Jenny Rohl/ALOST

akoiki-passport2 – by Adesina O. Koiki
A Lot of Sports Talk editor-in-chief

NEW YORK — Forty minutes separated the New York Liberty from clinching a spot in the WNBA Playoffs going into their regular season finale and, usually, in a win-or-(possibly)-go-home scenario, a premium is put on executing the fundamentals and playing with oneself to ensure placing the team in the best situation to come away with that season-defining victory.

Then there’s Liberty guard Marine Johannès, who was shooting running one-legged three-point shots early in the shot clock, and that was when she was not fading away from the corner and taking long-range shots over the arms of outstretched defenders.

Going off-script can lead to works of art, too, and Johannès’ daring exploits also ended up highlighting a couple of important characteristics that usually lead to victories in must-win scenarios: stellar bench play and the emergence of unlikely heroes.

Johannès drained six three-pointers on her way to leading the Liberty in scoring with 18 points, while Natasha Howard’s three-pointer with 56 seconds remaining was the pivotal score in New York’s 87-83 win over the Atlanta Dream to secure the Liberty’s spot in the 2022 WNBA Playoffs. New York will either be the No. 7 or No. 8 seed when the playoffs begin on Wednesday, and its opponent will either be top-seeded Las Vegas or No. 2 Chicago, the defending champions.

Howard, like Johannès, also scored 18 points while fellow frontcourt mate Stefanie Dolson had 15 points, 12 rebounds and five assists, with the trio helping to make up for Sabrina Ionescu’s rough shooting night amidst the aggressive Atlanta perimeter defense.

Rhyne Howard led the Dream with 24 points and seven assists in a losing effort as Atlanta misses out on a playoff spot for a fourth season running.

A crowd of over 7,500 showed out to help propel the Liberty to a clinching victory, but it was the Dream that scored 12 of the game’s first 16 points to take some starch out of the Barclays Center.

In stepped the first-year WNBA player in Johannès, who proceeded to knock down four threes in a 127-second span late in the first quarter, and her two long balls on back-to-back possessions with 1:20 remaining in the quarter gave the Liberty a 21-18 lead. In total, Johannès, scored 12 of the Liberty’s 20 points during a 20-6 run after Atlanta’s hot start.

The game proceeded to go back-and-forth — a total of seven ties and 13 lead changes marked the lack of separation between the two teams — with neither team holding a lead bigger than six from the 4:35 mark of the second quarter until the game’s conclusion. With the Liberty holding on to a 64-62 lead, Johannès nailed the most audacious of her six three-point shots: a running three off of one leg from the top of the key with 15 seconds remaining on the shot clock, a classic “No! No! No! YES!” of a shot that kept the Liberty bench buoyant with every make.

Atlanta, which needed a win and losses by Minnesota and Phoenix to clinch a playoff berth, took a 74-73 lead with 4:48 remaining on a layup by Aari McDonald, the first of five consecutive trips down the floor where both teams made baskets. The exchanging volleys, which included a Cheyenne Parker three for the Dream, ended on a Monique Billings Layup which gave Atlanta a 79-77 lead with 3:32 remaining.

Even with Ionescu continuing to be doubled on hard hedges by the Dream on the perimeter, New York was able to execute offensively and share the ball effectively in a decisive 10-2 run. Natasha Howard made three of six free throws to give New York an 80-79 lead, and though she left the door open for the Dream with those missed free throws, she helped slammed the door shut with under a minute remaining and New York still holding on to that one-point lead. After an offensive rebound by Dolson off an Ionescu missed three, New York swung the ball around the perimeter before Howard, off a pass from Johannès, drained a three-pointer from the right corner with 55.6 seconds left to give New York enough breathing room to find their way to victory.

*Editor’s note: Above the byline is the photo gallery from Sunday afternoon’s contest, with photos taken by ALOST photographer Jenny Rohl. After clicking on the first photo to enlarge the picture, make sure to press the left and right arrow buttons to scroll through the rest of the pictures. There are 23 pictures in total.

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