NY Liberty vs Connecticut Sun 5-8-22
NY Liberty vs Connecticut Sun 5-8-22

Five Things, Three Stars, One Problem: Liberty 81, Sun 79

#1 – Home Opener Jitters

It has been 232 days since the New York Liberty played a basketball game in the confines of the Barclays Center. If there were any first game nerves, it definitely impacted the Libs in the opening minutes. With 6:02 to go in the first quarter, a Natasha Howard turnover led to a Jonquel Jones layup, which put the Sun up 8-0 and forced Head Coach Sandy Brondello to call her first timeout of the regular season. During this stretch, New York went 0-for-6 from the field and turned the ball over four times. Had it not been for Connecticut also missing several looks, the deficit may have been even larger than it was.

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#2 – Howard Was the First to Answer the Call

While it was players like Sabrina Ionescu and Jocelyn Willoughby that carried the team to the finish line, it was Natasha Howard that threw the first counter punch. The 6’2 veteran threw a bounce pass which found Willoughby on the baseline for the team’s first two points, consequently allowing the home crowd to finally exhale. Howard then followed it up by scoring the team’s next four points. By halftime, she led her team in minutes and chipped in 13 points on 36 percent shooting. Keep an eye on her perimeter shooting moving forward as she had steadily improved over the last few years. Last night, Howard hit three from deep on nearly 43 percent. 

#3 – There’s Something About Sabrina 

Last year’s Liberty home opener was memorable for many reasons, with no moment more significant than Ionescu’s game-winning three at the buzzer to sink the Indiana Fever. In that game, she finished with 25 points, 11 assists, and six rebounds on her way to setting social media ablaze with hype. Last night, Ionescu followed that up with an eerily similar statline of 25 points, six assists, and four rebounds. While it wasn’t a buzzer beater, Ionescu was brilliant when the Libs needed her the most. Her stage presence was undeniable, best on display when she hit a three late in the first half to give New York its first lead of the night. Late in the fourth and trailing by two, Ionescu sank a push shot and drew the foul to push her team ahead. Later in that final frame, she hit another go-ahead shot from deep.

#4 – Welcome Back, Willoughby 

Officially back from an Achilles injury that cost her the 2021 season, it didn’t take long for Willoughby to make up for lost time. Filling in for the injured Betnijah Laney is not an easy task for anyone, but Willoughby did an admirable job, finishing with 13 points on 10 shots, taking on a majority of the 14-shot void created by Laney’s absence. However, the most fun part about her performance against the Sun was her keen ability to be around the action, especially during critical parts of the game. Nursing a two-point lead with less than a minute to go, Connecticut had several opportunities to tie the game until Willoughby secured the defensive rebound. On the next defensive possession, it was Willoughby who would contest Jasmine Thomas’ three-point attempt before grabbing another important rebound. Her two-way play was invaluable and will be an intriguing storyline to track all season. 

#5 – Back at Nets Republic

This last point is a bit of a cheat and isn’t something that our editor will be fond of, but I won’t call this out all season, I promise. Last year’s Liberty run was cut too short, and I feel like we were robbed of seeing this team’s core get more playoff reps together. During the 2021 season, I contributed sparingly to Nets Republic, writing an article or two, putting together one video, and mostly live-tweeting during games. This year, I hope to play an active role on the staff as I continue to learn more about the WNBA, its talented players, and the growing community that supports this wonderful game. 

Three Stars

1 – Sabrina Ionescu (Stage presence, has that switch and knows when to flip it)

2 – Jocelyn Willoughby (Will need more of this, especially if Laney misses another game; for what it’s worth, Brondello expects Laney back for Wednesday’s matchup against the Chicago Sky)

3 – Sami Whitcomb (Not her best shooting night but stuffed the stat sheet, just always so reliable)

One Problem: No Laney, No DiDi

Status: Resolved

The Libs were without their leading scorer from last year, but the team did a good job splitting the responsibility of replacing Laney’s production with a more confident looking Natasha Howard and a scrappy performance from Jocelyn Willoughby. Sami Whitcomb was also important as a secondary ball handler. To pull out this win against the Sun, who had a league-best 26-6 record last season, is no small accomplishment. At least on this night, the Liberty held the fort.