New York Liberty playoffs: 3 stars from Thursday’s loss at Phoenix

A valiant effort by the New York Liberty fell just short on Thursday night, as they dropped a heartbreaking postseason decision in Phoenix.

The New York Liberty’s Cinderella story surprisingly began at midnight. Alas, it came to an end shortly after.

Brianna Turner’s free throw with 0.4 seconds remaining gave the Phoenix Mercury just enough of a margin to escape Grand Canyon University with an 83-82 win over the Liberty in the opening round of the 2021 WNBA Playoffs. It was New York’s first playoff contest since 2017.

Facing the heavily-favored Mercury, the Liberty fell behind 17-8 in the early going, but fought their way back in a game that featured 13 lead changes. Betnijah Laney tied the game with a triple with 2.4 ticks remaining before a foul sent Turner to the foul line, where she hit one of two.

Skylar Diggins-Smith led the way with 22 for Phoenix while Sophie Cunningham had 21 off the bench for the victorious Mercury. They’ll now face the fourth-seeded defending champions from Seattle on Sunday afternoon (3 p.m. ET, ABC).

ESM has metropolitan game balls to bestow from a respectable final effort…

Honorable Mentions

  • Natasha Howard: 16 points, 10 rebounds
  • Bec Allen: 11 points, 4 rebounds, 3 blocks

3rd Star: Reshanda Gray

8 points, 2 rebounds

The Liberty’s modern fortunes have been defined by their youngsters, but the veteran Gray came up huge for the Liberty in the fourth quarter, helping them keep pace on the inside as Phoenix tried to pull away, forcing the opponents to rely on outside endeavors. Gray set new playoff career-bests after missing the last two games with a non-COVID illness. Through four different tenures this season, Gray became a relied-upon leader and spark off the bench as she seeks to establish a permanent WNBA residency.

2nd Star: Sabrina Ionescu

14 points, 11 assists, 5 rebounds

The Liberty’s brief playoff appearance carries a special weight and reward in the sense that they made their postseason return after enduring a two-win season in the Bradenton bubble. Her first “playoff” action since 2020’s Pac-12 tournament proved she has what it takes to lead at the WNBA level.

She believes the chemistry and camaraderie, particularly such contents built during a final stretch that included a vital win over Washington in Brooklyn, will allow the Liberty to get a head start in 2022 as their “hybrid rebuild” continues.

“We’re going to start training camp at this level,” Ionescu said. “Everything’s going to change drastically. We know each other a lot more.”

1st Star: Betnijah Laney

25 points, 4 rebounds

Laney wouldn’t let the Liberty’s season end without one more double-decalogue, taking full advantage of her first major playoff minutes, having spent two minutes on Chicago’s playoff run in 2015. The Rutgers alumna missed her first two shots as the Liberty fell behind early, but she hit 10 of her final 20, including a jaw-dropping triple that tied the game with 2.7 seconds left.

Laney’s postseason ascension further drives home her status as a leader and vital part of what’s to come. She left a dire warning for those willing to discount the Liberty after a single nationally postseason loss.

“It gives us momentum. Even if things didn’t go our way, the way we played as a group, there is a sign that we belong,” Laney said. “So we’re going to this offseason to continue to be better…come back mature next year. We’re here to stay.”

“I think there was a lot of questions in how we were going to come out, what kind of team we (were),” Laney said. “But I think that throughout the season, especially in our last game against the Mystics…I think it says a lot about this New York Liberty team. We’ll be back and we’re going to be really good.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

New York Liberty clinch final spot in 2021 WNBA playoffs

The New York Liberty are playoff-bound for the first time since 2017 thanks to Sunday losses in Washington and Los Angeles.

The New York Liberty’s 25th anniversary celebration isn’t over just yet.

For the first time since 2017, the Liberty (12-20) will partake in the WNBA Playoffs. Placed in the eighth and final slot of the tournament, New York will take on the fifth-seeded Phoenix Mercury in the opening round’s single-game elimination on Thursday night (10 p.m. ET, ESPN2). The game will be held at Grand Canyon University Arena as the Mercury’s regular home of Footprint Center is occupied for a concert.

