This five-game stretch of home work for the Liberty represented an opportunity to make a hard push to land in the eight-team WNBA playoff field for the first time since 2017. But the teams coming into Barclays Center pushed back harder.
The Liberty had lost by 27 to Phoenix on Wednesday. Brittney Griner sprained an ankle late in that game. So the 6-9 tower of excellence had to sit out Friday night’s rematch.
But the Mercury still won their sixth straight, 80-64, behind 27 points from Skylar Diggins-Smith and 19 from Diana Taurasi.
That left the Liberty at 1-4 with four straight losses during this all-Brooklyn stretch.
They remained in eighth place, just .007 percentage points ahead of Los Angeles and a half-game ahead of Washington. The Liberty, who were paced by Natasha Howard’s 18 points and Sabrina Ionescu’s near triple-double of 12 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists, are 11-16 with five games left.
Now comes a four-game stretch of road work that includes matchups with three of the top four teams in the standings — Minnesota, Seattle and Connecticut. There’s also a game at Dallas.
Walt Hopkins didn’t sound optimistic.
"We could’ve controlled our own destiny and we just didn’t win the games that we needed to win," the Liberty coach said. "And the thing that I’m most frustrated with is we’re not taking the steps.
"We’re doing the same things over and over again … The lack of execution on both ends, the sometimes effort, the sometimes stay together, the head hanging, it’s got to change."
The Liberty are trying to develop younger players.
"I think that in some ways we've seen growth," Hopkins said. "I think in some ways we’ve seen regression."
Diggins-Smith converted two three-point plays in the final minute of the third for a 56-50 lead. That grew to a 13-point Mercury lead with a 9-2 burst to start the fourth.
Taurasi started it with a three. Diggins-Smith converted a drive and turned it into another three-point play, then followed with a left-side three to make it 65-52. The Mercury (15-10) outscored the Liberty 24-14 in the last 10 minutes.
The home team had fallen into a 19-point hole in the second quarter, then went on a 26-6 run that lasted into the third. When Michaela Onyenwere buried a three, the Liberty owned their first lead at 45-44.
Now it’s on to the road.
As the Liberty’s Rebecca Allen said before the opening tip, "All of the games coming up now are must-wins for us to give us a real good chance at the playoffs."