The 2021 New York Liberty season ended on a high note: a playoff berth and a last second loss to the much better Phoenix Mercury. When the Liberty needed a win on the last game of the season to make the playoffs, the team came together and got it done. You might be wondering: “How did the Liberty even make it to this point?” Well, here are the top five moments of the Liberty’s 2021 season.
OPENING NIGHT: BETNIJAH LANEY 30 POINTS AND SABRINA IONESCU BUZZER-BEATER
Coming off a 2-20 season, nobody knew how good the Liberty were going to be in 2021. The young team made serious additions with Betnijah Laney, Natasha Howard, and Sami Whitcomb, but the rest of their roster was filled with sophomores and rookies. Growth was expected, but how much growth was the question.
In their first home game ever played in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, the Liberty showed that they were not the same team from 2020.
Betnijah Laney solidified herself as the #1 scoring option this season for New York after dropping 30 points on 11/18 shooting in her Liberty debut. The 2021 No. 6 overall pick Michaela Onyenwere and eventual AP Rookie of the Year (and probable WNBA ROY) had 18 points in her professional debut, the most for a Liberty rookie debut ever.
The Liberty could not have won this game without Betnijah Laney, but it was the heroics of Sabrina Ionescu in the final 00:46 seconds of the game that saved the day for the Liberty. With New York down 86-82, Ionescu took control of the situation and scored 8 points within the final minute of the game.
With the score tied 87-87 with 00:05 seconds left in the game, Ionescu inbounded the ball to Kylee Shook behind the three-point line. With Shook dribbling behind the arc, Ionescu runs to the corner but cuts back to the middle of the court as Shook passes her the ball back and sets a screen. Now with 00:02 seconds left in the game, on the run, Ionescu catches the ball and drains a three-pointer from deep to secure the Liberty a 90-87 lead with 0.4 seconds left and an opening night victory for New York.
Ionescu’s buzzer-beater put the Liberty and Brooklyn on the map. In just one game, the Liberty had half of their prior season’s win total in the bag. Ionescu, after only playing in three games in 2020 because of a season-ending ankle injury, came out of the gate looking as good as advertised. Ionescu finished the game with 25 points, 11 assists, and 6 rebounds in what was her fourth career WNBA game.
The New York Liberty debut in Barclays Center could not have gone any better. Laney and Ionescu combined for 55 points as the Liberty demonstrated that their days as the league’s basement dwellers are over.
BETNIJAH LANEY SCORES 20+ POINTS 8 GAMES IN A ROW
Right from the get-go, Betnijah Laney demonstrated that her 2020 Most Improved Player award wasn’t a fluke. Laney, in her first year after signing with the Liberty, began in the 2021 season with eight straight games of 20+ points, the most by any Liberty player to begin a season. It did not take long for Laney to etch herself into the Liberty history book.
The most 20+ point games to begin a season is a record held by Cynthia Cooper, who had nine straight to begin the 1999 season. Tina Charles is the only Liberty player to have nine straight games of 20+ points, but not to begin a season.
Early on, Betnijah positioned herself as the #1 scoring option for New York and the de facto leader of the Liberty. In the first half, Laney averaged 19.0 points per game on .485 shooting. She was voted into her first All-Star game for Team WNBA and raised her profile considerably through her play in May and June. Laney solidified herself as a star in this league and the face of the Liberty franchise.
Laney cooled down in the second half as Natasha Howard and Sabrina Ionescu healed from their injuries and emerged as more of a scoring threat. Laney still finished the season averaging 16.8 points which was 10th in the WNBA. She made the 7th most field goals in the league.
Laney played A LOT and was second in the entire WNBA in minutes on the floor with 1069, behind Courtney William’s 1101. Not only did Laney use all that time to score for the Liberty, she also helped facilitate the offense. Laney averaged 5.2 assists per game which was 8th in the WNBA. Laney is one of two players in the WNBA this year to average at least 4+ rebounds and 5+ assists per game, joining teammate Sabrina Ionescu.
Outside of basketball, the coolest moment for Betnijah in 2021 was appearing on the cover of the first ever issue of WSlam alongside Arike Ogunbowale and Diamond DeShields. Rocking the seafoam green jersey and denim overalls, Laney was placed front and center as one of the faces of the WNBA. Laney was given one of the biggest profiles in the magazine and has made a massive impact on the WNBA and New York Liberty organization in 2021.
SAMI WHITCOMB HITS 7 THREE-POINTERS AND 30 POINTS AGAINST ATLANTA DREAM
When Sami Whitcomb went down with an ankle injury on August 22 against the Los Angeles Sparks, she led the entire WNBA in three-pointers made. Averaging 2.7 threes a game, she was on pace to finish with 88 for the season, which would’ve brought her into the top 10 all-time. Unfortunately, her minutes significantly decreased to nurse her injury and she wasn’t on the court enough to make it happen. But, Whitcomb still managed to finish with 76 three-pointers made, second in the WNBA to Arike Ogunbowale who finished with 80.
