Buffalo Bills: Three stars from Saturday’s win vs. Indianapolis

The Buffalo Bills made the most of their first playoff opportunity at home in nearly 25 years, ending yet another dubious streak of futility.

The Buffalo Bills have ended countless streaks of futility during this downright magical season. This one, however, might be the sweetest one yet.

Buffalo (14-3) withstood a furious Indianapolis Colts rally in the final minutes, using Josh Allen’s offensive output of 378 total yards to earn a 27-24 victory in the opening Wild Card round of the 2020-21 NFL playoffs. The victory, their first in the postseason since December 1995, comes in the first playoff game they’ve hosted at Bills Stadium in Orchard Park in nearly a quarter-century.

Bills Stadium will now host its first Divisional playoff game since January 1994. They will battle the highest seed remaining between the winners of the remaining wild card matchups. No. 4 Tennessee battles No. 5 Baltimore in Sunday’s early window (1:05 p.m. ET, ESPN/ABC) while the battle between No. 3 Pittsburgh and No. 6 Cleveland caps off Wild Card weekend at night (8:15 p.m. ET, NBC).

In the meantime, ESM has three game balls to give out from Saturday’s victory…

3rd Star: WR Gabriel Davis

4 receptions, 85 yards

Brandon Beane’s lasting impact on the Western New York area will likely always be choosing Josh Allen in the early stages of the 2018 draft. But his day three gems also played a major role in his recent extension. Day three choices were on prominent display during the first playoff win of the Beane era. Taron Johnson, a fourth-round in 2018, made a major tackle on a third-and-goal that forced Indianapolis into a bad fourth-down call, keeping the deficit at 10-7. On the drive that gave Buffalo the lead for good, Johnson’s 2020 draft counterpart from the fourth round, Davis, channeled his inner Fred Flintstone with several tiptoe sideline grabs that allowed the Bills to take the lead just before the halftime break.

2nd Star: WR Stefon Diggs

6 receptions, 128 yards, 1 TD

The Bills’ recent success hasn’t made them immune to the fact that their roster, talented as it may be, is relatively low on playoff experience. Diggs, a bonafide postseason hero…nay, miracle worker…brought in a good chunk of it, putting a target on his Buffalo back right from the get-go. He responded by not only topping the league’s receivers in yardage and catches, but setting Bills records every step of the way. Granted his first playoff opportunity in his new settings, Diggs took full advantage in his cleats inspired by the 2003 Buffalo-based comedy Bruce Almighty. Diggs lived up to Jim Carrey’s fictitious surname in the second half, putting up 92 yards and a score that came at the onset of the fourth quarter.

1st Star: QB Josh Allen

26-of-35, 324 yards, 11 carries, 54 yards, 3 total TD

If anything proved that Western New York’s future belongs to Allen…as if anyone needed further convincing…Saturday’s game was perfect concrete evidence. When the Bills needed a score, needed to try and run out the clock…they turned things over to Allen. For some reason, the Bills’ playcalling took the ball out of Allen’s hands during the middle stages of the first half. The rush-heavy diet yielded only three-and-outs and a Colts lead. Once Allen got free reign after the Colts left three points on the field, Allen took over to the tune of a 96-yard drive, capping things off by himself. It was only appropriate that Allen be responsible for the first playoff touchdown scores tallied in Orchard Park since the mid-1990s, as he found Diggs and Dawson Knox through the air, sandwiching the one he took in himself just before the half.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

VIDEO: Josh Allen, Dawson Knox end Buffalo Bills’ playoff TD drought

For the first time since December 1996, someone from the Buffalo Bills visited Orchard Park’s end zones during a playoff game.

It wasn’t pretty by conventional means. But when you’ve gone just over 24 years without experiencing the glory of a playoff touchdown, you’ll take them however you can get.

