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Sabrina Ionescu guts out fourth quarter, Liberty cling to perfection through three games of eight-game finale

The New York Liberty are looking to go undefeated over their final eight games, knowing they’re all against weaker teams. The Los Angeles Sparks nearly dealt them a deflating blow, but the Liberty prevailed and are now more comfortably in playoff position.

Los Angeles Sparks v New York Liberty Photo by Evan Yu/NBAE via Getty Images

“We got blown out by Chicago and came back and beat them another time,” Sandy Brondello said after her New York Liberty’s 102-73 win over the Los Angeles Sparks on Tuesday. She knew her team was facing the Sparks again the very next day with just as much on the line in terms of the playoff picture.

Sure enough, the Liberty struggled to sweep the back-to-back, falling behind 28-8 by the 7:49 mark of the second quarter before coming back to win by three, 64-61, Wednesday night at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

“You try and get on ‘em, ‘No complacency,’” Brondello said after Wednesday’s win. “You knew (LA) was gonna bring the sense of urgency. ... Nneka (Ogwumike)’s team’s not gonna back down. And we were flat. We were just really flat. And they were trapping us. We were probably a little stubborn, not moving the ball as much as we would like. And we played right into their hands and we weren’t on the same page defensively. I just think you just gotta hang in there. You just gotta work on just getting consecutive stops in a row and take great shots. But move with purpose, I don’t think we did that.”

The struggle seemed insignificant in the end, though, thanks to Sabrina Ionescu scoring the team’s final eight points and 11 of its last 13 to secure its third win in a row and the tiebreaker over the Sparks should the two teams finished tied for the eighth and final playoff spot. With the Phoenix Mercury’s loss Thursday night, the Liberty are now a half a game ahead of ninth-place Phoenix and tied for seventh with the Atlanta Dream with five games to go. That’s a pretty good position to be in, considering that last Friday they were tied for 10th and two games back of a playoff spot.

Ionescu hit a three to cut New York’s deficit to one with 4:49 to play. She cut It to one again at 2:18 on a reverse layup that she finished with her off hand. Her two free throws at 1:17 gave the Liberty their first lead of the game and two more free throws from her made it a three-point game with 34 ticks remaining. With her team up 62-61 with 29 seconds to go, she ran the clock down and didn’t create a great look, but knew she had to put something up with three seconds left on the shot clock. She pulled up in the lane on Katie Lou Samuelson and gave the ball a little extra push so that it banked in straightaway.

LA had one last chance to tie the game, but Lexie Brown, a 41.4-percent 3-point shooter this year, missed from deep with 3.4 seconds left.

“I think we’ve played many games like this early on in the season and have lost,” Ionescu said. “Chicago by (two), Indiana. The list kinda goes on. So I think it just shows the resilience and the growth from this team night in and night out. We shot awful, in the paint, outside the paint. But at the end of the day we kept the faith, we continued to buckle down on defense, we got stops, we got scores when we needed to. And it’s really hard to beat a team on a back-to-back. And so the fact that we were able to get two wins is really big for this franchise and to this playoff push.”

Brondello agreed there was a lot of growth.

“We wouldn’t have won this earlier in the season,” she said. “It shows a little bit of a competitive fight for each other — getting out of yourself and competing for each other to win. And knowing what’s at stake. You know, we’re trying to push for a playoff spot. This is a tiebreak that’s important for us moving forward. And we needed another W just to stay up.

“I actually thought this was a great game for us. I’m relieved that we won. But sometimes you need to go through the mud to learn a little bit more about your team and that, ‘Hey we can still miss all those shots and still win a game.’”

The Liberty shot 31.5 percent from the field. Ionescu finished with 20 points, eight rebounds, six assists and two steals.