Whitcomb had her best game of the season on June 26 against the Atlanta Dream. She made 7 three-pointers, tied for the most in a game this season, and ended with 30 points. Adding 6 rebounds, 5 assists, and 3 steals, Whitcomb led the team to a 101-78 victory over the Dream.
Whitcomb finished with career highs in every single category, averaging 11.7 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 2.7 assists. Whitcomb averaged 2.5 three-pointers a game in 6.0 attempts, with her .425% shooting percentage 4th in the WNBA. Considering Sami’s volume of three-point shooting and efficiency, she rivaled Allie Quigley this season for best three-point shooter in the WNBA.
JAZ JONES TUMBLES THE RAILING IN 20-POINT COMEBACK WIN OVER WASHINGTON MYSTICS
The Liberty didn’t know it at the time, but their July 3 game comeback win against the Washington Mystics had major implications for the Liberty’s playoff berth. Without this win against the Mystics, the Liberty would not have had the tiebreaker over Washington to make the playoffs.
At halftime, the Liberty were losing 51-33. Tina Charles was balling out in her first game back to New York after getting traded two years ago. It wasn’t looking good for the Liberty.
However, they had a rejuvenation of energy off the bench from Jaz Jones, the hype-woman of the 2021 New York Liberty. Jones led New York by scoring 12 points in the second half and threw her body around to help the Liberty come back against Washington.
With 2:13 left in the 3rd quarter, Jones ran after a loose ball that was on its way to the sidelines. Her momentum took her into the Mystics bench as she hopped on a chair before flying into the railing before the crowd. Jones does a full 360 spin as she flips over the railing with her feet pointing up in the air.
Jones took such a hard fall that at first it was hard to be sure if she was even ok. A collective sigh from the crowd turned into applause after Jones got right back up and was totally fine.
On the very next play after her sideline flip, Jones hit a three-pointer to bring the game to within 10. This is the defining example of the type of player Jaz Jones is. She plays with hustle, energy, and is willing to put her body on the line in order to best put her team in a position to win. Coach Walt Hopkins and Betnijah Laney both commented after the game how the energy that Jaz gives off is infectious to the rest of the team. It showed!
In the second half, Betnijah Laney scored 8 points (19 total) and Sabrina Ionescu scored 7 points (15 total). Jones, Laney, and Ionescu collectively carried the offense in the second half to come back from a 20-point deficit and win. The team’s effort to come back in this game and win was one of their best victories in 2021.
The Liberty win was the first team since 2019 to come back from a 20-point deficit.
SABRINA IONESCU’S TRIPLE-DOUBLE
Sabina Ionescu, the all-time NCAA triple-double leader, did not take long to record her first professional triple-double. On May 18, the third game of the 2021 season and the sixth game of Ionescu’s career, she recorded a triple-double. She scored 26 points, 12 assists, and 10 rebounds in a win over the Minnesota Lynx. It was only the tenth triple-double in WNBA history and first in Liberty franchise history. Ionescu holds the distinction for being the youngest player ever to achieve a triple-double in the WNBA.
With such a small sample size to her career, it was a moment that showed a glimpse of Ionescu’s prodigious talent. It was also a sign of things to come. On August 27 against the Phoenix Mercury, Ionescu nearly had her second career triple-double finishing with 12 points, 10 rebounds, and 9 assists. Ionescu came very close to being only the second player in WNBA history with two triple-doubles, joining WNBA legend Lisa Leslie.
There is no doubt that Sabrina will record more triple-doubles in her professional career. Even in a season in which Sabrina was hindered by an ankle injury, she became only the third player in WNBA history to average 6+ assists and 5+ rebounds, joining Candace Parker (2015) and Nikki Teasley (2003) according to NetsDaily.
Ionescu has demonstrated in her limited career that she is capable of racking up assists and rebounds at an elite level. Ionescu finished 3rd in the WNBA with 6.1 assists per game behind Courtney Vandersloot and Natasha Cloud. Playing point guard for the Liberty, Ionescu averaged 5.7 rebounds which was 20th in the WNBA.
Per ESPN Stats & Info, Ionescu has recorded four career games with at least 20 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists. Only five players have more 20-5-5 games in their first two seasons: Tamika Catchings (10), Diana Taurasi (8), Breanna Stewart (7), Angel McCoughtry (5), and Cynthia Cooper (5). Had Sabrina not missed most of her rookie season, she very well could have easily been higher on this list.
Sabrina Ionescu demonstrated this season that she’s a unique and special player in the WNBA who could become even better in 2022.
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