Josh Allen and Dawson Knox collaborated to end yet another dubious streak of futility in Buffalo Bills history, as the quarterback found his third-year tight end for a three-yard score that gave the Bills a 7-3 lead over the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Wild Card matchup at Bills Stadium. It was the first playoff touchdown scored in Orchard Park since Jacksonville’s Jimmy Smith scored on a two-yard pass from Mark Brunell during the Wild Card round in December 1996. As for Bills representation, it’s the first postseason score at home by the home team since Jeff Burris took back a Brunell interception 38 yards and the first offensive tally since Thurman Thomas scored in the same game, a 30-27 Jacksonville victory.

After the Bills went three-and-out on their first drive by keeping Allen in the pocket, the MVP candidate was able to break free on his second attempt with the ball. Situated at his own 15 after the Colts took a 3-0 lead, Allen accounted for all but six yards on the ensuing 85-yard trek to the end zone. He got things started with his legs on a 12-yard tally on the second play before getting into Indianapolis territory with a 36-yard strike to Stefon Diggs. The score itself wasn’t pretty…Allen appeared to attempt to run it in himself before he got it off at the last minute with the pocket collapsing…but Knox was wide for a catch worth six points not matter its attractiveness. Tyler Bass would later boot the extra point to make to create a 7-3 Buffalo lead.

Allen also earned first downs through passes to Devin Singletary and Gabriel Davis. Each of Allen’s first six completion went to a different receiver, with Zack Moss and Cole Beasley also earning catches in the opening frame.

Buffalo continues to lead Indianapolis 7-3 in the early stages of the second quarter.

Geof Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

BREAKING: Sam Darnold leaves New York Jets’ Thursday night game

New York Jets, Sam Darnold

Sam Darnold left Thursday’s New York Jets game after taking a tough hit in the late stages of the first quarter. He later returned.

New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold left Thursday’s game against the Denver Broncos with an apparent shoulder injury.

After accumulating all but two yards on the Jets’ opening 75-yard trek to the end zone (including the final 46 on the ground in a jaw-dropping touchdown run), Darnold got the Jets to midfield on their second drive. However, on a second down, Darnold was the victim of a Shelby Harris sack that saw the defender slam the quarterback down on his throwing shoulder.

Darnold stayed in for the next play, a handoff to Frank Gore, but immediately walked to the sidelines. Since the medical tent was already occupied, Darnold was immediately escorted to the Jets’ locker room by team trainers and doctors as the first quarter ended. Joe Flacco, active for the first time on Thursday, came into the game to finish the drive, which ended in a Braden Mann punt.

After Denver took a 10-7 lead on a Jerry Jeudy touchdown catch, Flacco began the Jets’ next drive, but Darnold came in on the Jets’ final play. He was immediately sacked, but came out for the next set of downs after the defense forced a punt.

This story will be updated pending further developments.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

VIDEO: Sam Darnold’s electrifying TD run gives New York Jets first lead of 2020

New York Jets, Sam Darnold

The New York Jets quarterback unleashed the longest run from a thrower this season, his 46-yard rush giving Gang Green an early lead.

Vick. Jackson. Darnold?

Sam Darnold gave the New York Jets an early lead over the Denver Broncos on Thursday night through a showstopping 46-yard touchdown run. The score gave the Jets an early lead, New York’s first of the season, in their primetime tilt.

Darnold wound up accounting for all but two yards on the Jets’ opening scoring drive, one that took nine plays to go 75 yards after the opening kickoff. His legs were responsible for two previous conversions on third down. A three-yard punch in the opening minute kept the drive going, as did an eight-yard scramble on third-and-four just prior to midfield. Darnold’s previous career-best in rushing was a 35-yard output in December 2018 against Houston. The long touchdown is the longest run by any quarterback so far this season.

The Jets continue to lead Denver 7-3 in the latter stages of the first quarter.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Kevin Harvick closes playoffs’ first round with another win

Kevin Harvick

In front of 30,000 fans at Bristol, Kevin Harvick ended the first round of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs on a victorious note.

Saturday’s NASCAR Cup Series race featured a dozen winners, as these select names moved on to the second round of the circuit’s postseason. Alas, only one familiar face will have his name etched onto the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Kevin Harvick held of Kyle Busch to win his ninth race of the 2020 season. His win came in front of 30,000 socially distanced fans, the best-attended regular season race since the circuit returned from the COVID-19 induced pause.

