For a team that had no business even being in the playoffs, the 12-20 8th seed New York Liberty showed up for their first postseason matchup since 2017.
After trading leads all game, the Liberty were up 79-77 against the Phoenix Mercury with 1:29 minutes left in the 4th quarter. The possibility of a Liberty upset over the much better Mercury seemed to be becoming real. Brittney Griner was relatively well contained by the Liberty defense while New York was able to answer Skylar Diggins-Smith’s 22 points.
Left out of everyone’s calculations, Sophie Cunningham ended all hope for the Liberty making it to the next round of the playoffs. With the Mercury down two points with 1:13 left on the clock, Sophie freakin’ Cunningham hit her SIXTH three-pointer of the game to give the Mercury an 80-79 lead.
With less than a minute left in the game, Natasha Howard drove to the basket but got blocked by Brianna Turner. Turner quickly passed to Diggins-Smith who with her impressive speed ran all the way to the basket for the layup before the Liberty could even properly get back on defense. With 50.6 seconds left in the game, the Liberty called a timeout, now trailing 82-79.
After Sabrina Ionescu’s three-pointer was blocked by Brittney Griner and a missed three-pointer by Kia Nurse, Rebecca Allen grabbed the rebound with 10.4 seconds left in the game. Allen passed to Betnijah Laney who dribbled the ball up herself with the Liberty’s season in her hands. Natasha Howard set a screen for Laney who threw up a three-pointer with 3.9 seconds left on the clock.
In the biggest play of Betnijah Laney’s career, she sank the three-pointer to tie the game at 82-82 with 2.7 seconds left in the game. Phoenix called a timeout and the Liberty crowded around Laney celebrating her season-saving bucket. It was looking like Laney had just cemented herself into WNBA playoff history.
But, the game wasn’t over. The Mercury now had possession with 2.7 seconds to get a shot off. Sophie Cunningham inbounded the ball to Brittney Griner, who quickly handed the ball off to Brianna Turner under the basket. Turner’s shot hit the bottom of the net and missed, but a foul was called on Sami Whitcomb. In the most deflating moment of the game for Liberty fans, Turner was sent to the free throw line with 0.4 seconds left in a tied game.
Turner missed her first free throw, and suddenly there was hope again. What if she misses her second shot too? But, calm and collected, Turner hits her second free throw to give the Mercury an 83-82 lead over the Liberty.
The Liberty were left with just 0.4 seconds to get a shot off. Whitcomb waited a long time to inbound the ball. The play was drawn up for Laney who wasn’t able to get open which forced Whitcomb to inbound the ball to Sabrina Ionescu, 30 feet from the basket. Ionescu airballed the three-pointer and the Mercury held off the Liberty to win and advance to the next round.
While the loss for the Liberty was disappointing, the team showed that they have a core in place that can contend next season. Betnijah Laney scored 25 points and finished with 4 rebounds and 4 assists. Natasha Howard had a 16 point 10 rebound double-double. Sabrina Ionescu scored 14 points and finished with 11 assists and 5 rebounds.
Their core was able to make the 19-13 Phoenix Mercury sweat in a game that many expected to be an easy blowout. The Liberty held leads throughout the whole game and had the score tied with less than a second left in the game. The Liberty proved that they deserved to be there and very nearly came away with the victory.
After the game, Betnijah Laney gave a warning to the rest of the WNBA for next season.
“We’re here and we’re here to stay… We’ll be back and we’re going to be really good.”
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Photo Credit: New York Liberty Twitter