WNBA 2022 Playoffs: Sabrina Ionescu and Liberty stun Sky in Game 1 with fourth quarter comeback

The New York Liberty snuck into the playoffs with a record four games under .500 and were a leading underdog against defending champion Chicago Sky. However, anything can happen in the playoffs, especially in a short best-of-three series. Something happened Wednesday night, as the Liberty stunned the Sky with a comeback late in the fourth quarter to win 98-91 and take a 1-0 lead.

After Courtney Vandersloot scored to give Sky a 91-85 lead with 3:31 to go, it looked like the veteran side would retire and survive a scare in the opener of their title defence. Instead, the Liberty held them scoreless the rest of the way and closed the game on a 13-0 run that left Wintrust Arena silent.

Sabrina Ionescu finished with 22 points, seven rebounds and six assists to lead the way, while Natasha Howard went for 22 points and seven rebounds. Betnijah Laney added 17 points, five rebounds and five assists, and the Liberty as a team went 11 of 25 from 3-point range.

Candace Parker led the way for Sky in the loss, recording 17 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. Kahleah Copper was the top scorer with 21 points and eight rebounds, and Courtney Vandersloot contributed 13 points and 10 assists.

Game 2 is scheduled for Thursday night in Chicago, and it will now be a must win for the Sky.

Here are some key points of the game:

Liberty ends the game on a 13-0 run

With 3:31 remaining in the fourth quarter, Courtney Vandersloot drove inside and converted one of her patented flip layups to extend Sky’s lead to six. It was a classic late game from the veteran point guard, and it looked like it would be the beginning of the end for the Liberty. We’ve seen this type of play so often in the playoffs; an underdog has a near-perfect performance but runs out of gas on the stretch.

Only 62 seconds later, however, the Liberty was ahead. The return was done in a flash:

  • Natasha Howard scored a lay-up on a brilliant feed from Marine Johannes to cut the deficit to four
  • After Azura Stevens short-cocked a wide-open layup, Sabrina Ionescu buried a 3-pointer to make it a one-point game
  • Vandersloot missed a 3, and at the other end Betnijah Laney found Howard for an easy lay-up to put the Liberty ahead

Even then, however, you thought the Sky would wake up and find a way to win like they have so many times this season. It never happened. They had their chances, like a possession where they had two offensive rebounds and missed three shots with just over two minutes left. Or Emma Meesseman’s wide-open 3-pointer with 1:47 remaining that would have tied the game.

As bad as the Sky was on the stretch, the Liberty was just as good. They not only took the lead; they pulled away and won comfortably. During their 13-0 run, they were 5 of 5 from the field and 2 of 2 from the free throw line. They played a perfect streak of basketball and did it on the road against the defending champions.

Liberty cuts through Sky’s aggressive defense

Turnovers have been a huge issue for the Liberty this season, as they finished ninth in the league with a 19.3 turnover percentage. In other words, they returned the ball on one in five possessions. So it was no surprise that the first time they tried to throw a pick-and-roll, the Sky sent a trap to see how they would handle the pressure.

On that possession, Betnijah Laney stepped in calmly and found Stefanie Dolson for a wide open 3-pointer.

Plays like this became a trend over the course of the game. The Sky trapped, covered high and tried to put Liberty’s ball handlers under as much stress as possible. It did not work. Laney, Sabrina Ionescu and Marine Johannes cut up the Sky’s defensive pattern by making the smart pass over and over again.

This trio each had at least five assists, and as a team the Liberty had 28 assists and just eight turnovers – their fewest in a game all season. Moving the ball led to open shots, which led the Liberty to shoot 49.3 percent from the field and 44 percent from 3-point field.

Here is another perfect example to start the third trimester. The Sky traps Ionescu off the pick-and-roll, and she calmly lays the ball on a wide-open midrange jumper.

For all the success the Liberty have had in the simple game, a team with Johannes sometimes has to pull out the spectacular as well. At the end of the fourth quarter, the Frenchwoman started the team’s 13-0 winning run with one of the best passes you’ll ever see. Coming off a Natasha Howard screen, she ran the sky trap and kicked the ball back to Howard over his head.

As Game 2 approaches, it will be interesting to see if Sky continue to play such an aggressive defense or switch to a more traditional scheme. For one, the Liberty haven’t been consistent over the season and could easily have a 20-rotation game under similar circumstances. At the same time, the Liberty are one of the best shooting teams in the league, and if they handle the pressure well, they’ll get some open eyes. Which, as they showed in Game 1, is bad news for their opponent.

Johannes the magician

Casual fans might not be familiar with Marine Johannes, who before coming over from France mid-season hadn’t played in the WNBA since 2019. But while she might not be a household name in this moment, that will change if the Liberty are able to go on a deep playoff run.

One of the most unique, entertaining and inventive players in all of basketball, she is literally a genius. Her boldness and skill were on display all night, as she finished with the strongest eight points and seven assists you’ve ever seen. The aforementioned aerial pass to Howard was the best play of the night, but it was far from the only amazing moment.

At the end of the first half, she took an out pass and stopped for a deep 3 on a one-on-one fastbreak. She emptied him more the fault. It was a misguided shot, but the will to take it is what makes Johannes so much fun.

There was another pass that won’t get as much attention as the penny, but was almost as ridiculous. Coming off screen, she split defenders with an absurd rebound pass.

With the Liberty now guaranteed to play at least three games this postseason, we should have even more Johannes magic.

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