Saturday was the final portion of the three-race opening round to the 2020 playoffs consisting of 16 drivers. Harvick had already clinched his spot in the upcoming second-round with a win in the first leg at Darlington Raceway two weekends ago. The bottom four drivers were eliminated from championship contention. Harvick is a healthy 62 points ahead of the cutoff to the next round of eight men.

I hadn’t been to too many races where I’ve been that jacked up getting in the race car,” Harvick said about seeing fans in the stands. “The fans were so enthusiastic tonight and I don’t know if we’ve just been away from them for that long, but you could feel the enthusiasm in the stadium tonight. I think as I was getting in the car, I was just wound up and just really, really ready to race, and then after the race, just the excitement that you could hear and the cheering from the crowd just made me excited.”

“I haven’t felt that in a while, and when you look at Bristol, it’s always very enthusiastic, but tonight these people were so wound up. I think we’re all tired of sitting at home and not really knowing what to do. But tonight they all let it loose, and that gave me a lot of excitement, as well.”

Harvick and Busch united to lead 385 of 500 laps on Saturday, with the former’s No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford pacing 226 of that tally. The two battled for the lead over the final 82 laps, all but 10 led by Harvick. He eventually held off Busch by a 0.31-second margin to take home another win.

By earning the 58th win of his Cup Series career, Harvick slightly distanced himself from Busch (56 Cup wins) for seventh-place on the all-time wins list.

“I’m just fortunate to be able to still be doing this for 20 years now and be successful, and we got to nine, so that’s one step closer than we were at eight,” Harvick said of the potential of a ten-win campaign. “I don’t know if we’ll make it to ten, but we’re going to keep trying to do the best we can every week, and it’s just been an unbelievable year.”

The win was a team effort all around for the No. 4 unit. Harvick praised spotter Tim Fedewa for helping him navigate through lapped traffic and crew chief Rodney Childers for setting the car up right. He also credited them both for helping avoid a potentially disastrous situation, when Austin Dillon and James Davison wrecked in front of him with 93 laps to go as Harvick was attempting to make his final stop of the night.

“Timmy was on it tonight,” Harvick said of Fedewa. “He was one step ahead of me, and that really helps because you can’t really see all the way out of the corner when you’re entering the corner and headed to the center of the corner, you can’t really tell.”

“The biggest turning point of the night was when we were coming to pit road, cars beside me spun out and we stayed on the racetrack and without clipping the box or anything and put a bunch of them a lap down, so that was definitely a big moment.”

Second place and clinching a second-round spot was no consolation to Busch. The defending Cup Series champion and driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has yet to win a race at the Cup Series level. Saturday saw him work through several issues en route to the runner-up spot.

A failed prerace inspection forced him to start from the rear of the field. When the caution came out on lap 29 to account for Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s accident, a pit road run-in with Daniel Suarez forced him to restart 25th. Busch was able to make it back to second place behind Chase Elliott at the end of the first 125-lap stage. After winning the ensuing race off pit road, Busch led all but two of the next 150 circuits.

Busch briefly took the lead from Harvick, but the No. 4 used its speed and maneuverability around lapped traffic to secure the win. The defending champion was highly displeased with the slower vehicles afterward, namely the underfunded cars of Joey Gase and Garrett Smithley, as well as former fellow champion Joey Logano. The stall only added to his frustration over his fourth runner-up placement of the season.

“You always try to race hard and race clean and get the job done right,” Busch remarked when asked if he considered pulling the Bristol tradition of bumping Harvick out of the lead. “Some of them (expletive) kids don’t know what the hell they’re doing or where they’re at and can’t stay out of the way. Nothing like a Gase and a Smithley.”

Busch’s teammate and non-playoff driver Erik Jones finished third and rookie Tyler Reddick came home fourth. Aric Almirola secured his playoff spot by round out the top five. A Harvick teammate, Clint Bowyer, was the final of only six lead lap cars, securing a second-round spot of his own in the process.

