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Liberty's Playoff Path Gets Crystal Clear After Win in Atlanta

Crystal Dangerfield and Betnijah Laney came up big in the first leg of a crucial doubleheader.

The efforts of Crystal Dangerfield have ensured that the late-season endeavors of the New York Liberty will get some respect. 

Dangerfield, an in-season acquisition-turned mainstay in the New York starting lineup, put in a season-best 18 points and six assists on Friday night at Gateway Center Arena, pacing the Liberty in an 80-70 victory over the Atlanta Dream. The win pushed New York (15-20) back into the eight-team WNBA playoff bracket, where they hold the final seed as the regular season enters its final stanza on Sunday. A rematch with the pursuing Dream (14-21) awaits at Barclays Center and the Liberty can clinch their second consecutive playoff berth with a win. 

With the playoff hunt coming down to the literal last minute, unlikely entries into the starting lineup helped New York earn its most crucial victory yet. Dangerfield has been a mainstay after joining the team in late May while the Liberty also granted Betnijah Laney her first start since returning from a knee injury that cost her over 20 games. 

The 2021 All-Star rewarded head coach Sandy Brondello's faith to the tune of 17 points on 5-of-10 shooting from the floor. A dozen of her tallies came in a roller-coaster second half that saw the Liberty lead by as much as 22 before Atlanta trimmed the deficit down to as little as seven. 

Further Laney antics, however, helped sealed the victory: a Laney steal from fellow Rutgers alumna Erica Wheeler led to a half-successful opportunity for Bec Allen at the foul line. Dangerfield's highlight reel-worthy reverse lay-up that re-established the double-figure lead just after the midway mark of the final frame came a result of a Laney rebound off a Monique Billings miss. Atlanta was able to re-trim the lead to seven, but the Liberty had the affair secure by then to earn their fifth victory in the last seven games. 

"Bee can give us a lot," Brondello said. "I think her defense is great for coming back from where she's been ... I told her to be patient (in the beginning) because she's an All-Star but you're not going to come back out and be an All-Star initially. I just told her to focus on playing really good defense, taking the open shots and not forcing it."

"She's smart, she's determined, and I thought she played a really good game for us and bailed us out. She got some big baskets and bailed us out a few times."

The true headliner was Dangerfield, the 2020 WNBA Rookie of the Year who continues a tour of redemption after she was waived by her original employers in Minnesota just before the start of the year. Since joining the lineup, Dangerfield has become a effective, reliable, ball-handling complement to Sabrina Ionescu, alleviating pressure from the Liberty's franchise face in the process. 

Though she played only seven minutes in Wednesday's win over Dallas, the speedy Dangerfield was called upon by Brondello to assume a more active role against the Dream.

"She did everything right for us," Brondello said. "I just told her to be aggressive because we knew they'll put pressure on (Ionescu) and we needed the other handler in there to be aggressive. She made a lot of the pull up shots that she loves. I just told her to play your game be aggressive, don't be passive and looking for others. She was obviously fantastic."

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Brondello wanted to match Dangerfield's speed with that of Atlanta's Aari McDonald. Though McDonald scored 10 off the bench, she shot 4-of-15 from the field in over 30 minutes and lost four turnovers. 

Dangerfield's scoring antics gave the Liberty their first lead of the game and she also served as a strong facillitator: her six assists were her best passing output since a May 10 win over her former compatriots in Minnesota. 

"She said that, in this matchup I was going to be important," Dangerfield said of her pregame conversation with Brondello. "They have quit guards, so my job on my side of the ball was going be defensively containing them, making sure to limit what they do."

After reserves stole the show in Arlington on Wednesday, four New York starters reached double figures, as Dangerfield and Laney were joined by Ionescu (15 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists) and Natasha Howard (14 points, 12 rebounds). 

Interior efforts, further aided by eight rebounds from fifth starter Stef Dolson, played a surprisingly large role in Friday's win: well-renowned for their outside shooting (having sunk a WNBA record 334 three-pointers this season, breaking the mark they set just last year), the Liberty had only four triples fall in Atlanta. New York made up for that by earning exactly half of ther points in the paint.

Blessed with a 12-woman roster for only the third time this season, the Liberty improved to 2-1 in such games, the loss coming when Howard left last Saturday's loss in Phoenix with an ankle ailment. 

The reinforcements have allowed New York to established their desired identity, a phenomenon whose arrival a relieved and smirking Laney declared "better late than never." 

"I think the the identity that we try and put out there (is one of) sisterhood," Laney said of what the team has formed in the dying stages of the regular season. "(It's about) having grit, staying confident, and just trying to be together. I think that this is what we've shown in last few games and I think that that's exhibited by all of our play. We're moving the ball, we're sharing it,beverybody's being able to contribute no matter how long you're on the floor. Everyone contributed tonight."

"We don't want to go out there and be get bullied. We want to be some bullies," Dangerfield concurred. "We want to stay together as a team and go out and play some good basketball."

Seeking its first playoff appearance since 2018, Atlanta was paced by 16 points from Wheeler. 

The Liberty's simplest scenario to continue their season is to end the Dream's with a win when Atlanta visits on Sunday afternoon (2 p.m. ET, The YES App/ESPN3). New York is in fact tied with Phoenix for the seventh seed but falls short on the head-to-head tiebreaker. If the Liberty were to fall to Atlanta, they would need help from their friends: Minnesota would have to lose to the Connecticut Sun (who are locked into the third seed) while Phoenix would have to defeat Chicago (fighting for Vegas for the playoffs' top seed).