Prior to Tuesday's matchup, Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud knew this was a must win for the Mystics. Prior to game three, Cloud stated, "she will be guarding Sabrina Ionescu for 40 minutes," and the Mystics defense was "lazy." Throughout one of the most intense games of the year, Natasha Cloud backed up her talk with a career night, and the Liberty remained poised throughout a chaotic second half. Cloud finished with 33 points, four steals, and nine rebounds, on 5-7 three-point shooting. Sabrina Ionescu added 11 points, two steals, five assists, and nine rebounds, on 4-11 shot attempts.
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Prior to the matchup, both Jonquel Jones and Breanna Stewart spoke to the media about the critical matchup. It's apparent the two players knew this game wasn't going to be an easy task. When asked what it will take to close out this series, Stewart calmly stated:
"To keep our emotions in check. Know that D.C. [Washington Mystics] is obviously going to be literally fighting for their season tonight, and know that if we can control the pace, control the boards, really play how we want to defensively, everything will open up offensively," said Stewart. In this case, Stewart was 100 percent right. The Mystics fought for their season until the final seconds of overtime. Through the fourth quarter, both teams were tied four times, and there were five lead changes in ten minutes.
In 38 minutes, the New York Liberty were able to keep Mystics star Elena Delle Donne in check. In 38 minutes, the forward had 11 points, and was held to 4-16 shooting. Delle Donne, battling injuries all season, averaged 16.7 points in the regular season, and was held to zero percent three-point shooting in game three. "Yeah, just having an attention to her, making sure we know where she is on the court, pick and roll coverages, me and Stewie [Breanna Stewart]," Jonquel told the press.
Breanna Stewart, Jonquel Jones took charge
No. 30 is a true professional, and keeping their emotions in check was more vital than ever. Not her best shooting performance, Breanna Stewart finished with a team high 27 points, nine rebounds, three blocks, two assists, and two steals. Up by one point, with 1:13 remaining in the fourth quarter, Stewart had the two biggest plays of the game, next to Jonquel Jones. No. 30 got up for a block, and with 45 seconds to go, the forward drilled an 11-foot turnaround shot. Her big time shot put the Liberty up 74-71, until Brittney Sykes responded with a 24 foot three-point jump shot.
Shortly after Stewart made the 11-foot jumper to extend the lead to three, Jonquel Jones had a momentous block on Natasha Cloud's driving layup attempt. It was then, Jones turned the ball over, and racked up her fourth personal foul of the game, sending Cloud to the free-throw line. Tied 74 all, Cloud made both free-throws, despite the electric crowd at the Barclays. With 27.3 seconds remaining, Sandy Brondello formulated a plan of attack, around both players. Given New York finished 4-23 from the three-point line, and 0-7 in the third quarter, the game plan was to attack inside. After a missed driving layup by Breanna Stewart, Natasha Cloud fouled, which sent Sabrina Ionescu to the line in the bonus.
"Like I said, you sometimes, you have to find a way, what's the best way the win. They are [Stewart and Jones] the easy ones at the rim, and JJ did a few reps from high, you know a little iso at the top, that's all JJ," coach Brondello told the media post-game. Jones finished with six points in the third, and Stewart with six in overtime. New York bullied Washington in the paint, 52-42, and monopolized on the rebounds, 41-38. Out of the six shots taken in the paint during the final quarter, Jones and Stewart accounted for four of them.
Jonquel Jones is a former MVP for a reason. Down 76-74, No. 35 grabbed an essential rebound, after Ionescu missed both free throws. From there, Jones was sent to the line, after being fouled by Myisha Hines-Allen. With 11.4 seconds to go, Jones made two necessary rebounds, which tied the game. With the season on the line, Washington had a chance to win the game. Due to miscommunication, Cloud overthrew the ball to Sykes on the inbound. The fans went into frenzy, and the ballgame went into overtime at the Barclays.
"I had to redeem myself after turning the ball over," Jones said after the victory. "Honestly, there was no other option but to make the free throws. Just going into my free-throw routine, just saying what I normally say to myself when I shoot free-throws." Laughing it off, Jones stated "I say one, two, spin, bend, shoot, every time."
"The free throw, the free throw rebound from JJ-- that was a missed shot we knew we had to miss to get that, and her to knock down two really big shots, that was big for us, " said Brondello after the game.
The New York Liberty and Washington Mystics meet again in overtime
Multiple players of the New York liberty have insisted that the Washington Mystics play much better than a No. 7 seed. With the regular season series split 2-2, the Mystics defeated the Liberty 90-88 in the final matchup of the season, thanks to Brittney Sykes buzzer beater. Tied 76-76, Washington had five minutes in overtime to keep their season alive. With a champion winning coach, the Liberty were able to adjust to their opponent's defense, which ultimately secured the victory.