The next three-race stage of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs gets underway in primetime next Sunday night with the South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN). Other locales in the next round include Talladega Superspeedway and the “roval” at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Race Notes

  • William Byron and his team saw their championship dream ended when the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet’s front end was damaged after reported contact with Christopher Bell on lap 233. The get-together was reportedly brought on in an attempt to avoid Gase’s slow car. Byron referred to Gase as “an idiot” over the radio upon his race retirement. The No. 24 had been running in the top ten prior to the wreck and was three points out of the next round entering the race.

 

  • Other drivers that entered Saturday secure in the next round included Brad Keselowski (win at Richmond last week) and Denny Hamlin (points).

 

  • In addition to Busch, Logano, Dillon, Elliott, Almirola, and Bowyer, three more drivers clinched their second-round spot via points. That group included Martin Truex Jr., Alex Bowman, and Kurt Busch.

 

  • Three more drivers were eliminated, including Ryan Blaney, Matt DiBenedetto, and rookie Cole Custer.

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

New York Liberty fall despite WNBA history from Amanda Zahui B

Another bad quarter sank the New York Liberty on Saturday afternoon despite Amanda Zahui B making WNBA history.

WNBA history wasn’t enough to withstand another tough fourth quarter for the New York Liberty.

Amanda Zahui B had a WNBA record 21 defensive rebounds but a 24-7 deficit in the fourth quarter doomed them to an 80-63 loss to the Las Vegas Aces on Saturday afternoon in the Bradenton bubble. A’ja Wilson led the way with 20 points for Las Vegas while Dearica Hamby had a double-double (17 points, 10 rebounds) off the bench. Each team returned to action after the WNBA joined the wave of athlete strikes across North America in protest of racial injustice.

The fourth quarter marred what was otherwise a strong, respectable day for the Liberty (2-13), who had won the third quarter by a 21-17 margin. Zahui B’s 21 rebounds made up for a tough shooting day from the field (2-of-11) and broke a Liberty record previously held by Tina Charles since July 2017. Her league record shattered a mark set by Detroit’s Cindy Brown during the 1998 season…the Association’s second year of existence.

“I think she’s at a point where she’s comfortable understanding where if her shots aren’t falling she can do other things for this team,” head coach Walt Hopkins said of Zahui B’s performance. “I thought her one-on-one defense was pretty darn good. Her rebounds were huge, obviously.”

Zahui B declined to comment on basketball matters, expressing only sadness at continued instances of racial injustice. She has been a vocal leader in activism in both American and her native Sweden.

Personal history was also set on the Liberty through Paris Kea. The mid-season acquisition scored a career-high 14 points on 5-of-7 shooting (including 4-of-6 from three-point range). Elsewhere, Kiah Stokes fell just short of a triple-double (12 points, 9 rebounds) and Layshia Clarendon scored 11 more in defeat. Clarendon has been a vocal voice in the WNBA’s social justice initiatives and recited Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise” during a candlelit vigil held during the postponements caused by the strike.

With their win, Las Vegas (12-3) moves into a first-place tie with Seattle. The Aces also clinched their second consecutive playoff spot, becoming the first team officially enter the postseason bracket as the WNBA regular season enters its latter stages.

The Liberty return to action on Tuesday as they play their second game of the season against the Connecticut Sun (7 p.m., Fox Sports Go/CBSSN).

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

New York Liberty: Brutal second half leads to one-sided loss

The Minnesota Lynx dealt a sweep to former assistant coach Walt Hopkins’ New York Liberty through a one-sided second half.

It was deja vu all over again in the worst way for the New York Liberty on Saturday night in the Bradenton bubble. A rematch with the Minnesota Lynx yielded more brutality in the second half, as the Liberty were outscored 52-31 over the final 20 minutes in a 94-64 loss. Minnesota was the former dwelling of Liberty head coach Walt Hopkins.

