New York Liberty: Can’t Overcome Slow Start, Flushed by Aces (06/03/2021)
The Liberty took the court last night with a 5-2 record, fresh off a month of accolades in which Coach Hopkins (Coach of the Month), Michaela Onyenwere (Rookie of the Month), and Sabrina Ionescu and Betnijah Laney (Players of the Week) were recognized for their achievements. The visiting Las Vegas Aces posed an imposing matchup problem with their talented front line of Liz Cambage (who dropped a W record 53 points on the Liberty back in her Dallas days) and reigning MVP and all-around superstar A’ja Wilson. That pairing did not disappoint; Cambage set the tone early and Wilson stayed aflame all game long, enroute to 30 points and 12 rebounds.
By the final whistle, Vegas prevailed by a dozen, 94-82, but the game was simultaneously more and less competitive at stretches than that score would indicate. The rebounding battle was even, but the largest disparity came at the line, where the Aces had 29 attempts to the Liberty’s nine. Some of that could be attributed to a smaller team trying to contain a larger one, but it did feel like a lot of the 50/50 calls went in Vegas’ favor. Coach Walt Hopkins mentioned the free throw gap in his postgame availability, but (smartly) declined to discuss it in further detail.
In the loss, Betnijah Laney notched another 20+ scoring output, moving the consecutive game tally to eight to start the season. Sabrina Ionescu struggled mightily with her shot tonight, hitting just two of her 13 attempts, though she did fill out her line with nine rebounds and nine assists, nearly notching a double-double the hard way. Aside from Laney, three other Libs hit double figures scoring: Rebecca Allen (16), Sami Whitcomb (14), and Michaela Onyenwere (11). More on all of them shortly!
From Opening Tip, Aces Were Wild
For the second straight game, the Liberty got off to a slow start. They lost to the Atlanta Dream after falling behind by 11 after the first, and they lost last night to the Las Vegas Aces after trailing by 14 following the first quarter. The only other time they’ve fallen behind by double-digits in the first quarter this season? The blowout against the Washington Mystics. These early deficits have accounted for all three of the Liberty’s losses this year, and last night’s proved too much to overcome. The Aces scored on each of their first seven possessions, setting the tone early with Cambage and Wilson inside.
About two-and-a-half minutes into the second quarter, a Wilson jumper pushed the score to 40-21, stretching the Las Vegas lead to a game-high 19 points. Then Bec Allen got hot, her shooting touch single-handedly willing New York back into the game. Over the next few minutes of gameplay, she would hit six of eight shots and score 14 straight for New York, while the defense strung together some stops.
After that 14-2 Allen run, the Liberty were back in it, down by just seven. They would trail by a manageable eight at half, reeling in a game that could’ve gotten ugly early. Bec would score just two points after the half, but her scoring barrage in the second quarter breathed life into a Liberty team that came out flat.
NY Went All-In On a Run Late, but Fell Just Short
For a majority of the fourth quarter — from the 8:12 mark down to around the 2:30 mark — the Liberty were within five points. They expended so much energy in the comeback, getting as close as one midway at the four-minute mark, but couldn’t flip the lead. There were several instances where New York failed to convert on an attempt to tie or take the lead. “No games are decided in one possession,” Bec Allen said in the postgame. She pointed out that the looks were good, and that while those clutch-time attempts didn’t fall tonight, it was not because New York forced bad looks. “it’s a good thing to know you’re getting in the right position and the shots you want to get.”
Shuffling Through the Action:
Betnijah Laney notched her eighth straight 20+ point game. As always, Across the Timeline has you covered with the historical context:
Kylee Shook got the starting nod, but picked up two quick fouls in the first two minutes and got pulled for the remainder of the half. She didn’t get much of a chance to prove herself in the second half either, again taking the floor for the first shift before sitting the balance. In total, she played under six minutes. Jackie Powell asked Coach Hopkins about the rotation in the postgame, and his answer was succinct. “She just wasn’t providing the same level of defense on Cambage as Stokes was, so we went with Stokes.”
Kiah Stokes did hold Liz Cambage in check, somewhat. Vegas’ talented center finished with 12 points and six rebounds on six-of-11 shooting, but looked poised for a much larger output at the start of the game. Defensively, Stokes struggles with quicker assignments, so Cambage is a better matchup for her; she can — quite literally — play to her strength and get vertical. Stokes also finished with a game-high 13 rebounds in her 32 minutes of action.
I do, however, want to point out something that doesn’t show up in the box score. The Liberty turned it over just 11 times, a season low. (Yes, that shows up in the box score, but stick with me here!) None of those turnovers were charged to Stokes, but she was a part of three unforced errors. She doesn’t have the strongest hands and often tries to corral passes or rebounds with one hand. While yes, it could be said that the ball handlers need to be aware of their personnel when making those passes, consistently limited production from a post player is difficult to navigate for a team that’s trying to spread the floor.
Sami Whitcomb had another really strong all around game. She scored 14 points on six-of-10 shooting, while pulling down five boards and handing out five assists. Her all-around effort epitomizes the leadership this young team has talked up all season long.
Michaela Onyenwere, fresh off her Rookie of the Month award, played just 20 minutes. There were two reasons for this: she (and everybody else who took a try) struggled to slow A’ja Wilson, and Rebecca Allen was her primary substitution at the 4. Despite the limited floor time, Onyenwere scored 11 points. It was her fifth time hitting double figures in scoring in her first eight professional games. I especially enjoyed this drive, which culminated with a made shot in the paint over both Cambage and Wilson.
Lastly, a huge welcome back to Neah Odom, who had been sidelined with an Achilles injury all season. She made an impact in her 12 minutes of play, hitting all three of her attempts — including a huge corner three — and making her presence felt on defense. It was an impressive and efficient Barclays Center debut, and the Liberty depth will continue to grow as she works her way back into game shape.
Next up: The New York Liberty (5-3) travel up to Mohegan Sun for a matchup with the league-leading Connecticut Sun (7-2) on Saturday, June 5. Tip-off is 7 pm ET on YES and NESN.