Liberty’s early and efficient shooting pushes them to brink of Finals berth

UNCASVILLE, Conn. — Breanna Stewart, Sabrina Ionescu and Jonquel Jones closed shootaround at Mohegan Sun Arena on Friday morning by getting shots up beyond the arc. One after another, after another, after another, the shots hit net.

They did early in the night, too, to lead an offensive attack that dazzles when it’s at its best and lived up to the orange “Bring the Heat” T-shirts meant for the Connecticut Sun. They hit one after another as the New York Liberty popped off for a 37-point first quarter that they rode out to a 92-81 victory in Game 3 of the semifinal series.

New York leads the series 2-1 and is one game from clinching its first Finals berth since 2002. Game 4 is Sunday at Mohegan Sun (ABC, 3 p.m. ET).

“It was huge to really set the tone,” Stewart said. “Obviously, wanting to run in transition whenever we could and we were mixing up a few different defenses to make it tough on them. And then whenever we got the ball, we just pushed it, build the lanes and whether it was in transition or from second and third time you got to look.”

Each side spoke of being the aggressors in the lead-up to Game 3 of a tied best-of-five series and it was the Liberty who answered the call. Their 37 points tied the WNBA record for scoring in a first quarter. It was seven short of the record for points in any quarter of a WNBA game, which they set in July with 44 against the Fever.

The who and how of their early scoring was the most impressive and indicated a win was in reach. The Liberty’s overall shot efficiency hasn’t been there through the postseason run and they’ve relied on Jones in the paint to get them started. Stewart has found other ways to impact the box score, but she hasn’t shot well. Ionescu ate on drives and at the free-throw line in Game 2, but was kept off the 3-point line.

It was all working Friday night. Ionescu hit a 3 on the first possession, Betnijah Laney drove for a pretty reverse layup, Stewart drained a turnaround jumper and Ionescu hit back-to-back 3s. She started a perfect 3-for-3 from deep.

New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu celebrates during Game 3 of the WNBA semifinals against the Connecticut Sun on Sept. 29, 2023, in Uncasville, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu celebrates during Game 3 of the WNBA semifinals against the Connecticut Sun on Sept. 29, 2023, in Uncasville, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The second came on a third chance in a sequence showcasing how connected the Liberty came into Game 3. Laney missed the 3 and Jones rebounded it, but missed her own putback. On the rebound, she tipped out to Stewart, who made the extra cross-court pass to Ionescu. Courtney Vandersloot followed with a four-point run.

It was Stewart’s 3, which was only her third of the postseason, that forced Sun head coach Stephanie White to take a timeout, trailing 20-10, at 4:05 in the first quarter. New York scored another eight points before Alyssa Thomas broke the skid, then outscored the Sun, 17-6, in the final four minutes for a 37-16 lead.

“Going into a deficit like that in the first half, we have to expend a lot of energy trying to fight our way back and claw back,” said Sun center Olivia Nelson-Ododa, who made the first start of her Sun tenure and seventh of her two-year career.

The Liberty shot 65.2% in the first quarter and assisted on 10 of their 15 baskets. They were 4-of-7 from 3-point range with Stewart (12 points) and Ionescu (11) leading the charge.

It was the most efficient game of the postseason for the newly minted MVP. Stewart came into Friday night shooting 27.8% (22-of-79) and, combined with a 4-of-17 showing in the season finale, it was the worst five-game stretch of her career. She was 11-of-19 in Game 3 for 25 points with 11 rebounds, two assists and two blocks.

“We know what she’s capable of making, but she was at her very best tonight and that really got us off to a great start,” Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello said. “She’s the MVP. The MVP is not going to miss too many shots.”

It was also the most efficient of the series for the team collectively. They were 50.7% from the floor, succeeded in transition (15-8 fast-break points) and produced in the paint early to open up all of their offensive options. Laney scored 20 with two 3s, including a dagger in the corner off Liberty ball movement that quelled any potential Sun streak out of the halftime break.

Brondello said ahead of the game the Liberty had been at home for so long, it’s “sometimes great to get the team together in a different environment.” The Liberty hadn’t played outside of Brooklyn since Sept. 5.