New York (1-9) was previously outscored 27-6 in the third quarter of a 92-66 loss to the Lynx on August 5. This time around, reigning WNBA Rookie of the Year Napheesa Collier led the way with 26 points and 13 rebounds, while current contender Crystal Dangerfield earned 22 on 9-of-12 shooting. Five Minnesotans in total earned double-figures.

The Liberty got off to a decent start in the first quarter. Leaonna Odom earning eight points in the first quarter, and New York built a small 10-9 lead by the midway mark. Minnesota, however, embarked on a 16-10 run to end the frame and had relative control from that point on. A manageable nine-point deficit at halftime quickly flew out of hand when the Lynx (7-3) sank six of their first seven field goals to open the latter half. Minnesota shot just over 50 percent on the evening (36-of-71) and converted 6-of-13 three-point attempts. In contrast, the Liberty shot only 30 percent (20-of-66) from the field.

The New York silver linings came in the form of rookie Jazmine Jones and Kylee Shook. Formerly teammates at Louisville, Jones was the only New Yorker in double figures with 13 points while Shook tied her infantile career-best in scoring with nine. Jones reached double-figures for the third straight game through physical play that went on until the final second had ticked off the clock. The final pick of the first round is averaging 16 points over the trio, which began with a career-high 24 points against Los Angeles on Tuesday.

“Toward the end of the game, we knew we needed to play hard, finish the game, continue to fight,” Jones said. “We just got to get better together in practice, translate it over to the game. Youth has nothing to do with it. We just need to come out, execute, do the things we need to do to win.”

The Liberty will hit the midway point of their bubble exploits on Tuesday night when they take on the Seattle Storm (10 p.m. ET, Fox Sports Go). It will be the second of two meetings with the Storm, who opened the bubble project with the Liberty on July 25. Seattle took home an 87-71 decision. Layshia Clarendon had 20 points in the game to lead the Liberty while Sabrina Ionescu had 12 points and six rebounds in her debut. Seattle currently tops the WNBA standings with a 9-1 record.

“We need to be tougher. We need to start our games with some heart,” Hopkins said of the upcoming second half. “I say that would be a really good start for us. I think we lost four quarters tonight.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

New York Liberty: Jazmine Jones earns another career high in late loss to LA (Highlights)

An infantile career-best for Jazmine Jones wasn’t enough to make up for a flat first quarter from the New York Liberty on Tuesday night.

Doomed by a brutal first quarter, the New York Liberty still managed to keep the theme of wrangling positives from a tough loss.

Sydney Wiese and Riquana Williams of the Los Angeles Sparks combined scored 17 points each on a combined 8-of-12 shooting from three-point range, keying a 93-78 victory over New York on late Tuesday night. Liberty rookie Jazmine Jones led all scorers with a young personal-best 24 in defeat.

“I think tonight was more of a team-focused loss,” head coach Walt Hopkins said. “I thought we had some really good individual defensive efforts. Points off of turnovers just absolutely killed us, 26 turnovers for 24 points. Otherwise, I thought that this team was remarkably resilient. It would’ve been easy to lie down and let that be a 30-point game. They just refused to let that happen. I’m proud of them for how tough they are.”

The Liberty (1-7) came out flat in the opening stages of a late tip-off, falling victim to the Sparks’ sharp-shooting from deep. Los Angeles (5-3) sank 6-of-7 three-point attempts in the first ten minutes, creating a 28-14 lead at the first stoppage. From that point on, New York was only able to come as close as nine points despite losing by only one point over the final three stages.

Jones was the most consistent silver lining for the Liberty, coming off the bench to score 24 points and swipe five balls. The Louisville alumna was the 12th and final pick of the WNBA Draft’s first-round back in April.

“Jaz was a much, much-needed spark (especially) in that first quarter,” Hopkins said. “We were having trouble scoring and she kind of willed us, willed us back into that first quarter and kind of gave us some momentum going forward.”

