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Couldn’t have scripted it much worse for Liberty in Laney’s return against superstar-less Mercury

The Phoenix Mercury trio of Diamond DeShields, Shey Peddy and Sophie Cunningham spelled doom for the New York Liberty Saturday night.

New York Liberty v Phoenix Mercury Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

The New York Liberty are no longer in playoff position. Their perfect record during this much-talked-about final eight-game stretch is no more.

They had narrowly averted a let down on Wednesday and the path seemed clear for them to keep rolling; next up was a Saturday night matchup against a Phoenix Mercury team that they had recently defeated by 20 and that was without Skylar Diggins-Smith (non-COVID illness) and Diana Taurasi (right quad). Plus, Betnijah Laney was finally back from her knee injury, giving New York its full roster to work with.

But the Liberty would not keep rolling. Momentum was halted and the uncertainty surrounding making the playoffs gained strength after the team threw up brick after brick en route to a 30.9-percent shooting performance and a 76-62 loss to Phoenix. To make things worse, All-Star Natasha Howard had to be helped off the court in the third quarter and missed the rest of the game with an ankle injury. Her long-term status is unknown.

The Liberty were down nine when Howard left the game and they remained stuck at around that deficit for much of the remainder of the contest. They would trail by as much as 17, but for the most part kept it closer than that and had some exciting plays that gave them hope.

The closest they got post-Howard injury was seven. Laney had an opportunity to cut it to six, but missed a layup on which she thought she was fouled with 1:26 to play. Off the miss, the Mercury got the ball up the court to Diamond DeShields, who missed a transition layup that was cleaned up by Brianna Turner. The four-point swing gave Phoenix a 72-62 lead with 1:18 to go. If Laney makes that layup, we’re talking about a very different final minute.

Forty-one seconds before Turner’s heroic put-back, Shey Peddy appeared to put the exclamation mark on the victory (and the Liberty’s night of letting non-superstars run all over them) when she made a bank-floater that made it 70-60 and gave her 20 points, breaking her previous career high of 18. Peddy had also made threes to give the Mercury 17-point leads at the 8:15 and 7:32 marks of the fourth. The first of those treys came after Peddy inbounded the ball of Stefanie Dolson’s back.

“Shey, coached her for a few years, she was money for me in many situations, in lots of big moments,” said Liberty coach Sandy Brondello. “So I think the added responsibility is great for her game. The ball’s in her hand a little bit too and she made good decisions. But her persistence in getting offensive boards, that was just out-hustling us ... That’s a great game for her. She was certainly the key to their victory tonight.”

With the Mercury’s top scorers in Diggins-Smith and Taurasi out, one would think that the team’s third- and fourth-best scorers, Diamond DeShields and Sophie Cunningham, respectively, would have to step up. And they, along with Peddy, did.

It was unfortunate for the Liberty that DeShields looked like her 2019 All-Star self with 14 points in the first quarter and seven in the second. She would finish with a game-high 25. Cunningham added 18 in her usual spunky fashion.

“All credit to Phoenix, undermanned, they’re tough, their experienced players come to play,” Brondello said. “Shey Peddy was big and Sophie’s been fantastic, Diamond DeShields — she was a real handful out there. And Brianna Turner, even though she doesn’t score a lot, she’s just really effective defensively and really made it hard for us. We were poor. This is probably as bad as any game we’ve played, under the circumstances.”

Sabrina Ionescu led New York with 20 points. She also made WNBA history in defeat:

In her return, Laney was held to seven points, which, sadly, was the second-highest scoring total on the team. Sixty-two points as a team is a season low for a Mercury opponent.