“We’ve been home longer than we’ve ever been home this entire season,” Stewart said. “And to have a little bit of change, to change our routine, to focus and to know that coming to Connecticut is going to be tough to play on their home court, we were even more locked in and ready to go. We knew that this one was gonna be a big one.”

If there were a barometer of limited energy, the Liberty sucked it all up and left the Sun with none. Connecticut looked flat and lost. Frustration set in with a dust-up on the bench at the end of the first quarter and White, who called their early energy poor, slamming a clipboard late in the second.

“I don’t remember what I said,” White said. “But I’m sure I was talking about our energy, talking about our communication, talking about being focused, talking about staying together, you know, something to the effect.”

The star of their Game 1 win, Rebecca Allen, was questionable with a non-COVID illness and listed as available after warmups. But White said about 15 minutes before tipoff they found out she probably wouldn’t be good to play, and she didn’t even take shots at halftime.

Nelson-Ododa started in her place. White said the call was given to the second-year player from nearby UConn because of her length and matchup on Jones, who had 10 points and 12 rebounds. Nelson-Ododa had 14 points going 6-of-7 shooting with three rebounds.

It was an unlucky blow to the Sun, who most missed Allen’s length on defense, versatility and her ability to knock down shots. She was 4-of-6 from 3 in the Game 1 win and set the Sun tone early.

“Bec just has a presence about her,” White said. “Bec’s just one of those glue players, like she’s a good teammate, people like being around her, she’s got a calming presence on the floor. She’s a communicator, you know, all of those things. And so when you’re missing a piece like that, what she brings from a basketball perspective, from a size perspective and from the intangibles, it makes a difference and we had to kind of filter through that, I think.”

The Sun won or tied every quarter after the first and came within nine points, but it was too much to overcome the early deficit against a team that has learned from squandered leads of the past.

“We have to come out a lot better,” said Sun guard Tiffany Hayes, who had 16 points, six rebounds and two assists. “Don’t spot them 20 points in the first quarter. I know that throughout the rest of the game, we outscored them by 10 [65-55].”

Connecticut Sun forward Alyssa Thomas (35) moves the ball against New York Liberty forward Jonquel Jones during Game 3 of the WNBA semifinals in Uncasville, Conn., on Sept. 29, 2023. (David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports)

Connecticut Sun forward Alyssa Thomas (35) moves the ball against New York Liberty forward Jonquel Jones during Game 3 of the WNBA semifinals in Uncasville, Conn., on Sept. 29, 2023. (David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports) (USA TODAY USPW / reuters)

Thomas was one rebound away from a triple-double of 23 points, 14 assists and nine rebounds. In the first, she scored or assisted on all seven of their first-quarter baskets and was shown on the broadcast telling teammates she needed help. It was only the second time this postseason she did not play a full 40 minutes and it was because White pulled her and DeWanna Bonner (10 points on 4-of-12 with eight rebounds) with 2:29 to play and trailing by 15.

Tyasha Harris scored 11 in 28 minutes off the bench. DiJonai Carrington did not re-enter the game after the first quarter and did not get up shots at halftime. She had one basket. Leigha Brown played the final 2:29 for Thomas as White relied heavily on a six-player rotation. They shot 47.1% as a team and were outrebounded by five.

White said they’ll take inventory of why the energy lacked and address it for Game 4.

“I was proud of the group that went out there and that fought in that battle,” White said. “But we got to be all in and it’s gonna take all of us. It’s gonna take all of us and we got to all be in together in order for this to work and for us to continue to fight for that opportunity to play for the Finals.”

The road team has won the first game of each two-game set in the series. The Liberty are now 40 minutes away from their ultimate goal this team was designed in the offseason to procure. And they have momentum on their side, Stewart noted. Ionescu said it’ll be important to understand what they did in the first quarter, but they need “to sustain that and be better.”

“We didn’t win any of the quarters after that,” she said. “And so I think that’s something that we want to continue to improve on is winning the quarter and doing so for 40 minutes.”

Brondello noted while they sank nine 3s from five different players, there were 17 misses (34.6%). They average a league-best 37.4%, with 17 games hitting at least 40%. For all that worked in the first quarter, it tapered off.

“This game wouldn’t have been close [if] we made some of them missed layups and the open 3s,” she said.

A few more might need to go in Sunday.

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