Why Liberty’s OT win over Mystics showed progress in superteam chemistry

NEW YORK — For all the little moments when the New York Liberty thought they were going to come back and win, they could have easily faltered. It’s happened before and Breanna Stewart can tick them off, loss by early loss.

There was the season opener against the more experienced Washington Mystics, who were in town Sunday for a morning rematch of the top four teams. At home against Chicago, when the Liberty lost a 19-point lead to a team also rebuilding a roster, but without the star talent. And two weeks ago, when the Atlanta Dream, a 2023 lottery team, visited the Barclays Center and caused a surprise.

“I think the struggle in those three losses was the ability to come together,” Stewart said in the halls of Barclays after a tough and often ugly 89-88 overtime win over Washington on Sunday. “And when things get tough, we get tougher.”

They also become more vocal, more supportive, more collaborative. It’s what any team goes through to build a winner with so many new pieces. The Mystics, who field much of their 2019 title-winning core, know it’s a process to communicate quickly and effectively about what the other likes and dislikes. They went that way.

“Most of us who have been on this team [it’s about] not being afraid to say or have a tough conversation which I think was very helpful to us,” said sixth-year Mystics veteran Ariel Atkins. “The big way to build chemistry quickly is to open your mouth. I think that’s something we tried to have.

The Liberty (9-3) are still working on that approach after adding two former MVPs and a six-assist leader to their starting lineup in one offseason. More than a quarter of the way into the newly extended 40-game season, there are signs that the chemistry of so many offensive vocal points is coming together. Sabrina Ionescu, the team’s 2020 No. 1 overall pick, saw it in her ability to “handle adversity and manage team runs.”

New York Liberty teammates Jonquel Jones, Betnijah Laney and Sabrina Ionescu share a moment off the bench during their game against the Atlanta Dream on June 23, 2023 at Gateway Center Arena in College Park, Georgia.  (Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
New York Liberty teammates Jonquel Jones, Betnijah Laney and Sabrina Ionescu share a moment off the bench during their game against the Atlanta Dream on June 23, 2023 at Gateway Center Arena in College Park, Georgia. (Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

There was plenty of adversity to be had on Sunday just days after what the players and head coach Sandy Brondello called their most comprehensive game, a 110-80 redemption win over Atlanta.

The Liberty, the league leader in assists and 3 points, fell to a 13-0 hole in the first four minutes of the game. Nothing was falling for the league’s second-best offense and little was working against the Mystics’ league-leading defense, which is also the best at limiting opponents on the perimeter and has been the team’s stable anchor. which emerged on Sunday.

“Our chemistry was probably more ready defensively to start the year and now we’re starting to understand some things offensively,” said Mystics (8-5) first-year head coach Eric Thibault.

The Liberty missed their first nine shots, started 1 of 12 from the floor and missed their first seven 3-point attempts. It was a “really tough” first quarter, Stewart said, in which the Liberty recovered to within 10 and liked the shots they were getting. Betnijah Laney shone offensively early, scoring the first basket on a cut and an assist from Courtney Vandersloot. The former most improved player who signed as a free agent in 2021 scored 17 points and was 4 of 6 of 3. Defensive focus tightened and New York continued to meet its goal of winning every frame , except for this almost disastrous premiere. .

“We stuck together, weathering the storm in that first quarter,” Ionescu said. “Most of the time in the past this team just fell apart. But I think we understand why we play, we play for each other, and we were able to pull ourselves out of that hole and that whole second half, we really felt in control. I think that says a lot about the chemistry we are building.

Stewart, who was missing his shooting touch and didn’t hit a shot until the first bucket of halftime, said they were focused on communication, cuddling and getting the job done. The “game is far from won”, they said to themselves. Brondello said it’s when it’s calm that there are problems, and it wasn’t calm on Sunday.

“The time we got closer and closer was probably the third quarter,” Brondello said. “The start of the third quarter was our breaking point. Like, OK, the first half is behind us. This is how we respond.

They took their first lead with 6:04 left in the competition, but quickly lost it on another 3-pointer from Atkins, who hit a career-high six on a near-perfect afternoon. His 24 points led Washington, which beat its offensive averages with 47.8 percent and 42.9 percent (9 of 21) to 3.

The Liberty trailed by eight with 2:28 on the clock, but edged Washington, 11-3, in perfect response to the Mystics’ own 11-3. It was punctuated by a lay-up at the wheel of Vandersloot’s sideline which leveled the game with 1.9 seconds left.

With as many missed chances, missed passes and free throws as there were at the end, overtime seemed unlikely. At least it was for everyone.

“There were many times where we lifted people’s heads,” said Ionescu, who scored a game-high 31 of 7 of 12 from deep. “People weren’t shooting. And it’s a moment where it’s like, ‘Hey, you got this.’ We are next. Even when we were down in the fourth quarter, we were confident we could do it. And we can achieve it. And that trickled down to overtime.

It was Liberty’s first overtime victory since July 1, 2018. Vandersloot collected the team’s first points, but adversity struck again when she fouled on a weak call. She had 11 points, seven rebounds and six assists. Ionescu hit two 3s and Stewart, who played five fouls and finished with 18 points, six rebounds and three assists, tied the game at 19 seconds, going an and-1 for the lead. Elena Delle Donne missed a floater, Myisha Hines-Allen missed a shot in the final timeout and Marine Johannès secured the rebound.

“The game was coming and going but we really stuck together and I think that says a lot about the growth of this team, especially at the start of the season to be able to have that,” Ionescu said. “It will be able to take us far.”

The developing chemistry suffered early setbacks with center Jonquel Jones, who the Sun traded to New York after a foot injury and point guard Vandersloot, who signed in free agency, suffering a concussion in preseason. . Johannès was still in France when New York opened its super-team season in Washington.

“It’s a very different team,” Thibault said an hour before tipping. “Everyone is very aware that it will be a different game.”

Liberty’s players had to switch to different roles than they normally do to win Sunday’s battle. They all stepped up to “fill the void that the other creates,” Stewart said. Jones, who has looked stronger in recent games, missed all three shot attempts and did not play in the final minute of regulation time and overtime. Brondello said she wants the versatility of Kayla Thornton off the bench.

They were also without Stefanie Dolson, who suffered an ankle injury that will keep her sidelined “weeks, not days,” Brondello said. Han Xu is still at the Asian Cup. All the pieces still haven’t come together in one for a good 40 minutes.

“These are the games where you learn the most, aren’t they?” Brondello said. “You’re going through mud, it’s a great learning experience. And we fought to come back in this second quarter. It’s a tough team. For me, it’s like, well, we’ve been here, we’ve done it. We know what we have to do.

“We lost a game when we were trailing by 17 points. It is a learning experience. You know how it feels. So I can say, do you know when it happened? ALL RIGHT. What were you thinking then? Well, change it.

Other teams have had more group learning experiences. They have a muscle memory of where their shooting guard likes to shoot or their big posts. The Liberty will see that this week in its toughest part of the season so far.

The Liberty begins a long road trip in Connecticut (12-3) on Tuesday to face the second best team in the league in the standings. Stewart said it was good to get the win on Sunday and set the tone. This will be Jones’ first game in Uncasville, where she won the 2021 MVP and anchored the league’s winningest franchise of 2017 at 22.

There’s still more to go to chase the chemistry of the Las Vegas Aces (12-1), who have built their championship team over the years with No. 1 picks and two big free agency signings at two years old. apart. The super teams will face off for the first time on Thursday in Las Vegas.

Things are about to get tough. It’s not technically mid-season, but it could be their mid-term chemistry.

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