Though the Liberty’s season wrapped on Friday night, Sunday’s results allowed the team to punch its ticket. The wearers of seafoam needed losses from both the Washington Mystics and Los Angeles Sparks to extend their season. Fortunately for New York, the Minnesota Lynx and Dallas Wings were happy to provide an assist.

Minnesota topped Washington 83-77 in the nation’s capital (allowing them to move past defending champion Seattle for the No. 3 seed) while Dallas narrowly defeated Los Angeles by an 87-84 margin to finish things off. The Liberty set up the Sunday scenarios with a 91-80 win over Washington on Friday night at Barclays Center, a win that snapped an eight-game losing streak.

New York now returns to the playoffs after enduring a two-win showing in the Bradenton bubble, one that forced the team to rely on the services of seven rookies, including touted top overall pick Sabrina Ionescu. The Oregon alumna partook in only three games before an injury erased most of her freshman campaign. She returned to a revamped Liberty squad that brought in Bradenton’s Most Improved Player and Rutgers Betnijah Laney, as well as WNBA champions Natasha Howard and Sami Whitcomb through a trade.

This Liberty season, their first as full-time tenants in Barclays Center, began with wins in five of its first six games, the first of which ended in a game-winning buzzer-beater from Ionescu. Though things cooled down in terms of wins and losses, the Liberty made several proud strides throughout the season.

Laney was invited to her first WNBA All-Star Game while Ionescu earned the 10th triple-double in WNBA history in a May victory over Minnesota. Paced by Whitcomb’s 76 (second-best in the league behind Arike Ogunbowale of Dallas), the Liberty also set a new WNBA record with 321 successful three-point attempts. Bec Allen finished third in the league in steals (1.6 per game) while Michaela Onyenwere (8.6 points, 2.9 rebounds per game) is considered a front-runner for the league’s Rookie of the Year Award.

The Liberty and Mercury, two of the WNBA’s three remaining original franchises that remain situated in their original markets (Los Angeles is the other) have met twice in the WNBA Playoffs. New York took the first matchup to advance to the inaugural WNBA Finals in 1997 while Phoenix upset the Liberty as an eighth seed in 2016. Phoenix won two of the three matchups between the teams this season, the most recent being an 80-64 triumph on August 27 in Brooklyn. Two members of the Liberty’s bubble squad, Kia Nurse and Megan Walker, currently reside on the Mercury roster as they were dealt out west in the Howard/Whitcomb deal that also involved the Seattle Storm.

Full WNBA Playoff Schedule

Date Game Time (ET) TV
September 23 No. 7 Dallas @ No. 6 Chicago 8 p.m. ESPN2
September 23 No. 8 LIBERTY @ No. 5 Phoenix 10 p.m. ESPN2
September 26 TBD @ No. 3 Minnesota TBD ABC or ESPN2
September 26 TBD @ No. 4 Seattle TBD ABC or ESPN2
September 28 TBD @ No. 1 Connecticut (Game 1) 8 p.m. ESPN2
September 28 TBD @ No. 2 Las Vegas (Game 1) 10 p.m. ESPN2
September 30 TBD @ Connecticut (Game 2) 8 p.m. ESPN2
September 30 TBD @ Las Vegas (Game 2) 10 p.m. ESPN2
October 3 Connecticut @ TBD (Game 3) TBD TBD
October 3 Las Vegas @ TBD (Game 3) TBD TBD
October 6 Connecticut @ TBD (Game 4)* TBD TBD
October 6 Las Vegas @ TBD (Game 4)* TBD TBD
October 8 TBD @ Connecticut (Game 5)* TBD ESPN2
October 8 TBD @ Las Vegas (Game 5) TBD ESPN2
October 10 WNBA Finals (Game 1) 3 p.m. ABC
October 13 WNBA Finals (Game 2) 9 p.m. ESPN
October 15 WNBA Finals (Game 3) 9 p.m. ESPN2
October 17 WNBA Finals (Game 4)* 3 p.m. ESPN
October 19 WNBA Finals (Game 5)* 9 p.m. ESPN2
*-If Necessary

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

New York Liberty: Three stars from Friday’s win vs. Washington

Time will tell if the playoffs await, but the New York Liberty ended its season on the right note at Barclays Center on Friday.

