New York Liberty earn first win of the season vs. defending WNBA champions (Highlights)

LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 04: Amanda Zahui B. #17 of the New York Liberty handles the ball against the Los Angeles Sparks during a WNBA basketball game at Staples Center on August 4, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Leon Bennett/NBAE/Getty Images)

Amanda Zahui B’s double-double helped the New York Liberty to earn their first win in the WNBA bubble, topping the defending champion Mystics.

New York Liberty head coach Walt Hopkins has repeatedly stated that growth in this unusual season won’t be measured by wins. Having said that, he’s certainly not turning down any visits to the victory column.

Veterans took over the New York cause on Friday night, as Amanda Zahui B’s matching double-double (14 points, career-best 14 rebounds) guided the Liberty to an upset victory in the Bradenton bubble. The Liberty went on to take down the defending champion Washington Mystics by a 74-66 final. Kia Nurse led Liberty scorers with 17 points while fellow veteran Layshia Clarendon put in 14 more.

It’s the first win of the season for the Liberty (1-5) and the first career win for the rookie head coach Hopkins.

“I’m glad my face stayed neutral. I remember when I was a kid, my dad told me, when you hit a home run act like you’ve been there before. I’m just proud of (the team). I wanted to close it out,” Hopkins said of the final seconds over a postgame Zoom call. “Our bench came in, took a big punch, didn’t surrender the lead.”

New York faced a tall task in their third full game without top overall pick Sabrina Ionescu. Washington (3-3) was missing several key contributors from last season’s championship squad (in addition to newly acquired Liberty legend Tina Charles, who opted out of the bubble proceedings) but still came in armed with the firepower of Myisha Hines-Allen, Ariel Atkins, and Aerial Powers, each of whom entered with averages of at least 15 points per game. Also in tow was defending WNBA Finals MVP Emma Meeseman (13.6 PPG).

But the Liberty took control early at the end of a sloppy first quarter. Leading 16-14 in the final minute, Megan Walker rebounded a Leilani Mitchell miss and threw it upcourt to a streaking Joyner Holes. The rookie free agent’s layup fell through with just under two seconds remaining, allowing the Liberty to carry an 18-14 lead into the next frame.

That score kicked off a 16-5 run that put the Liberty up 11 just past the midway point of the second. A Zahui B triple, the last of four on the evening, converted with five seconds left built a 40-31 halftime lead. The 31 Washington points were good for the Mystics lowest tally over a half thus far this season.

“I’m very proud of my teammates,” Zahui B said in her own Zoom call. “We stepped up, all of us.”

“I think Zahui’s one of our vocal leaders. We ask her to do a lot on the court and off the court,” Nurse said of her fellow veteran. “I think today she just found a way to get it done. Zahui’s a great basketball player. When she’s loud and she’s talking, she does some great things.”

Primarily fueled by efforts from Powers and Meeseman, the Mystics got as close as five points in the third quarter, but Zahui B’s buzzer-beater to close the stage permanently shifted momentum into the New York side. A season-best dozen three-pointers on the New York end (led by four from Clarendon and Zahui B) helped seal the deal, as did the Liberty’s constant visits to the foul line. Nurse and Jocelyn Willoughby united to sink 14-of-17 chances. Powers led Washington with 20, but it wasn’t enough to quell the victorious New York effort. 

Friday marked the Liberty’s first win over the Mystics since August 2017. The two will square off on September 12, the last day of the regular season.

The Liberty return to action on Sunday late afternoon, as they’ll take on Las Vegas Aces (5 p.m. ET, YES).

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags