kinda snap a five-game losing streak. Just seeing a win sometimes is all you need to kind of get a spark and continue to win games. And we have a lot more games left. You know, it’s one at a time. We’re in the spot we need to be and we’re just gonna continue to get better. It’s not about stressing about what seed we are or any of that stuff. We have winnable games coming up, we gotta take it one at a time. And I think this is the start of hopefully continuing to get more wins.”

“We’ve been struggling a little bit, not getting wins. But what I've really liked about this team is that we stayed together as a team,” Brondello said. “Everyone hates losing and I’m just saying you just gotta hang in there. You just gotta grind it out. You gotta find some little wins, even in the games you lost. ... We had to dig deep to win it. I’m just happy. Still got nine games to go so hopefully it’ll just give us a little bit of hope.”

Ionescu’s fellow 2022 All-Star Natasha Howard finished with 16 points, 10 boards and four steals, while Han Xu added 12 points and six rebounds and Stefanie Dolson added 13 points. The Liberty won the field goal percentage battle 43.1 percent to 37 percent and held Chicago to a dismal 3-of-24 effort from beyond the arc. They won the game despite making nine less free throws and turning the ball over 20 times (nine more time than the Sky did).