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

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

New York Liberty: Meet the (Draft) Class of 2020

The draft dust has settled, and the New York Liberty have emerged with several young players to begin a new era.

The New York Liberty might well be America’s oldest expansion team at this rate.

New York’s WNBA franchise looks a tad different than it did a week ago, literally and figuratively. The team unveiled a new logo and uniform this week and later dealt franchise face Tina Charles to the Washington Mystics for extra draft capital. When they do get back to basketball, the Liberty will also make themselves a new home: Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. On Tuesday, the Liberty also bid farewell to Brittany Boyd, one of their longest-tenured players.

Speaking of Friday’s WNBA Draft (witness by 837,000 viewers), the Liberty were immediately able to fill Charles’ empty slot of franchise face with the addition of Oregon guard Sabrina Ionescu. What do you need to know about Ionescu and her new comrades? ESM has you covered…

1st Round (1st overall): G Sabrina Ionescu, Oregon

Lottery ping-pong balls finally bounced New York’s way, leading them to one of the most electrifying players in college basketball history. Ionescu hopefully has a large carry-on bag for her eventual flight to New York, as she’ll be hauling plenty of hardware to Brooklyn. Her most recent accolades include the Player of the Year honors from the Associated Press and the Pac-12 (her third in the latter category), matching perfectly with the NCAA’s all-time lead in triple-doubles (26). When we get back to shooting again, Ionescu’s New York arrival has a chance to change not just a premier franchise, but a league entirely.

1st Round (9th overall): F Megan Walker, Connecticut

What’s a draft without representation from Storrs? With the first pick obtained in the Charles transaction, the Liberty went with one of the few early entries in Walker. Her breakout junior year paced the team with 19.7 points, and she also tallied 8.4 rebounds en route to first-team All-American honors. Walker’s scoring prowess should help a Liberty squad that struggled to consistently score in the latter stages of last season.

1st Round (10th overall): F Jocelyn Willoughby, Virginia

The Charles trade indirectly yielded the arrival of Willoughby, as the Liberty dealt the contract of former Mystic Shatori Walker-Kimbrough to Phoenix for the rights to Willoughby. Some were surprised to see Willoughby go in the top ten, but her flexibility could turn her into a diamond-in-the-rough selection. One of Willoughby’s greatest qualities is her ability to get to the foul line. Over the second half of the season, the Liberty averaged less than 15 foul shots per game. Willoughby reached double-digits on her own in six games of her senior season.

1st Round (12th overall): G Jazmine Jones, Louisville

With the second pick acquired in the Charles move, the Liberty opted to take one of Asia Durr’s Cardinal teammates. No one has appeared in more games in Louisville red than Jones, who reached the All-ACC and All-ACC defensive teams. Her shooting needs some work, but Jones nearly doubled her career scoring average in her senior campaign (14.1 PPG, good for second on the team).

2nd Round (13th overall): F Kylie Shook, Louisville

Ionescu is trying to forget the exploits of Shook, who paced the Cardinals with a double-double (18 points, 15 rebounds) in a head-to-head matchup last November that saw Louisville gave Oregon their only loss. More impressive may be Shook’s defensive abilities. She took the ACC Defensive Player of the Year award and departs KFC Yum! Center as the program’s all-time leader in blocks.

2nd Round (15th overall): F Leaonna Odom, Duke

Another strong defensive talent from the ACC, Odom’s versatility (able to the one-through-four) and length (6’2 with a 27.5 vertical) makes her a solid defensive find in the second round. The versatility was on perfect display when she appeared on watchlists for the Katrina McClain and Cheryl Miller awards (earned by the nation’s top power forward and small forward respectively).

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags