Liberty eliminate Sun, to face Aces in superteam showdown

Alexa Philippou, ESPNOct 1, 2023, 05:39 PM ET

CloseCovers women’s college basketball and the WNBA
Previously covered UConn and the WNBA Connecticut Sun for the Hartford Courant
Stanford graduate and Baltimore native with further experience at the Dallas Morning News, Seattle Times and Cincinnati Enquirer

UNCASVILLE, Conn. — It’ll be the WNBA Finals matchup anticipated since February: The so-called “superteam” New York Liberty and defending champion Las Vegas Aces will duke it out for the 2023 WNBA championship, with the former clinching their spot in the Finals on Sunday with a 87-84 win over the Connecticut Sun in Game 4 of their semifinal series.

“I think it’s good. That’s the narrative everyone wanted at the start,” Liberty coach Sandy Brondello said. “I didn’t particularly like the superteam thing … [but] it’s going to be a great series and it’s a promotion for the WNBA, isn’t it? It’s New York, we haven’t done it for so long, but we’re playing the champions from last year. I think it’s going to be a really competitive series and hopefully more and more people turn their eyes into the game and we can continue to grow it.”

Game 1 of the Finals, a best-of-five series for which No. 1 seed Las Vegas holds home-court advantage, tips Oct. 8 at 3 p.m. ET on ABC.

But for the Liberty, Sunday was less about what’s to come and more about celebrating what they have accomplished. After five consecutive losing seasons (2018-22), they have positioned themselves three wins away from securing the organization’s first WNBA title. Only the Minnesota Lynx in 2011 had more consecutive losing seasons (2005-10) before making a Finals appearance.

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New York — the only original WNBA franchise to have not won a championship — made clear its title aspirations after majorly reconfiguring its roster in the offseason. The Liberty traded for 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones in January before signing two-time MVP Breanna Stewart and one of the best point guards in league history, Courtney Vandersloot, in free agency. Those players were brought in to surround 2020 No. 1 overall pick Sabrina Ionescu and 2021 All-Star Betnijah Laney.

The Liberty finished second in the regular-season standings behind Las Vegas, compiling a franchise-record .800 winning percentage, before beating Washington in the first round to advance to their first semifinal series since 2015.

“The fact that the Liberty haven’t been to a final since 2002 is wild, and to be able to have that and know that we have the entire city behind us is something that’s really, really special,” Stewart said.

The MVPs stepped up huge for the Liberty down the stretch Sunday as the Sun rallied from down eight going into the fourth quarter to take a late lead, with Jones and Stewart combining for 20 of the Liberty’s 21 fourth-quarter points.

Jones scored 20 of her 25 points and collected 8 of her 15 rebounds after halftime and came up with several win-sealing plays down the stretch. In the final minute, Jones corralled two key rebounds and stole the ball off a Sun inbounds play with the Liberty up three, which led to her sinking two free throws on the other end. She ultimately finished 5-for-6 from the line in the final minute.

Jones — who returns to the Finals for the third time in five years, the previous two instances with the Sun — recorded her sixth double-double of the playoffs, tied for the most in a single postseason in league history.

Sunday marked a full-circle moment for her, helping punch the Liberty’s ticket to the Finals against her former team and on her former home floor, no less. She hopes the result will be different this time than when the Sun fell to the Aces in the Finals last year.

StewartWilsonPlays3134Points Per Play0.740.85FG pct31%43%Contest pct69%86%*Includes the Commissioner’s Cup– ESPN Stats & Information

“I think it’s a blessing and the beauty of sports to be able to be with this team and be able to be going into a Finals and having the opportunity again,” Jones said.

After struggling to find her shot earlier in the playoffs, Stewart, who was named the 2023 WNBA MVP on Tuesday, finished with a team-high 27 points and made 3 of 5 3-point attempts, including the trey that gave the Liberty the lead back for good with 2:08 to play. The two-time Finals MVP, both times with the Seattle Storm, is back in the championship series for the first time since 2020.

But it wasn’t just the newcomers who made a difference for New York: Laney, who came to Brooklyn in 2021 but missed the majority of last season because of injury, showed why she remains the Liberty’s X factor. She recorded her third consecutive 20-plus-point game of the series, all of which the Liberty won, while also tallying seven rebounds and five assists.

“We’re not satisfied with everything, but I am happy, especially from where we started,” Laney said. “Being knocked out of the first round every time and now we’re here with everyone and we’re in the Finals.”

After surpassing expectations with a new coaching staff, new players and the season-ending injury to All-Star Brionna Jones in June, the Sun’s season concludes short of a franchise-first WNBA title once more; Connecticut had played in five consecutive semifinals and boasts a league-best active streak of seven consecutive playoff appearances.

As she has all season, Alyssa Thomas led the Sun. Despite going down with an undisclosed injury in the fourth quarter and briefly leaving for the locker room, she ultimately retook the floor and completed her seventh triple-double of the season and her third in playoff competition (17 points, 15 rebounds, 11 assists).

“I had a season never seen in this league and probably won’t see again, unless I do it,” said Thomas, who finished second in MVP voting despite collecting the most first-place votes, when asked to reflect on her season. “So for me, I have a lot to be proud of. No one can take away the fact that I will always be in the record books.”

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