This week’s metropolitan endeavor against the Washington basketball team was far more lucrative than the matchup against the football squad.

The New York Liberty ended its regular season on a strong note on Friday night at Barclays Center, topping the Washington Mystics by a 91-80 final. New York (12-20) snapped an eight-game losing streak with their triumph and will now await results from the weekend games. New York needs both Los Angeles and Washington to lose on Sunday to clinch its first playoff berth since 2017. The Mystics (12-19) return to the nation’s capital to battle the Minnesota Lynx (3 p.m. ET, ESPN3) while the Sparks battle the Dallas Wings on the road (5 p.m. ET, NBA TV).

Even if the playoffs aren’t to be, the Liberty set a WNBA record on Friday night, sinking their 317th three-pointer of the season, passing the 2019 Mystics. New York led by as many as 24, withstanding a 29-point effort from Ariel Atkins. Tina Charles, the all-time leading scorer in team history, was held to 10 points in defeat.

ESM has three standouts from the victorious finale…

Honorable Mentions

  • Sami Whitcomb: 13 points, 7 rebounds
  • Bec Allen: 9 points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists

3rd Star: Betnijah Laney

10 points, 11 assists

It was a tough shooting night for Laney (3-of-13 from the field) but served as a facilitator all night with her passing and ability to contribute on double-teams. Laney also continued a growing role as a face of New York basketball by addressing the crowd on Fan Appreciation Night prior to tip-off, thanking them for the season-long support and encouraging them to get loud for the big contest.

2nd Star: Sabrina Ionescu

22 points, 9 assists, 5 rebounds

The Liberty’s first full-time Brooklyn ledger ended as it began: a Sabrina Ionescu buzzer-beater.

This edition wasn’t as dramatic…her shot clock-beating tally simply created the final 11-point margin…but served as one final crowd-pleaser to end Ionescu’s de facto rookie season on a high note. Ionescu ended the year with double figures in her final 11 games of the year. She also shot at least 50 percent in three of the final four. After the game, the California native and Oregon alumna said that New York was “starting to feel like home for a lot of us”.

“We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished, but this is just the beginning. I’m so excited for the future of this team,” Ionescu said. “We’ve talked about, that feeling of growth and unity is really what this team’s about and why they put us all together…the fans were amazing…we heard them, felt them, it was electric.”

1st Star: Natasha Howard

24 points, 10 rebounds

The Liberty’s Natasha Howard sample size was small thanks to an injury that cost “Flash” most of her debut year in New York. She saved the best for last, scoring 11 points in the first quarter en route to an 11-for-13 performance on the evening. Howard began to resemble her dominant self in the latter stages of the Liberty’s season, shooting 64 percent from the field over her last four games.

New Yorkers were most impressed with Howard’s leadership in the final game. Along with Whitcomb and Laney, Howard was one of those who took charge during a third-quarter timeout called and organized by players when Washington trimmed the Liberty’s 24-point lead. Howard herself admitted she isn’t the loudest motivator, but believed that had to change if the Liberty were to end the season the right way.

“Tonight I was talking a lot…it was time for me to step up to that plate, be more vocal,” she said. “When game time came, we were locked in…our growth came, we called stayed together, fought, and came out with a win.”

Head coach Walt Hopkins described Howard as a “sneaky vocal leader”, one who wanted to lead by example. Concerning the aforementioned timeout, Hopkins was further pleased with his players’ willingness to hold each other accountable.

“They needed to hear from each other,” he said. “I can yell until I’m blue in the face…your teammates, you’re not going to (ignore) your teammates. I was really proud of them.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

New York Liberty: Three stars from Saturday’s loss at Dallas

The New York Liberty’s playoff dreams were dealt a major blow in their penultimate road game of the season in Dallas.

Thrilling September matchups between New York and Dallas are no longer limited to the gridiron. These, in fact, bear greater importance on their respective league’s playoff picture.

