Liberty forward Natasha Howard drives against Phoenix Mercury forward Brianna...

Liberty forward Natasha Howard drives against Phoenix Mercury forward Brianna Turner during a WNBA basketball game at Barclays Center on Sunday, July 31, 2022. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

The ancillary elements were nice, of course.

Nationally televised matinee. Franchise legends Teresa Weatherspoon and Sue Wicks and Crystal Robinson in the house.

But that was all secondary to the task at hand for the Liberty: Win a game to keep their playoff hopes alive.

“Today was the start,” Natasha Howard said after the Liberty’s 89-69 win over the Phoenix Mercury on Sunday at Barclays Center. “We’ll just keep going and keep building.”

All five Liberty starters scored in double figures, led by Howard, who finished with 23 points and 12 rebounds to record her fourth straight double-double and her eighth of the season.

Sabrina Ionescu set a franchise record with 16 assists along with 10 points and eight rebounds.

“Our entire starting five in double figures,” said Crystal Dangerfield, who had a season-high 17 points. “I don’t know the last time we had that.”

The 20-point win was the largest margin of victory for the Liberty this season.

Before the season began, the WNBA announced that the top eight teams would qualify for the playoffs. Entering the final quarter of their season, the Liberty (11-18) are one of six teams still alive for one of the last three spots.

Along with the Liberty, the teams in the mix for the sixth, seventh and eighth slots are Dallas, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Minnesota.

So yes, the opportunity to improve their playoff positioning while damaging a rival’s chances certainly was enticing. However, Liberty coach Sandy Brondello stressed during her pregame availability with reporters that her focus was on how her team played.

“Just getting consistent basketball,” Brondello said when asked what she hopes her team’s approach will be in the final stretch of the season. “Focus on the process.”

The Liberty made 35 baskets off 32 assists and shot 49.3% from the field (35-for-71) and 46.2% from three-point range (12-for-26), limiting the Mercury to 37.5% shooting overall (24-for-64) and 24% from outside the arc (6-for-25).

The Liberty also outscored Phoenix 42-34 in the paint and recorded a 42-26 advantage in rebounds.

“We did a good job to get those rebounds and get those points in the paint,” Howard said. “We took advantage of every possession.”

Although the Liberty never trailed in winning their second straight home game, they led only 59-50 at the start of the fourth quarter. Then they used a 17-8 spurt in the first 4:46 of the quarter to extend their lead to 18.

Sophie Cunningham led Phoenix (13-17) with 21 points.

The Liberty and Mercury have split the first two games of the regular-season series, and the teams will meet one more time on Saturday in Phoenix.

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