Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu reacts after scoring a three-point basket...

Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu reacts after scoring a three-point basket against the Mystics during the second half of a WNBA first-round playoff basketball game at Barclays Center on Friday. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

The Washington Mystics met this Liberty dream team four times and emerged with wins in the first game of the regular season in May and the last game last Sunday. To one member of the losing side, there was nothing mystical about it.

“To be honest with you, I think both times that they beat us, we didn’t have our best game,” Liberty reserve center Stefanie Dolson said Friday morning. “I don’t think it had to do with them. I don’t think they’re a tough matchup for us. I think that we are an extremely talented team.

“And I think we are our worst enemy and our best [asset]. We can be as great as we want to be. I think Washington, they have a lot of length with their guards. Elena Delle Donne, she’s an incredible talent. But I think we do match up well.”

The Liberty had a reason to feel those confident vibes after rolling through the best regular season in franchise history with 32 wins in 40 games. Now the first step in the postseason pursuit of a first championship requires getting past the seventh-seeded Mystics in the best-of-three opening round.

The second-seeded Liberty otherwise did express much respect for Washington before Game 1 on Friday night. Then Sabrina Ionescu set a Liberty playoff record with seven three-pointers and scored 29 points in a 90-75 win in front of a loud, white-towel-waving sellout crowd of 8,789 at Barclays Center.

“Obviously, to be able to win this first game at home is huge just for this crowd and what they meant for us all season long, but also tonight,” said Ionescu, who hit six of her threes after intermission. “They were rowdy. They were electric. They continued to give us the motivation that we needed.”

So the Liberty are one win from advancing to the semifinals after claiming their first home playoff victory since they eliminated Washington in Game 3 of the first round on Sept. 22, 2015, when the Garden was their home.

They can eliminate Washington again in Game 2 on Tuesday night at Barclays.

“We have an opportunity to do it here at home in front of our fans,” said Jonquel Jones, who was a 6-6 force inside with 20 points and 12 rebounds. “Our job is to be able to go out there and close it out and get the job done.”

Betnijah Laney also did her job with 19 points and eight rebounds.

The Liberty won even though Breanna Stewart, their MVP candidate and the WNBA’s No. 2 scorer at 23 points per game, shot 3-for-16 and scored 10 points.

Myisha Hines-Allen scored 21 for the Mystics. Delle Donne had 11.

Washington had gone 19-21 in the regular season, but it had several injuries along the way.

“The one thing that I think with our team is that despite the injuries, our goals never shifted,” guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough said. “. . . But it was not easy.”

The Liberty led 71-57 early in the fourth quarter before the Mystics took off on an 8-0 run. Brittney Sykes converted a three-point play to cut it to 71-65.

Ionescu countered with back-to-back threes to double the lead.

“I knew as everyone continued to play well, I had an opportunity to come down and knock down shots,” she said. “I was kind of just in that zone, locked in. The basket felt really big when I was shooting.”

In the third quarter, the Liberty were clinging to a two-point edge at 50-48.

Then they began to open up some distance from the Mystics with a 10-2 burst highlighted by three-pointers from Courtney Vandersloot and Ionescu.

When Ionescu hit a runner, it was 69-57 heading for the fourth.

“When we did move the ball — we had 12 threes — we got separation and we got wide-open looks,” Liberty coach Sandy Brondello said.

Washington was up 29-23 after the first quarter, but Laney kept the Liberty in play with

14 first-half points. Her layup at the buzzer off an assist from Stewart allowed them to take a 46-42 advantage into the locker room.

As Mystics coach Eric Thibault put it: “This is a team that when you have breakdowns, they punish you.”


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