Alas for the metropolitans, however, another loss built on development has dealt a sizable blow to their postseason aspirations.

The Dallas Wings took advantage of a 21-10 advantage in the fourth quarter, paced by a combined 34 points off the bench from Marina Mabrey and Satou Sabally, to earn a narrow 77-76 victory over the New York Liberty on Saturday night in the Lone Star State. Dallas (13-17) clinched its first WNBA playoff berth since 2018, leaving only one spot up for grabs as the end of the regular season approaches.

The Liberty (11-19) are one of three teams fighting for that eighth and final seed with two games left on their regular season schedule. That pair starts Wednesday against Connecticut (7 p.m. ET, CBSSN) and concludes with a matchup against their fellow fighters from Washington on Friday. New York has lost control of the final seeds through a 1-8 stretch in the post-Olympic slate.

ESM has three stars from the latest defeat…

3rd Star: Sabrina Ionescu

18 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists

In the midst of some brutal defeats, Ionescu is posting Ionescu-esque numbers again. She has reached double figures in scoring in all nine post-Olympic games to date, averaging 14.3 points and 6.0 rebounds and assists in the first nine games back. Head coach Walt Hopkins was quick to point out the silver lining of Ionescu’s return to form, calling her “strides” a major pillar of the long-term picture.

2nd Star: Natasha Howard

16 points, 11 rebounds

Though some turnovers at the worst possible team clouded the metropolitan progress, Howard earned her third double-double in the post-Olympic slate in the midst of defeat. She’s shooting 60 percent of the floor (15-of-25) over her past two contests.

 

1st Star: Betnijah Laney

19 points, 6 assists 

If anyone knows about the proverbial “process” of WNBA success, it’s Laney. The Rutgers alumna endured spent four seasons in professional purgatory before a breakout campaign in the Bradenton bubble netted her last season’s Most Improved Player award. Laney has kept the momentum up in her return to the tri-state area, topping the Liberty in scoring. She took on a verbal role in Saturday’s postgame comments, citing “simple” issues that lead to losses amidst the progress away from the scoreboard.

“We’re not really dwelling on it, but learning from it…We see it, we know it, but we just got to get over the hump of just the little things that have just been holding us back,” Laney said of the losing streak and the hidden silver linings. “Once we really focus in and are able to control those things we’ll be in good shape, we just have to marry that with the progress that we’ve been making…We’ve had progress, so we keep that, going into these games, we just tweak the things that have been holding us back. I think that the progress in the detail that we’ve been making these past few games flow will hopefully show up and give us the results that we want.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

New York Liberty: Three stars from Tuesday’s loss at Minnesota

The Minnesota Lynx shut down the New York Liberty’s illustrious outside attack, dooming them to their eighth loss in the last nine games.

Kayla McBride and Napheesa Collier united for 46 points for the Minnesota Lynx on Tuesday night, with the former’s 25 leading the way in a 74-66 victory over the New York Liberty.

The reeling New Yorkers (11-17) have now lost eight of their last nine as they enter the homestretch of the 2021 WNBA season. Minnesota (16-9) shut down the Liberty’s renowned outside game, holding them to a 21 percent success rate (5-of-24). It was part of a brutal night from the field overall, as the Liberty shot 32 percent (23-of-71) on the evening, their third-worst output of the season.

The Liberty nonetheless leave Target Center as the owners of the WNBA’s eighth and final playoff spot thanks to a Los Angeles loss to Indiana and Washington’s defeat at the hands of Connecticut. New York returns to action on Thursday night against the Seattle Storm (10 p.m. ET, YES/Amazon Prime)

ESM bestows three game balls from this latest defeat…

3rd Star: Kylee Shook

6 points (3-3 FG), 2 rebounds

Shook was the only New Yorker to shoot in the black, hitting some big doubles under the basket to help the Liberty keep pace. The sophomore’s development has remained a priority for the Liberty, even with Natasha Howard coming back and the team trying to wrap up an elusive playoff berth. She capitalized in her 11 minutes of action on Tuesday.

