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: 3 stars from Sunday’s win at Los Angeles

The New York Liberty commemorated their 25th birthday in familiar fashion through a win over the Los Angeles Sparks.

A quarter-century later, some things never change.

The New York Liberty earned a big win to celebrate their 25th birthday, escaping from Los Angeles with a 76-73 victory over the local Sparks at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Sunday’s game was a rematch of the inaugural tilt in WNBA history held on June 21, 1997, which was also won by the Liberty. The Liberty earned their win despite getting charged for 29 turnovers, the second-worst mark in franchise history.

Through their triumph, New York (7-6) is able to come back home with a split of a four-game road trip after dropping consecutive contests in Las Vegas.

ESM distributes the game balls after a big win…

3rd Star: Kylee Shook 

14 points, 7 rebounds

Shook once again took some big steps forward as a second-year pro in the final stage of this road trip. The Louisville alumna admitted that her open looks from deep weren’t going down, so she created her own chances through cuts into the interior. She shot 5-of-7 from the field on Sunday and has reached double figures in three of her last four contests.

“The team learned that we can push through whatever we put our minds to, as long as we stay focused and give it our all,” Shook said of what the team learned on this road trip. “My shots haven’t been falling lately, and I haven’t really had time to practice it, but I just want to make a greater impact than just standing there, whether it’s getting a teammate open, getting a cut, pulling in defense, I can do so much.”

2nd Star: Sami Whitcomb 

17 points, 9 rebounds

The Liberty made the most of second chances, outscoring the Sparks 19-0 off offensive boards. Overall, New York outrebounded Los Angeles (5-7) by a 38-27 margin, with Whitcomb leading the way with a career-best nine. Only one was of the offensive variety, but it was a big one. Whitcomb hauled in a Bec Allen misfire with under three minutes to go in the final frame, then drove to the basket where she met a Karlie Samuelson foul. Two free throws allowed the Liberty to regain the lead.

“This is a massive win today,” Whitcomb noted. “This was really a character-revealing game for us. We knew it was going to be a battle of wills, we knew LA was going to be tough, that they were going to fight and they were going to make it really difficult for us…At the end of a really tough road trip, I’m really proud of this group because we stand together.”

1st Star: Rebecca Allen

19 points, 6 rebounds, 3 blocks, 3 steals, 3 assists

If it was a category on Sunday’s statsheet, Bec Allen probably did it.

The Australian native began the trip by learning she’d officially be representing a Land Down Under this August in Tokyo and ended it by being a woman of many talents in America. Allen helped the Liberty build an early lead through a season-high in scoring before capping things off with her signature defensive flair. Kristi Toliver’s would-be go-ahead triple was swatted away by Allen, who would then sink a pair of free throws to create the eventual final margin. Granted one last chance to avenge Lisa Leslie’s 1997 group, Los Angeles was again thwarted by Allen.

In another case of serendipitous bookending, the similarly named Rebecca Lobo led the Liberty in scoring on that fateful date in the mid-90s. Allen also helped the Liberty secure the first victory on this road trip, earning a steal on the final possession of a three-point win in Phoenix.

“I was really grateful that I have my length in that moment,” Allen said of Sunday’s final stands. Head coach Walt Hopkins referred to her as “a special player on both ends”. After Sunday’s display, the idea of Allen, a New York bench staple since 2016 that has filled in for the injured Sabrina Ionescu, etching her name onto Sixth Woman of the Year shortlist seems more realistic than ever.

Geoff Magliocchett is on Twitter @GeoffJMags