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Ionescu makes Liberty history, Mercury ‘just another opponent’ for Brondello

The New York Liberty defeated their head coach’s former team on Sunday and moved within a game of the eighth and final playoff spot. Sabrina Ionescu set a franchise record with 16 assists.

Minnesota Lynx v New York Liberty
Sandy Brondello (left) shares a laugh with Sabrina Ionescu.
Photo by Evan Yu/NBAE via Getty Images

With their 89-69 win over the Phoenix Mercury on Sunday in Brooklyn, the New York Liberty moved within one game of the eighth and final playoff spot. Their next two games are against the eighth-place Los Angeles Sparks, both in Brooklyn.

Sabrina Ionescu’s Liberty-record 16 assists highlighted Sunday’s game, but Natasha Howard was also phenomenal. Both players neared triple-double territory with Ionescu amassing 10 points and eight rebounds and Howard going for 23 points, 12 boards and six helpers. New York used a strong fourth-quarter to pull away.

Per Her Hoop Stats, Ionescu recorded just the seventh 16-plus-assist performance in WNBA history and was just two off of the league record of 18, set twice by Courtney Vandersloot. It has been an impressive season for Ionescu, as she was an All-Star starter and seems to flirt with a triple-double every time she touches the court.

“I just want her to take what defense gives us,” Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello said of 2020’s No. 1 overall pick. “And tonight ... they were switching, we got the rolls to the basket. She’s a fantastic passer. It really is good just for such a young player, just her court vision, it reminds me of Diana Taurasi really. We want her being aggressive, but we still want her creating for others too, cuz she gets a lot of attention, so that’s really what’s happening, her assists are gonna be a little higher now. She won’t be happy with the way she shot the ball, but that’s just her competitive nature. But I thought for the most part they were really good shots. So I thought she played a really balanced game tonight.”

The win was Brondello’s third against the Mercury in her head coaching career. The other two (on June 18, 2010 and Aug. 22, 2010) were much closer (by three points and one point, respectively). They came the one year Brondello was the head coach of the San Antonio Silver Stars. The rest of her head coaching career, aside from this season, was of course spent in Phoenix from 2014 to 2021.

Brondello and the Liberty (11-18) lost their first game against the Mercury (13-17) this season, 84-81 on July 7 in Phoenix. The two teams will meet again on Aug. 6 with perhaps even greater playoff implications on the line. The Mercury and Brondello mutually parted ways after she led them to the Finals last year. She won the championship for Phoenix in 2014, made six semifinals and never missed the playoffs in eight years. The Mercury replaced her with first-year WNBA head coach Vanessa Nygaard, who had just two years of WNBA assistant-coaching experience entering this season. Many questioned why the Mercury wanted to part ways with Brondello.

When told that Rebecca Allen had said something about beating Phoenix for her, Brondello said, “That feels good.

“I think they wanted to win it for me in Phoenix too. Look, people, they say, ‘Oh well that must have felt like a great win.’ For me it’s just another opponent. I had special memories. I loved those players. But now I’m the coach of the New York Liberty. And so yeah. of course it’s nice to beat your old team. But I’m not like, ‘That’s the only game I want to win all season.’ I’m just happy that we played well against a really good team. And it’s nice that they say that. That must mean they like me a little bit I suppose.”

Brondello was also asked if she thinks she has a competitive edge over the Mercury.

“I’ve been in the league for a really, really long time, so I know all the players (on all the teams),” she said. “I mean, that helps, but you still have to come up with a game plan that suits your team. I thought today was a great matchup for us. We played with the sense of urgency that we needed. Being familiar with the style of play, it certainly helps, but in the end it comes down to who plays the best on the day. So we’re both prepared to go. We put a lot of work in, both teams. And then it’s about who does the best on that day, and hopefully we’ll get a few more wins by doing that.”

In addition to Howard, Allen and 2020 Rookie of the Year Crystal Dangerfield both had big scoring nights (17 points apiece).

It was a season high by six for Dangerfield and her first double-digit scoring performance since scoring 11 on June 12. Dangerfield began this season waived by the Minnesota Lynx and has since been waived by both the Indiana Fever and the Liberty as she struggles to maintain a spot in the league despite her status as a very recent Rookie of the Year. On Sunday she was 7-of-12 from the field, was 3-of-5 from three and had five assists.

“My rookie year, I had the ball in my hands a lot; I knew coming (to New York) I wasn’t gonna do that,” Dangerfield said. “So I wanted to come in and make an impact somehow, on both ends of the floor. And what I did was just make sure our offensive is moving smoothly. Before I got here, the talk was like, ‘We need to limit our turnovers and then just increase pace.’ I’m a fast player, I’m a point guard. I don’t try to do too much, I just want to do the right thing at the right time. And that’s what I did today. And it just turned out that it was scoring.”

It was Allen’s first double-digit scoring performance since June 7, though not a season high (hers is 21). She has missed time this season due to being in concussion protocol and her playing time and scoring are down slightly from last year.

“It was good to see Bec Allen get back to being Bec Allen,” Brondello said. “She’s had a really tough season and we know she’s a critical piece for us. ... I thought defensively she did a great job on Diana (Taurasi). Her defense has been there. But tonight it was good to see the ball go in, I think for her own confidence.”