Yet, Jones was willing to sacrifice it all for a win and focused primarily on her five turnovers in her postgame statements. The Liberty turned the ball over 26 times in their latest downfall. Jones also made it clear that her young, historic effort meant little in the context of another loss, saying “I would’ve taken 5 points and us winning rather than 24 and us losing”.

“I had five turnovers myself. For me, personally, that’s unacceptable,” Jones said. “I’m really hard on myself about turning the ball over and I only had one assist too. Being a backup point guard, I can’t come in and turn the ball over. Those five turnovers are unacceptable.”

Five players reached double figures for the Sparks, who won back-to-back games for the first time this season. New York put up a strong performance at the foul line, converting all but one of their 23 attempts. The two squads will meet up against on September 8 in the latter stages of the Liberty’s Bradenton bubble season.

The Liberty return to action on Thursday evening, taking on the Indiana Fever for the first time this season (6 p.m. ET, YES).

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Kevin Harvick completes the sweep at Michigan (Highlights)

Kevin Harvick continued his summer surge, moving up the NASCAR Cup Series wins list by pulling off a sweep at Michigan.

Summer sweeps in Michigan are often reserved for the Detroit Tigers. Kevin Harvick provided an exception over the weekend.

Harvick and his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford team entered elite company in several ways by winning the Consumers Energy 400 at Michigan International Speedway on Sunday. The 44-year-old won the 55th race of his NASCAR Cup Series career, moving him into an eighth-place tie with Rusty Wallace on the all-time list. Having also won the FireKeepers Casino 400 on Saturday, Harvick became the first driver since seven-time champion Richard Petty (1971) to win Cup Series races on consecutive days.

“I think a lot of (our success) just goes into how prepared our team is and the details that they’re covering to get the cars right, get them close, come to the racetrack, watch the pit crew perform, watch (crew chief Rodney Childers) make great calls. I get to race the car on the racetrack and do the best that I can,” Harvick said in a postrace Zoom call. “I love my guys to death. They do a great job. I hate not being able to celebrate with them. That’s the part that really frustrates me more than anything.”

Harvick’s series-best sixth win of the 2020 season came after a hard-fought battle with Denny Hamlin. The latter was also seeking his sixth victory of the campaign in Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 11 Toyota. Harvick dominated a majority of the event but a window opened for Hamlin when Alex Bowman lost a tire with just under 20 circuits to go in the 156-lap event.

Running third behind Harvick and Martin Truex Jr., Hamlin took advantage of the newly instituted “choose cone” rule, opting to be the first car on the inside lane when Harvick and Truex went for the higher, outside position.

Hamlin battled Harvick to the last lap, but the 2014 Cup Series champion took home victory by a .093-second margin. Gibbs Toyota also took the next two spots with Truex in third and Kyle Busch in fourth while Joey Logano finished the top five.

“We’re really happy for everybody at Ford that our Busch Light Apple Ford was really fast again today,” Harvick said. “I had a little trouble in the end in three and four, Denny was really good down there. We were able to do a little defensive driving and keep him back there and make it to victory lane in the end.”

Four races remain in the Cup Series’ regular season, and the trek gets even more treacherous next weekend. For the first time, NASCAR will run events at the road course at Daytona International Speedway. The premier Cup Series will run the GoBowling 235 on Sunday afternoon (3 p.m. ET, NBC). This event replaces the annual trek to Watkins Glen International, whose proceedings were canceled in the wake of the ongoing health crisis.

Race Notes

  • Michigan native Brad Keselowski, who won last week’s event at New Hampshire, was going for his first career win at his home track. But his No. 2 Team Penske Ford got loose on lap 96, sending him into race leader and teammate Ryan Blaney. The pair finished at the pack of the back. Keselowski is now winless in 23 MIS events

 

  • Harvick’s Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Clint Bowyer started second and led each of the first 43 laps en route to a victory in the first stage of the race. Bowyer finished 14th but the stage win played a part in keeping a 60-point lead on the postseason cutoff line.

 

  • William Byron (12th) continues to hold the 16th and final playoff spot amongst non-victorious drivers. He’s 26 points ahead of his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson (11th) and Erik Jones (27th). It was announced this week that Jones, driver of Gibbs’ No. 20 Toyota, would not return to the vehicle in 2021.