2nd Star: Betnijah Laney 

17 points, 3 rebounds

Obviously, no one in New York would say no to a playoff berth, but a postseason appearance would mean a little bit more to Laney. The Rutgers alumna and the Liberty’s leading scorer has accomplished much over the last two seasons, but the accomplishment of appearing amongst the league’s final eight has remained elusive. She believes that the team will be well-equipped for the final run if they focus on the immediate future.

“I think right now the most important thing for us is really just focusing on taking a game by game, step by step, to not get too far ahead of ourselves, not thinking big picture right now,” Laney has said of the Liberty regaining their focus during the losing streak at the worst possible time. “I think that we really need to just focus on what’s in front of us.”

1st Star: Michaela Onyenwere

11 points, 10 rebounds

Though the WNBA’s Rookie of the Year frontrunner was not immune to the Liberty’s shooting struggles (3-of-12, 2-of-7 from three-point range), she made personal and team history through her first professional double-double. With her performance on the boards, Onyenwere became the ninth rookie in team history to reach double-figures in rebounds in a single game.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

New York Liberty: Three stars from Wednesday’s loss vs. Phoenix

Despite further energy from DiDi Richards, the New York Liberty couldn’t overcome a garish first quarter on Wednesday night against Phoenix.

On a night where the New York Liberty honored one of the most accomplished sharpshooters in franchise history, their visitors came ready for the occasion.

Three members of the Phoenix Mercury cross the 20-point plateau (paced by 27 from Skylar Diggins-Smith) while Brianna Turner (10 points, 12 rebounds) earned her third double-double over the last four games. Their antics paced a 35-19 first quarter advantage, which was enough to power the Mercury to a 106-79 victory over the Liberty on Wednesday night at Barclays Center. Their visit coincided with the Liberty’s induction of Crystal Robinson, the franchise’s all-time leader in three-pointers (400), into their Ring of Honor.

Phoenix (14-10) has now won five in a row to move into fifth place on the WNBA playoff bracket. The Liberty (11-15) have dropped four of their first five in the post-Olympic slate. A chance for redemption awaits on Friday night in a rematch with the Mercury (8 p.m. ET, CBSSN).

Brittney Griner had 26 points for the Mercury but left the game with a late injury that required assistance from trainers to leave the floor. Wednesday also marked a homecoming showcase for Kia Nurse, the Liberty first-round pick from 2018. Nurse earned six points after being dealt from New York to the desert in the multi-team deal that brought Natasha Howard and Sami Whitcomb to Brooklyn.

ESM has three silver linings from this latest defeat.

3rd Star: Bec Allen

12 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals

2nd Star: Betnijah Laney

20 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists

1st Star: DiDi Richards

14 points, 3 rebounds

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

New York Liberty: 3 stars from Sunday’s loss vs. Los Angeles

Bookended by brutal turnover tallies, the New York Liberty’s spectator-free experience ended in heartbreak.

Despite making franchise history on Sunday in Brooklyn, a brief return to bubbled setting produced only heartbreak for the New York Liberty.

With fans and media asked to stay home in the wake of Tropical Storm Henri, the Liberty dropped an 86-83 decision to the Los Angeles Sparks at Barclays Center. Rutgers alumna Erica Wheeler led Los Angeles with 17 points, while Nneka Ogwumike provided 16 more.

Turnovers defined the day for the Liberty (11-14), as they lost the ball 10 times in a fourth quarter Los Angeles won by a 20-11 margin. The Liberty must also deal with questions around Sami Whitcomb, as the scorer of a team-high 17 points (tied with Natasha Howard) left the game in the latter stages with an apparent ankle injury. New York will next welcome in the Phoenix Mercury for a two-game set in Brooklyn beginning on Wednesday night (7 p.m. ET, YES/NBA TV).

The Liberty’s loss did feature some team history. With 16 successful three-pointers, they set a new franchise record for triples in a single game.

ESM has three standouts from Sunday’s defeat…

Honorable Mentions

  • Betnijah Laney: 10 points, 9 assists
  • Reshanda Gray: 5 rebounds

3rd Star: Bec Allen

15 points, 5 assists, 2 blocks

Allen continued her torrid post-Olympic pace by sinking five triples on Sunday, giving her a career-best 35 for the season and 106 for her career. The latter mark allowed her to move into sole possession of 15th place on the Liberty’s all-time triples list, passing Sophia Witherspoon. She has reached double-figures in three straight games, another personal record.

