Undeniably the underdog in their first WNBA playoff series since 2015, the New York Liberty sure didn't play like one on Wednesday night in Chicago.
New York held the lead for a good portion of the WNBA postseason opener's middle stages and later withstood a scoring surge from the defending champion Chicago Sky to deal an upset blow on Wednesday night. With four New Yorkers scoring in double-figures, paced by Natasha Howard and Sabrina Ionescu with 22 each, the seventh-seeded Liberty earned an improbable 98-91 victory at Wintrust Arena.
New York scored the final 13 points of the game en route to victory. Ionescu, long lauded for her competitive nature, let out a euphoric roar as time expired and she was greeted by her teammates at the Liberty bench.
"It was happiness, relief. I was also a little tired, so I was happy that the game ended," Ionescu joked. "But I was (mostly) proud ... We battled all game through ups and downs. We were down pretty big in the fourth and we just continued to chip away. So I think it was more (about) this proud feeling of (the fact that) we came here and we did what we needed to do and did what nobody believed we could do."
Howard and Ionescu's fellow starters Betnijah Laney (17) and Stefanie Dolson (13) each joined them in double-figures.
Under the WNBA's newly-installed playoff format, the seventh-seeded Liberty needs only one more win to advance to the semifinal round of the eight-team postseason. In any event, a return to Brooklyn is guaranteed, as lower seeds host any potential decisive third games before the best-of-five latter rounds. Game 2 will be staged on Saturday afternoon (12 p.m. ET, ESPN).
"You go into a series and, especially in this format, you just need to steal one," head coach Sandy Brondello said. "I just talked to (the team) and I told them 'don't worry about the result, worry more about the process right now.' If we do all that, the result will come.
"I'm very proud of this team. In July we fought and stayed together. (Tonight) wasn't always perfect but this is playoff basketball. We found a way to win," Brondello continued. "It's a best-of-two but we know we can win and we can advance but you know but I know there'll be ready too."
New York is no doubt accustomed to playing for its life by now: the Liberty won each of their final three games to clinch their second consecutive playoff berth. The fight and resiliency were well on display during the contest's middle stages.
Chicago jumped out to a nine-point lead shortly before the midway point of the second frame but that ignited a diverse 20-6 Liberty run that ran until the final minute. Of the 10 players that took the floor for the Liberty in the second quarter, eight sank at least one from the field.
Dolson, a key cog in the Sky's championship run last season, was one of those held scoreless, but she more than held her own in the third. An avid collector of recent championship rings (having also triumphed in both 3x3 Olympic play last summer and in EuroBasket Women earlier this year), Dolson earned 10 points and helped the Liberty form their largest lead of the night at nine. That followed a double-double outing in the Liberty's berth-clinching contest on Sunday against Atlanta.
Partly fueled by 14 free throw attempts in the third frame alone, as well as a resurgent effort from defending WNBA Finals MVP Kaleah Copper, who overcame a brief injury to score 10 points in the period, which ended on Emma Meeseman's buzzer-beating lay-up that gave the Sky the lead back.
Thanks to an early burst from Azura Stevens (scorer of 16 off the bench for Chicago), the Sky maintained a slim but healthy lead. The dagger appeared to be raised when Courtney Vandersloot turned a Stevens steal into a driving lay-up and a 91-85 lead with 3:32 remaining.
But, in what's surely a rare Chicago occurrence, someone with the initials "MJ" made a difference on the floor.
Facing a relentless Chicago defense, Marine Johannes found herself forced away from the lane as she attempted to drive. Ever the improviser, Johannes threw the ball over her head and found an open, streaking Howard, whose subsequent lay-up commenced the closing dominance.
"I was being ready at all times because I didn't know she was going to pass it or not. But I was just ready," a smiling Howard said of receiving Johannes' dazzling pass, remarking that it brought back memories from championship efforts in Seattle. "It kind of reminds me of a Sue Bird pass, it kind of brings flashbacks, a little bit."
It was far from the only example of Johannes-induced trickery: a dazzling two-minute stretch to close out the first half gave the Liberty a slim, yet momentum-shifting halftime lead. She earned a four-point play in the penultimate minute before her steal on the other end went to the arms of Bec Allen, who put in the final New York points before they went into the half with a 48-45 lead.
One more Howard drive, this one from the hands of Laney, established the permanent Liberty lead after an Ionescu triple. Having already lost one close game at the hands of the defending champions due to a failure to obtain defensive rebounds back in June, the Liberty shut down any late Chicago comeback attempt by limiting them to only a single shot.
It was part of a New York performance on the boards that let up only eight second chances from Chicago, including only three in the second half.
"Marine had that pretty impressive pass and that gave us a little bit of hope there. Then we got some stops," Brondello noted. "We talk about getting three consecutive stops in a row. It took us all the way to the last two minutes to get one (occurrence). That's always our goal and we got it at the right time."
Additionally, New York lost only eight turnovers after averaging over 15 during the regular season.
Despite the historic effort, the Liberty representatives were well aware that Wednesday's effort wasn't perfect. Brondello, for example, wasn't pleased with the way Copper got to the rim.
But the Liberty are now armed with a new mantra as the team tries to move forward: why not us?
"I love this team. I just love their toughness. I love that we hung together and that we had some ups and downs this year with a lot of injuries," Brondello said. "We just found a way to win and it's been fun to coach them. They want to get better and they want to play together."
"What it takes it to win is that it really just takes heart and grit. It's not always going to be pretty," Ionescu added. "There's going to be times when you're down. But you have to stick together and continue to just chip away and believe. I've been saying to this whole team, why not us? I know we had a 20 percent chance of making it to the playoffs and here we are. So we believe in ourselves and that's all that matters."
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags