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Liberty enter All-Star break having weathered storm without Betnijah Laney

The New York Liberty are just one game behind a three-way tie for sixth in the WNBA standings. They got there by going 8-6 over their last 14, all games played without their heartbeat from a year ago: Betnijah Laney, who will return sometime during the second half of the season.

New York Liberty v Phoenix Mercury
Diana Taurasi and the Phoenix Mercury were just a bit better than Sabrina Ionescu and the New York Liberty Thursday night.
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The New York Liberty allowed Sophie Cunningham of the Phoenix Mercury to score a career-high 23 points Thursday night at the Footprint Center in Phoenix.

When Cunningham scored on a layup with 4:46 to go in the second, it gave her 19 points and increased the Mercury lead to a game-high 16.

The nights New York allowed Cunningham, Diana Taurasi (23 points) and Skylar Diggins-Smith (13 points, seven rebounds, nine assists) to have proved costly in the end, but the Liberty didn’t go down without a fight.

The entire second half was played within single digits and New York cut it to two entering the fourth before battling over the final five minutes of the game. With 15 seconds remaining, Michaela Onyenwere made an incredible save, rebounding a ball that was going out of bounds and flinging it in to Sabrina Ionescu at around the free throw line. With the team down four, Ionescu quickly ran behind the 3-point line and buried a triple to cut it to one with 13 ticks left on the clock.

The Liberty then had 3.1 seconds to work with down three and threw it in to Stefanie Dolson just inside the 3-point arc on the left side. Dolson didn’t get her pass to Ionescu for a 35-foot three in time for Ionescu to get the shot off.

This was a deflating loss for New York after it had defeated the second-place Las Vegas Aces the night before behind a franchise-record 116 points and a WNBA-record 31 points in a triple-double from Ionescu.

Although that was a big win, the Liberty have gone 1-3 over their last four with the other losses coming to the Atlanta Dream and Los Angeles Sparks, both teams with losing records. On a positive note, New York has gone 8-6 over its last 14 after starting 1-7.

The Liberty couldn’t fault their own effort Thursday night after traveling from Vegas to Phoenix to play on back-to-back days.

“We kept fightin’, we didn’t give up,” said Liberty All-Star Natasha Howard, who had 16 points, seven rebounds, three assists and two blocks. “Even though we had a game last night we still came out with every bit of positive energy to give to Phoenix. And I feel like everybody did their part on defense and on offense.”

But while their latest loss seems forgivable, the 1-7 start still looms over the Liberty given that there are only two teams worse than them in the standings despite their turnaround. On the other hand, 10th place is just a game out of sixth place, so there is plenty of optimism left.

A lot of people would probably give the Liberty team that played on Thursday a good shot a making the playoffs. That’s a team that includes, Ionescu (also an All-Star), Howard, an electrifying midseason addition in Marine Johannès (who can shoot the three and distribute with the best of them), an emerging post star in 22-year-old, 6-foot-10 Han Xu and the player who was supposed to be their fourth-best player entering the season in Stefanie Dolson, who has made positive adjustments.

But the even better news is that Liberty are so much more than the team that dressed on Thursday. They should be getting Rebecca Allen and Jocelyn Willoughby back shortly after the All-Star break and then 2021 All-Star Betnijah Laney’s eight weeks out are up July 27th, which would give her the chance to play in the team’s final nine regular-season games. Allen is an impact player who averaged 9.2 points per game last year and Willoughby is a tough, 6-foot forward/guard who brings a lot of energy. But the real difference should be made by Laney, who was the heartbeat of the 2021 Liberty team that did make the playoffs.

Seattle Storm v New York Liberty
Betnijah Laney
Photo by Evan Yu/NBAE via Getty Images

“We’re not really looking too far ahead on the standings and where we’re at and wins or losses,” said Ionescu, who had 22 points, 10 boards and three helpers on Thursday. “It’s really just about where we’re at in the moment and how we can continue to get better and learn through the process.

“The second half is gonna be better than the first. We're gonna continue to learn, continue to grow as a group, get some players back in and get ‘em up to speed on what we’re running, how we’re running things and kind of our style of play. We’re just gonna continue to add and that’s really exciting because we are missing a lot of players. And so I think sky’s the limit and we're definitely very excited for the second half.”