“It’s (about) understanding your role and how roles have changed during seasons and within a season, too,” Allen said of her evolution from the outside. “I think it’s just having that mental state, that place of being a scorer. It’s always a good thing for me.”

2nd Star: Sami Whitcomb

17 points, 4 rebounds

The Liberty not only lost a crucial game in terms of playoff positioning on Sunday, but they also may have lost one of their most important pieces from both a performance and emotional standpoint. Whitcomb rolled her ankle as the Liberty tried to stage a final push and had to be assisted off the court by Sabrina Ionescu and team trainer Terri Acosta. A statement from the Liberty released in the aftermath revealed that Whitcomb sprained her ankle and will be out for at least the next 10-14 days. New York plays four times in that span, starting with Wednesday’s return to Brooklyn against Phoenix. Whitcomb is the WNBA’s lead in success three-pointers (69), leading her closest competition (Arike Ogunbowale of Dallas) by 12.

“It’s an awful thing to say you don’t want any of your teammates to go down,” Allen said of Whitcomb’s departure. “Sami’s obviously a big part of our team so I just hope that she gets better soon. Obviously, she needs to focus on her health and getting it right. But it didn’t happen in a good moment for us at all.”

1st Star: Natasha Howard

17 points, 11 rebounds, 3 steals

As Betnijah Laney struggled through another tough shooting night (2-of-12), Howard improved to 6-of-13 after a tough night on Friday against Seattle and earned a double-double for the second straight contest. She has averaged 17 points and over seven rebounds in her first four games back from a sprained MCL sustained in the pre-Olympic slate. Howard claimed that she’s “starting to feel like (herself) again”, which could be big as the Liberty prepare to make one last push for the playoffs.

“We’ve got to make sure we’re locked in at every moment because every moment counts,” Howard said as the Liberty try to clinch their first playoff spot since 2017.  “We’ve got to make sure we do what we need to do, play against speed…we have to throw this game against LA behind us. Our focus is now on Phoenix.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

New York Liberty: 3 stars from Wednesday’s win vs. Seattle

The Bank of New York was open late on Wednesday night, as Betnijah Laney’s jumper won it for the New York Liberty.

Betnijah Laney cashed a valuable check at the Bank of New York on Wednesday night.

The 2021 WNBA All-Star’s fourth quarter jumper banked home with 17.6 seconds left, breaking the New York Liberty’s tie with the defending champion Seattle Storm. It was the last of Laney’s 17 team-high points on the night, an honor she shared with Bec Allen off the bench, and the Liberty earned an 83-79 victory at Barclays Center. The Liberty (11-12) overcame a diamond performance from Seattle Jewell Loyd, who tallied a career-best 35 points over the first three quarters. Wednesday was a comeback effort for the Liberty, who trailed by as many as 15 and wiped out a 10-point lead entering the fourth quarter.

New York and Seattle (16-7) will meet again in Brooklyn on Friday night (7 p.m. ET, YES).

ESM has three game balls to bestow from a crucial win for the Liberty…

Allen struggled in her first go-around since coming back from representing Australia in the Tokyo Olympics but showed off an electrifying souvenir on Wednesday. Leading the way off the bench for an eight-woman rotation for New York, Allen sank three huge triples in the fourth carter, breaking double figures for the first time since June 20. Allen shot 5-of-9 from the field, including 5-of-6 from a Land Down Under alone…OK, they weren’t that far, but they still paved the for the Liberty’s win.

3rd Star: Bec Allen

17 points, 6 rebounds

2nd Star: Betnijah Laney

17 points, 8 assists, 7 rebounds

Laney didn’t reach her customary 20 points but emerged with something far more valuable: a win. The Liberty’s All-Star was a woman of many talents on Wednesday night, falling respectfully short of a triple-double. If the Liberty are able to clinch a playoff spot…and, perhaps more importantly, host their first playoff game since 2017…Laney’s shot will go down as one of the symbolic turning points in the team’s ongoing “hybrid rebuild”. The win loses a quantum of luster knowing that league legends Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart didn’t play, but a win over the defending champs in spite of one of the better shooters having a career night…all while the team’s face of the future provides the heroics…could be long remembered in Liberty land.

