Professional Basketball

Hot Handed Ionescu Lifts Liberty over Mystics in Game 1


New York Liberty center Jonquel Jones shoots a short jumper as Washington Mystics forward Elena Delle Donne tries to defend, during Friday’s WNBA playoffs Round 1 Game 1 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Photo by James C. Garman/Sportspage Magazine

It took seven three-point shots by New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu before the Liberty were able to gain enough separation from the Washington Mystics and win Game 1 of their WNBA First Round playoff series, 90-75, in front of 8,789 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York Friday night.

The seventh seeded Mystics began the game with a three-pointer from guard Aerial Atkins to gain the 3-0 lead, which was promptly answered with a triple from Liberty forward Betnijah Laney. During the rest of the quarter, whenever the Mystics scored, the Liberty answered. Washington’s largest lead was four, until Mystics forward Brittney Sykes scored on a running pullup jumper with 2:02 remaining in the quarter and made the score 26-21 in favor of the Mystics. The score was 29-23 in favor of the visiting team when the quarter ended.

New York opened the second quarter on a 7-0 run from a three-pointer by center Stefanie Dolson, an off-balance jumper by Laney, and two free throws by forward Breanna Stewart, her first two points of the game. Stewart’s free throws enabled the Liberty to take a 30-29 lead. It was short lived. Atkins connected on a three-pointer a minute later to give the Mystics the 32-30 lead with 6:40 left in the half.

The teams traded baskets again, and the leads, neither gaining separation on the other, until less than a minute remained on the clock before halftime.

The Mystics were leading by one point, 41-40 when Stewart scored on a layup with 58.1 seconds left in the half to give the Liberty the 42-41 lead. Stewart then blocked a layup by Mystics forward Elena Delle Donne, which was rebounded by Laney, which center Jonquel Jones converted into a layup of her own, extending the lead to three points. Stewart fouled Mystics center Myisha Hines-Allen, who converted only one of her two free throws to make the score 44-42.

Jones fired off a three-pointer as the clock was winding down. It was rebounded and put back by Laney as time expired. New York led 46-42 at halftime.

New York Liberty forward Betnijah Laney gets off a three-point shot as Washington Mystics guard Aerial Atkins rushes over to defend, during Friday night’s WNBA Playoff Round 1 Game 1 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Photo by James C. Garman/Sportspage Magazine

The pace of play continued in the third quarter at the same level it was in the first half. The teams traded baskets. However, the Liberty made defensive adjustments in the third quarter, which forced the Mystics to the perimeter. They couldn’t get shots to drop. Slowly, the Liberty pulled away. The lead went to ten points when Jones converted two free throws to make it 60-50 with 3:27 left in the quarter. The quarter ended when Ionescu connected on a floater ahead of the buzzer. It was 69-57 at the end of the third quarter.

Hines-Allen led the Washington run at the beginning of the fourth quarter with a three-pointer followed by a short jumper. Sykes was then fouled on a layup and converted the free throw. The Mystics were on an 8-0 run and cut the deficit to six, 71-65 with 8:02 remaining in regulation.

Ionescu, meanwhile, was not happy about being called for the foul on Sykes. She took out her frustrations by going on a personal 6-0 run with back-to-back three-pointers. Just as quickly as Washington made their run, Ionescu had made the score 77-65 with 6:43 left on the clock.

The Mystics made one final push, a short run when Delle Donne was fouled while converting a short jumper, followed by a turnaround jumper by Hines-Allen, which pushed the score to 82=74 with just over three minutes left.

However, Ionescu hit her six three pointer of the game a minute later, which put the game out of reach for the Mystics. Even with the game out of reach, Ionescu couldn’t run out the clock. She threw up a three-pointer as the shot clock expired, hitting her seventh of the game with just 22.3 seconds left. It was the game’s final score and gave New York the 90-75 win.

New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu drives past Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud during Friday night’s WNBA playoff Round 1 Game 1 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Photo by James C. Garman/Sportspage Magazine

The Liberty went 33-for-75 from the field (44 percent); 12-for-34 from three-point range (35.3 percent); and 12-for-14 from the free throw line (85.7 percent). They turned the ball over 10 times, which led to 11 Mystics points.

Washington went 31-for-75 from the field (41.3 percent); 5-for-22 from three-point range (22.7 percent) and 8-for-12 from the charity stripe (66.7 percent). They committed seven turnovers which the Liberty was able to convert into nine points.

The Liberty had the edge in second chance points, 19-10, but the Mystics nosed them with 42-40 for points in the paint, and 12-9 in fast break points. There were five ties and seven lead changes in the contest.

Sabrina Ionescu led all scorers with 29 points. Jonquel Jones added 20 points and Betnijah Laney added 19 for the Liberty. Jones led all rebounders with 12. Courtney Vandersloot led New York with six assists.

The Mystics were led with 21 points from Myisha Hines-Allen, 16 from Brittney Sykes, and 14 by Aerial Atkins. Natasha Cloud dished out a game-high eight assists. Cloud and Hines-Allen both led the Mystics in rebounding with eight each.

“Our defense is why we are where we are at this time. We’re a great offensive team, but when our defense took off, it allowed us to go on a winning streak. We know that it is critical as we move forward,” said Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello. “We knew we were going to get better defensively. It’s just a few little tweaks that helped us.”

Ionescu was ready for this game.

“Defensive intensity and rebounding is what really changed the game for us. Playoff basketball is different. It’s 0-0 for everyone. We have to take care of business and not let these opportunities pass us by when we do have home court advantage,” Ionescu said. “I was just kind of in that zone. Locked in. The basket felt really big when I was shooting.”

Game 2 of the best-of-three series is slated for Tuesday at 7 p.m. ET from Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York.

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