Liberty know importance of 'statement game' win over previously undefeated Sun

At the top of the WNBA in the early stages of the 2024 season was the Connecticut Sun. The team entered Saturday’s game against the Liberty with a flawless 9-0 record and looked like the best team in the league.

The cards were seemingly stacked against New York. Saturday was their sixth game in 10 days -- including three straight on the road -- and they have a game Sunday afternoon. Connecticut was playing at home and their last game was June 4. 

None of that mattered for the Liberty who pulled out a 82-75 win over the Sun, handing Connecticut their first loss of the season.

“There were so many excuses we could have had coming into this day… and we didn’t do that,” Sabrina Ionescu said after the game. “We understood this was a huge game for us. A statement game. They’re undefeated. It's huge for the Commissioner’s Cup. We came in here regardless of how ugly the game was looking, how sloppy it was at times. We stayed poised and it’s a testament to us.”

Saturday was the first regular season matchup between the Liberty and Sun -- who met in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals -- and it lived up to the billing.

Both teams went into halftime tied at 39 apiece and the Sun were up three points on New York at the start of the fourth quarter. But it was that final frame where the Liberty turned things around. 

New York went on a 15-6 run from the 7:44 to 3:23 mark of the fourth quarter to put them in position to capture their sixth win in a row. Ionescu led the way, scoring or assisting on 18 of the team’s 25 points in the final 8:30 of the final frame, according to ESPN Stats (h/t Alexa Philippou). 

The Sun scored 13 points as a team in that span. 

When asked what helped her turn it up in the fourth quarter, Ionescu credited her coach Sandy Brondello for the spark.

“She benched me after a turnover and then I got mad,” Ionescua said with a smile. “I knew I had to make better decisions. Understanding my legs were a little heavy and I would usually make shots, I missed some of those tonight. Trying to find different ways to get my teammates open.”

The reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week said that being a shooting threat allowed her to find teammates like Betnijah Laney-Hamilton (10 points) cutting to the basket, and Jonquel Jones (22) and Breanna Stewart (13) open for three. 

“Just staying patient but definitely lit up a fire inside me a little bit,” Ionescu added. “We came out and just had to settle down and execute.”

“Play with a little more poise. We got a little franctic there for awhile. We weren’t moving the ball as crisply or as much as we’d like,” Brondello said of the turnovers. “I still put the ball in [Ionescu’s] hands with the action and she made really good reads. She was able to score and that opened up and you get easy buckets too. And obviously JJ was great knocking down those threes.”

Jones not only posted her 22 points but came down with eight rebounds, dished five assists and had four blocks. She became the first player in Liberty history to record a game with that statline, per Across the Timeline. 

When the Sun made their runs in the second and third quarters, Jones was often the one to hit a big three or get an easy bucket down low to get the Liberty back in their offensive flow. She credited staying “cool and poised” for being able to keep the team together during the rougher stretches of the game.

“Understanding that there are runs in basketball and teams are going to be able to do things that exploit us a little bit,” Jones explained. “But we have to understand we can make our runs too. That’s the biggest thing, not getting too high or too low and just staying in the game.”

Now at 10-2, the first team to reach double-digit wins this season, and a spot in the Commissioner’s Cup championship game, the Liberty will head home to take on the Washington Mystics, who gave them a hard time in their season opener back on May 14. 

Whatever happens against the Mystics, the Liberty know that Saturday’s win was huge. For a team looking to return to the WNBA Finals and hoist the franchise’s first championship, wins against the Sun reveal something about their team, the players and where they can go from here. 

“No matter how we’re feeling we can compete with the best teams in the league. It’s growth for us, I don’t know if we could have done this last year,” Ionescu said. “This could have potentially been a game we might have lost here. For us to show up the way we did, have everyone contribute off the bench, the starters, is huge for us.”