Natasha Cloud wasn't playing around when she said she would play a full 40 minutes on Sabrina Ionescu. In sudden death overtime, both teams battled, and the score remained close up until the four second mark. Guards Courtney Vandersloot and Sabrina Ionescu were bottled up a majority of the night, which forced Brondello to put the ball in the hands of Breanna Stewart.
"Because the guards, I mean they just made Sloot [Vandersloot] and Sabrina [Ionescu]---it was a tough night, so we just put the ball back in Stewies [Stewart] hands, " Brondello told the press after the win.
Jonquel Jones was able to dominate in the paint the entire night, especially with the mismatch on Hines-Allen. Given the perimeter was locked up, Stewart was able to bring Delle Donne out of the paint, and Jonquel Jones was able to iso her way to the basket. With her six-foot six frame, Jones had the size and strength to attack Washington's weakness, which was defense in the high and low post. Through four quarters and overtime, the Liberty had 23 made shots in the paint, which was uncharacteristic for New York, who led the league in three-point percentage. New York was able to show how impactful this team can be. They are very much as much of a threat outside, as they are inside.
Several plays were run with Stewart running the point, with both her and Jones at the top of the key. With Stewart as the primary ball handler, strong screens made by Jonquel Jones, opened up opportunities and back door cuts for her teammates. Four of Courtney Vandersloot's eight points erupted in overtime, which included a vital back door cut, and 20-foot jumper. with 18 seconds remaining, Jonquel Jones redeemed herself with a steal, after turning the ball over. Breanna Stewart's six made free-throws led the Liberty to a 90-85 overtime victory over the Mystics.
Betnijah Laney is the definition of New York "grit"
With the abundance of talent on this New York roster, there's Betnijah Laney. Proven a true x-factor on both sides of the ball, Laney has established herself as a tough, physical player, that gives her all, night in and night out, regardless of the matchup. In two post season matchups against Washington, No. 44 averaged 19 points, five rebounds, and two assists. In Tuesday's victory, the forward finished with 19 points, one steal, three assists, and two rebounds. She hit a pivotal three point shot with 2:18 to go in the fourth, to keep the Liberty alive.
What the box score often doesn't indicate is her tough defensive matchups against star players. Laney was often matched with Natasha Cloud, who had a career night with 33 points. At times, she had to guard the mismatch on Delle Donne. Passing up the three-point shot, Laney had several drives to the basket, showing full physicality and toughness. Her acrobatic back door reverse lay ins have become a staple of her game, and really emphasize her multidimensional game play.
The turning point in the matchup started with Betnijah Laney. Knowing the perimeter was heavily guarded by Ariel Atkins, No. 44 furiously barged into the paint, and knocked down a nine-foot fadeaway shot on Atkins. With zero hesitation, Laney set the tone again in the first quarter, and played forcefully until the end of regulation. When Ionescu, or other players are locked up, look for Laney to always play a factor.
"Doing what we need to do and in the right way. If someone's having a tough night, we always say, how can you still impact the game," Brondello said following the win. With Sabrina Ionescu held the 11 points, the guard was impactful in several key areas, including the rebounds. Ionescu had two steals, nine rebounds, and five assists. With Vandersloot guarded heavily, she finished with ten assists.
Coach Brondello discussed those final plays, and her decision to keep the ball away from Courtney Vandersloot and Sabrina Ionescu. "It's not all about scoring, in some times with Sabrina, it was more like just keep her off the ball. In the end, don't even come near the ball, you're [Ionescu] a decoy right now, and sloot [ Vandersloot]. "
"I thought B [Betnijah Laney], JJ [Jonquel Jones] and Stewie [Breanna Stewart] really just stayed composed and they made really big shots-- great players making great plays," said Brondello. "Hats off to Washington. They've had a tough year with all [of] their injuries. This is a three seed in my opinion, you know, the way that they competed tonight, when's the last time you've seen someone play that hard?"
Post game, Breanna Stewart said the game definitely "got spicy." Along with a physical matchup, the Liberty had several shooting woes and costly turnovers. Overall, New York shot 17.4 percent from the three-point, and 42 percent from the field. Not always pretty, they found a way to sweep the Washington Mystics. With the original story line focused on Cloud and Ionescu, we can't forget Cloud's unbelievable performance. However, New York proves they can win in multiple ways.
The New Tork Liberty will face the Connecticut Sun in the WNBA Playoffs Semifinals. The best of five games, the Liberty will have home court advantage for the first two games. New York will play Connecticut on Sept. 24 at 1 p.m. ET, at the Barclays Center.
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