New York Liberty erase big deficit, top Eastern Conference’s best

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)

Layshia Clarendon sank a pair of free throws with less than a second remaining to give the New York Liberty a shocking win over Chicago.

The New York Liberty perhaps displayed their utmost potential on Tuesday night. It was thus appropriate, perhaps, that they played…and defeated…a team named the Sky.

Layshia Clarendon capped off a dominant fourth quarter by sinking victorious free throws with less than a second to go. Those fateful freebies, the last of her 17 points on the evening, were the winning margin in a 101-99 victory over the Chicago Sky in the Bradenton bubble. Amanda Zahui B led the way with a double-double to the tune of 22 points and 12 rebounds.

“I’m so damn proud of them,” head coach Walt Hopkins said afterward. “More of the things clicked than they have been. It’s just going to take us playing really good games. Chicago is really good. We could’ve lost that game on multiple occasions down the stretch. We kept punching, we stayed in it. We’ve got a tough, tough group of players.”

“This team is tough. After the game, it was almost like a relief,” Zahui B said. “We worked so hard. It’s a new group. We’re young and we haven’t folded yet. Any other team would’ve folded a long time ago. That just shows how tough we really are. I’m so proud of them. Every single one of them.”

To end a seven-game losing streak, the Liberty (2-12) faced a steep challenge from a Chicago squad that owned the best record among Eastern Conference squads. Conference placement matters little in the WNBA standings, but the Sky (10-5) were nonetheless battling for one of the WNBA’s top playoff seeds and had won four in a row entering. Chicago previously took a 101-85 decision on Thursday night.

Early on, the game lived up to its expected billing. The Sky led 29-22 after the first quarter and built their lead to as high as 16 just past the midway mark.

Calling timeout after Chicago led 40-25 with circa three minutes gone by in the second, Hopkins recalled that the Liberty kept things close after the first quarter on Thursday, but the Sky managed to have 57 points by halftime, which spoiled any hope the Liberty had for a surprise win. In the latter game, though, the Liberty came prepared.

For the rest of the frame, the Liberty outscored the Sky by a 21-9 tally to narrow the halftime gap to 49-46. The comeback was stoked by Zahui B’s scoring, as her outside tallies helped the Liberty take the lead in the third quarter. New York was 11-for-48 over their last two games from three-point range (including 3-of-19 on Thursday) but sank 14-of-30 in their win. Five players reached double-figures, as Kiah Stokes and Jocelyn Willoughby had 14 each, while recent signee Paris Kea tied her career-best with 10 off the bench. Louisville sisters Jazmine Jones and Kylee Shook fell just short of joining them with a combined 17 points between. Shook ended the first and third quarters with mid-range buzzer-beaters.

“We talked about how they had 57 points in that first half and that it couldn’t happen again,” Hopkins said. “It’s easy to forget we were down 15 in the first half. I hope that we talk about the toughness of all these players because it’s just so hard as a 2-12 team to bring it every single night, every day in practice, every day in shootaround.”

It was a night of redemption for Willoughby, the tenth overall pick of April’s draft who was acquired in a draft day trade with Phoenix. After playing a combined 11 minutes over the past two games, the Virginia alumna played 17 on Tuesday and sank all five attempts from the field. Her 14 points tied an infantile career-best.

“That baby is tough. Jocelyn is so tough,” Zahui B said. “She wanted it so bad. She’s been locked in. She had a couple of games where she had more minutes and then she was taken off of the starting lineup and her minutes dropped. But she has never stopped working. She is probably one of the loudest people in practice. She always asks questions and she always wants to get better.”

The sharp-shooting Sky stuck around until the very end, anchored by the feared duo of Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley (the latter of whom led all scorers with 29 points). Stefanie Dolson sank a triple to tie the game at 99 with 20 seconds left, but the Liberty opted to keep things rolling. Jones withstood a Chicago press and got the ball to Zahui B on the other end. Zahui B got the ball to a cutting Clarendon, who was fouled by Dolson with 0.3 seconds remaining. She sank the ensuing pair, the last of eight points that helped preserve the Liberty lead. New York never trailed after a pair of triples from Zahui B and Kea late in the third quarter.

The Liberty will look to start a winning streak on Thursday night, as they prepare to take on the Dallas Wings (8 p.m. ET, YES/CBSSN).

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags