WNBA playoffs: Liberty advance to semifinals after 'spicy' OT win over Mystics

NEW YORK — The first thing Breanna Stewart noted two hours ahead of tipoff Tuesday was the New York Liberty would need to keep their emotions in check to close out their opening-round series against the better-than-seeded Washington Mystics.

How prescient that would be for the No. 2 seed.

"It definitely got spicy, you know?" Stewart said after the Liberty needed overtime to reach the semifinals with a 90-85 victory in Game 2 at Barclays Center.

New York struggled to move the ball around and every bucket felt difficult, point guard Courtney Vandersloot said. The Liberty (34-8) coughed up an 11-point lead, came back to tie the game with under a minute in the fourth, nearly gave up the game again, and avoided heading to Washington, D.C., for a winner-take-all Game 3 that players said they knew they didn’t want.

“No matter what, we stayed with it and really believed that we’re going to get a stop, a score and a stop, and we did that,” Stewart said

It was a roaring sellout of 9,256 fans that, along with the play on the court, made the 2 vs. 7 matchup more like a semifinal. The Mystics, who went 2-2 in the regular season against New York, aren’t a typical seven seed.

Washington dropped in the regular-season standings while missing three of its starters. Elena Delle Donne and Ariel Atkins returned, but Shakira Austin remained out with a hip injury. When healthy at the beginning of the season, the Mystics were favorites to upset the super-teams in large part because of their stifling defense.

After the Mystics won the season finale on a buzzer-beater to end the Liberty’s chances at the No. 1 seed, point guard Natasha Cloud waved goodbye to the Barclays crowd. Sabrina Ionescu mentioned it after dropping 29 points in Game 1, telling the fans, “We’ve got to show [the Mystics] what that feels like.” The intensity heightened over the weekend when Cloud said she was going to defend Ionescu the entire way to keep her deep-dagger 3s from shifting the tides.

“I was going to be a villain and I was going to be a dog tonight,” Cloud said. “I was going to stay on Sabrina for as much as I could.”

Cloud called her shot, had no second thoughts about doubling down and backed it up on both ends to nearly carry her team into a deciding Game 3 at home. The eighth-year veteran was locked in while waiting for her turn to get shots up at pregame warmups. She swayed at center court to music and proceeded to be a living nightmare for the Liberty. Delle Donne said she could feel a big night coming during warmups.

“Just her focus and the way she was communicating with the team,” she said. “You don’t even have to see the ball go in, you can just see a focus in her.”

Defensively, Cloud stayed tight to Ionescu the entire way, making everything difficult and her presence fully known. She held Ionescu to 11 points and 2-of-6 from 3-point range. “Sometimes [with] Sabrina [it] was more like, just keep her off the ball,” Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello said. “In the air, don’t even come near the ball. You’re a decoy right now.”

It’s a pick-your-poison situation for New York while shutting down one superstar. The Liberty’s other offensive weapons stepped up at different times, even if on an uncharacteristic 4-of-23 (17.4%) shooting night from the perimeter, their worst percentage of the season. They lost both games they scored fewer than eight 3s, including the season opener against Washington.

Stewart reached her Game 1 total of 10 points within the first quarter Tuesday and proceeded to score 27 with nine rebounds, two steals and two assists. Jonquel Jones had a 19-point, 14-rebound double-double. Betnijah Laney had 19 points. Kayla Thornton played big minutes off the bench, shooting 3-of-6 in the best efficiency of the night. Vandersloot scored eight points, but half were in the clutch overtime period.

Offensively, Cloud all but carried the Mystics into Game 3 with 33 points, nine assists and six rebounds. She scored four points in the Game 1 loss and said she felt she let her team down.

“I am a player, though, that defense brings my offense, so because I was so amped up on defense with Sabrina, I felt like it was my night,” Cloud said.

She was everywhere on the floor Tuesday and the first to teammates to keep them engaged. She had 13 in the first half while no other player had more than five. Brittney Sykes finished with 14 and Atkins had 13.

“I think most of the time when she talks, it’s to get herself going. She answered the bell,” Mystics head coach Eric Thibault said. “When you put yourself out there like that, you have to back it up. One hundred percent she backed it up. Probably one of the best games of her career. I can’t think of any better than that, especially thinking of the way they were playing her and who the people they were putting on her.”

Cloud answered a deep Ionescu 3 with a drive down the other end and flexed on Ionescu as the Liberty guard inbounded the ball. Halfway through the third quarter, Cloud was called for a technical after a layup and Ionescu hit the free throw to send the Liberty up seven.

Cloud immediately tipped the inbound attempt by Ionescu and scored on it, sparking a 9-2 run that tied the game at 59-59 when Sykes nailed a 3 on a pass from Cloud. That first bucket of the fourth quarter initiated a wild conclusion that saw Washington up by as many as six.

New York came back to take a three-point lead with 45 seconds left. Cloud’s drive missed and the Liberty, crashing the paint, tipped out a rebound that fell to Sykes for a game-tying 3.

Cloud hit two free throws at 27.3 on the clock, Ionescu missed both in a rare feat at 12.6 and Jones immediately delivered with two makes. Cloud’s inbound pass flew high and out of bounds, setting up overtime, 76-76. New York outscored Washington, 14-9, to win.

“It’s hard to get over a heartbreak of some of the lack of discipline that we had that just [we] couldn't finish the game,” Delle Donne said. “And then you’ve got a team with so many scorers, and at that point, some of us were in foul trouble. So they’re able to kind of make us pay at that point on their home floor.

“It’s really tough to not finish the game when we felt like we could up and then have to go and playing in an overtime with this crowd, those type of players, some people in trouble. It just makes it really tough. We put ourselves in a really hard position.”

The upper bowl in Barclays was not open as it had been when the Las Vegas Aces came to town, but every big moment in the waning minutes of regulation and overtime felt like a packed house. White towels waved, fans chanted “MVP” during Stewart free throws and created noisy havoc during the Mystics’ ones.

“That’s what they’ve done a lot in this building this year in New York,” Thibault said. “They’re not out of the game at home.”

Vandersloot said the Game 2 win will be a good one to look back at and learn from as the playoffs continue. The Liberty are off until Sunday when their best-of-five semifinals series tips off back at Barclays against either the No. 3 Connecticut Sun or No. 6 Minnesota Lynx. Their fan base, which waved off Cloud and the Mystics as they headed into the tunnel, is expected to grow larger.