1st Star: DiDi Richards

9 points, 2 assists

Richards’ numbers were relatively pedestrian but Wednesday set the stage for an incredible showcase. Having been held scoreless since June 24, the Liberty’s second-round pick sank all three of her attempts to set an infantile career-high. Richards, known for her defense at Baylor, also came huge on the other end, holding Loyd scoreless over the final ten minutes. Her most notable contributions to the team, the endless energy seen through her infectious smile and unrelenting tenacity, will probably never be measured by any box score metric. But Richards’ activities…diving for loose balls, attacking the paint, and a new sense of fearless shooting…could help make her case to stick around for the Liberty’s long run.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

New York Liberty: 3 stars from Sunday’s loss at Minnesota

A brilliant return for Natasha Howard wasn’t enough for the New York Liberty to end Minnesota’s WNBA-long eight-game winning streak.

The New York Liberty enjoyed an eventful return to WNBA action on Sunday night with an electric showing from Natasha Howard. Alas for New York, it didn’t come with a win.

Sylvia Fowles fell a rebound short of a double-double with 18 points, shooting 9-of-10 from the field in an 88-78 victory for the Minnesota Lynx at Target Center. New York (10-12) maintained its hold on a WNBA playoff spot thanks to Sunday losses from Washington and Dallas while Minnesota (13-7) stretched its WNBA-best winning streak to eight games. The WNBA returned to regular season action on Sunday after a month-long break for the All-Star Game in Las Vegas, the Summer Olympics in Tokyo and the Commissioner’s Cup competition won by the Seattle Storm.

ESM has three stars from the Liberty’s return…

3rd Star: Sami Whitcomb

12 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals

Despite Minnesota shutting holding the Liberty’s fearsome outside unit to a season-low 16 three-point attempts, Whitcomb managed to pick up where she left off from her appearance in the WNBA’s three-point competition in Vegas (coming in third place in the so-called Allie Quigley Invitational) by sinking two triples, including one that helped give the Liberty the lead at the end of the third.

2nd Star: Sabrina Ionescu

14 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists

Burdened with an “overuse” injury during the first portion of the season, she came back recharged and re-energized in the first game back. Ionescu began to resemble her old, dominant, agile self through strong on-court movements and shot 6-of-11 from the field. She has now shot at least 50 percent in three of her last five games, showing a drastic improvement from an 0-for-6 showing in the first half’s finale against Connecticut. Ionescu also continued to develop some strong early chemistry with Howard, who planned to create a “Shaq and Kobe”-like relationship upon her arrival this winter.

1st Star: Natasha Howard

30 points, 4 rebounds

During the pregame, Liberty head coach Walt Hopkins said that Howard, back on the court for the first time in 15 games, would be on a “loose” minutes restriction. He declined to put a number on it, as he wanted to see how Howard was feeling as Sunday night progressed. It’s safe to say that Howard was feeling like her old self, scoring 20 points in the first half, even sinking two triples from the outside, as she wound up coming three points short of her career-high. Howard’s return comes at the perfect time as the Liberty fight for a playoff spot. Her expertise as a Defensive Player of the Year and three-time WNBA champion could come up huge as New York seeks traction.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

Laney, Whitcomb rep New York Liberty at the WNBA All-Star Game

The New York Liberty were well-represented at the WNBA All-Star Game in Las Vegas, which saw the league’s brightest stars take down Team USA.

The resurgent New York Liberty were well-represented at the WNBA’s All-Star proceedings at Michelob Ultra Arena in Las Vegas on Wednesday night.