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeofffJMags

New York Liberty fall in a heartbreaker to Las Vegas (Highlights)

A’ja Wilson’s big day ended the New York Liberty’s chances at starting a winning streak on Sunday late afternoon in Bradenton.

The New York Liberty’s good fortune ended on Sunday evening against Las Vegas.

A’ja Wilson’s game-winner with 6.9 seconds remaining capped off a 31-point performance from the WNBA’s leading scorer. It allowed her Las Vegas Aces to survive another strong effort from Amanda Zahui B and the Liberty, who fell just short of starting a winning streak in a 78-76 heartbreaker in the Bradenton bubble.

“I thought our team deserved to win that game. I thought our players deserved to win,” Liberty head coach Walt Hopkins said. “(Las Vegas) is a potential title team, this is a team that can be in the WNBA Finals. This is an extremely talented, well-coached team and we played them to the very end. We played them to the last possession.”

Coming off their first win of the season on Friday night against Washington, the Liberty (1-6) carried momentum into their Sunday showdown. They led for a majority of the game, going toe-to-toe with one of the league’s most complete teams. New York even led by as many as 12 throughout the course of the game.

Amanda Zahui B once again rose to the occasion with the Liberty missing both Sabrina Ionescu and Kylee Shook (right foot). The Stockholm-born interior threat picked up where she left off from Friday’s double-double performance, sinking six three-pointers over the first three frames. It was one short of the team record Zahui B tied during a 37-point performance in Los Angeles last season.

“We put ourselves in a great position to win,” Zahui B noted in her availability. “Keep pushing, keep building. I think the first thing we said when we got to the locker room was that we have really grown from our first game. If this had been a week ago, we could’ve lost by 30. We fought through the whole game, stayed together, and we got to keep on building. We’re a young team, nobody believes in us, and we’ve got to earn everything.”

Foul trouble, however, proved to play a role in the Liberty’s downfall. Picking her fourth infraction in the midway stages of the third, Zahui B took to the bench, allowing Las Vegas (5-2) to eat into the Liberty lead. Wilson tallied 18 points in the second half and visited the foul line 12 times, missing all but one of her attempts. Vegas also enjoyed late heroics and forced turnovers from veteran newcomer Angel McCoughtry.

The Liberty still had an opportunity to escape with a victory after Wilson’s heroics. Kia Nurse’s would-be winner fell short but was touched by Las Vegas as it went out of bounds. The Aces’ defense thwarted Layshia Clarendon’s ensuing inbounds pass, but New York still had 0.5 seconds to work with. Another attempt saw a Clarendon inbound go to Leaonna Odom, who put in the apparent equalizer, but the clock had been started before the ball was touched, forcing yet another retry.

One last Vegas swat sealed the deal, and the Aces earned their fourth consecutive victory.

“We should be playing overtime right now,” Hopkins said. “I don’t know if it was a scoreboard malfunction or if it was actually the scorekeeper who started it early. I would guess it’s the scorekeeper because it’s not automated. So somebody made a really big mistake and stole the game from us.”

Despite the loss, the Liberty felt that they had several positives to work with. Clarendon tallied 15 points and fell two rebounds short of a double-double, while rookie free agent Joyner Holmes had an infantile career-best 11 points. Kiah Stokes had a season-best 12 rebounds, her best output since returning to the Liberty lineup after sitting out last season.

“I think we’re more focused, especially on the little things,” Stokes said. “We weren’t going as hard as we could. I think we really made an effort over the last couple of days to do the little things, especially clean up turnovers, box out. Obviously, we still have things to work on, but now we’re in games and winning games. It stinks that we lost today but it’s a step in the right direction and it shows how good we can be.”

The Liberty and Aces will meet up again on August 29. New York’s season will continue against Western Conference competition on Tuesday night against the Los Angeles Sparks (10 p.m. ET, Fox Sports Go).

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags