NEW YORK — The nature of playoff basketball was bound to turn the New York Liberty’s storybook regular season into something more resembling of the tornado that blew Dorothy and Toto to the land of Oz. When tonight’s storm inside of Barclays Center blew at its hardest, and when an 11-point second half lead turned into late four-point deficit, the Liberty found the courage and heart at just the right time to continue their journey down the brick road toward a WNBA championship.
Jonquel Jones knocked down two free throws with 11 seconds remaining to force overtime, where the Liberty took the lead for good on a Betnijah Laney three-pointer early in the extra session as New York held on for a 90-85 win over the Washington Mystics to complete a two-game sweep and advance to the WNBA Playoffs semifinals. Jones and Laney, the only two Liberty starters who shot over 50 percent from the field, each scored 19 points, while Breanna Stewart led the team with 27 points.
The win sealed the Liberty’s first series victory since 2015.
After New York’s dominant 90-75 victory over Washington in Game 1, the star-studded crowd inside Barclays Center — celebrities such as Fat Joe and Carmelo Anthony were in attendance — expected a coronation from the New York team best poised to bring the latest professional championship to the Big Apple. And for a long time, that perception was becoming reality, especially when the Liberty entered halftime with a 46-35 lead, holding Washington to under 20 points in each of the first two quarters.
Then Natasha Cloud happened. Already stirring the pot when proclaiming that her defense would be heard from when guarding Sabrina Ionescu before tonight’s game, her offense carried the Mystics into a shock lead. Cloud and Brittney Sykes hit back-to-back threes to begin the fourth to give Washington a 62-59 lead, with Cloud scoring nine of her career-high 33 points in the fourth. (Cloud scored 20 of her 33 after the first half.)
Down 74-71, Sykes hit an open three-pointer from the left wing to tie the game before Cloud jumped in front of a pass from Jones to force a steal and head to the free throw line after Jones committed a foul. Cloud nailed both her free throws to give the Mystics a two-point lead.
Ionescu had a chance to tie after she was fouled on the next possession, but missed both free throws. The second free throw, which Ionesco and Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello say it was intentional as part of a play, immediately led to Jones’ offensive rebound and Washington foul. Jones made her two from the charity stripe to tie the score and force overtime.
Cloud wasn’t done tormenting the Liberty just yet, knocking down a three-pointer on the Mystics’ first possession of the extra session for a 79-78 lead. Laney responded with a running jumper in the lane to give the Liberty the lead for good. Courtney Vandersloot, who had shot 1-for-9 from the field in regulation, made back-to-back shots, a layup and a long jumper just inside the left arc, to extend New York’s lead to 84-79 with just over two minutes remaining.
Washington cut the lead to one on two occasions afterward Vandersloot’s shots, including a tip-in by Myisha Hines-Allen with 1:04 left. Jones answered on the next possession with a layup of her own to extend the lead to three.
*Editor’s note: Above the byline is the photo gallery from Tuesday evening’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.