Betnijah Laney partook in the winning efforts for the league’s victorious All-Star group, who earned a 93-85 win over the United States Olympic team bound for Tokyo. Laney, the Liberty’s leading scorer at the halfway mark, put up four points, two assists, and a rebound toward the triumph. Meanwhile, Sami Whitcomb put forth a very respectable effort in the WNBA MTN DEW 3-Point contest, earning 26 points through cashing in on the “money” balls worth extra points. It was Whitcomb’s first appearance in the contest, which was won by Allie Quigley of Chicago.

This marked the third time that the league staged a “Team USA vs. WNBA” format, though the first two were not officially considered All-Star Games. New York City hosted the original matchup in 2004 at Radio City Music Hall prior to the Summer Games in Athens, while Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun Arena got the latter in 2010, a non-Olympic year. This marked the WNBA squad’s first win, as they were paced by 26 points in an MVP effort from Arike Ogunbowale of Dallas.

Laney mostly played the backup point guard role behind Courtney Vandersloot, earning nearly 17 minutes of game action. Wednesday marked Laney’s first career appearance in the WNBA All-Star Game. She’s working through her first season in New York after winning the Most Improved Player honor in last year’s bubbled season in Bradenton as a member of the Atlanta Dream.

The well-traveled Laney was particularly enthused by the chemistry she had with the rest of the WNBA squad, as she had worked with several of them in prior professional stops.

“I kind of knew everybody, considering I’ve bounced around quite a bit, so I’ve had experience playing alongside a lot of the people that I was playing with today,” Laney said with a smile. “It just felt like home, it felt it was it was really fun and I really enjoyed having the opportunity to play with them all again. I’m really glad that we came together and got the win tonight.

Laney was far from alone in representing the New York resurgence; teammates Reshanda Gray Michaela Onyenwere sat courtside with assistant coach Jacki Gemelos, whie Sabrina Ionescu watched with Kobe Bryant’s widow Vanessa and her mentor’s surviving daughters. Meanwhile, Rebecca Lobo called the game alongside Ryan Rocco for ESPN. Lobo, an original member of the Liberty, was also honored alongside other members of the 1996 United States women’s basketball contingent, whose gold medal trek from the Atlanta Games celebrates its 25th anniversary.

“I found (the experience) amazing, just for myself to just be here in this moment, you know, after everything,” Laney said after the game. “Then to have the support that I had from the team, from my family, and friends, it was just a really good experience.”

The Rutgers alumna was particularly happy to work with former collegiate and AAU teammate Kahleah Copper.

“It was really fun because this was the only level that we haven’t played on together,” Laney said of the Chicago representative. “To be able to have that opportunity out there today, you know, it was fun. I really enjoyed playing alongside her.”

Whitcomb had her time to shine at halftime, partaking in her first three-point competition. The WNBA’s leader in successful three-point attempts (56) was representing Mary’s Place, a Seattle-based non-profit that “provide(s) safe inclusive shelter and services that support women, children and families on their journey out of homelessness”. The winning shooter would receive $10,000 toward a charity of her choice.

Whitcomb’s work was immediately cut out of for her, as Connecticut’s Jonquel Jones immediately tallied 27 points in the opening round. But Whitcomb came tantalizingly close to passing her, giving a whole new definition to “Moneyball”. Whitcomb sank the money ball shot worth two points toward her tally, as well as one of the “Dew Zone” attempts worth three. With the top half of the four competitors set to advance to a final round, Whitcomb seemed well on her way, soundly beating former Seattle Storm teammate Jewell Loyd (18).

Alas, she was done in on the literal last shot, as Quigley sank her final money ball to tie Jones before winning the contest by a 28-24 margin, appropriately earning her third three-point trophy.

Team USA was paced by 17 points from Brittney Griner of Phoenix. They’ll remain in Las Vegas for further training, which includes exhibitions against Australia and Nigeria, before opening Olympic play on July 27 against the latter (12:40 a.m. ET/tape delay: 4:15 p.m. ET, USA). USA has been paired in a group with Nigeria, France, and host nation Japan.

Other Liberty representation in the Tokyo Games includes Rebecca Allen of Australia and international holdovers Marine Johannes (France) and Han Xu (China).

The Liberty return to action on August 15 against the Minnesota Lynx (7 p.m. ET, YES/Facebook).

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags