Sabrina Ionescu of the Liberty is pressured in the second...

Sabrina Ionescu of the Liberty is pressured in the second half against the Connecticut Sun in Game 1 of the 2023 WNBA semifinals on Sunday, Sept. 24, 2023 at Barclays Center. Credit: Ed Murray/Ed Murray

The Liberty faced down the Sun and won every time they played during the regular season. It wasn’t always clean, especially when they were doing road work, but it was a four-game sweep.

They arrived at Barclays Center on Sunday for the start of the WNBA semifinals knowing they had to beat Connecticut three more times to land in the title round for the first time since 2002 as they chase the franchise’s first championship.

But the third-seeded Sun were very formidable during a 27-win regular season and sent a very loud message to the second-seeded Liberty in Game 1 of the best-of-five series: They want their franchise’s first championship, too, and are just as capable.

Connecticut claimed a 78-63 victory behind DeWanna Bonner’s 20 points, Rebecca Allen’s 18 and a dominant defensive effort.

“We couldn’t play any worse,” Liberty coach Sandy Brondello said. “I don’t think we had the right energy at all.”

Game 2 on Tuesday night at Barclays is a must-win game in Brondello’s eyes, given that the series will shift to Mohegan Sun on Friday night.

“My messaging [to the team] is, ‘OK, we just lost at home. We can’t lose two at home,’  ” she said.

“I mean, that’s it. That’s what it comes down to. We’ve got to win this next game. This is our playoff. This is our knockout game.”

They will be knocked out if they can’t figure out how to solve the Sun’s defense. The Liberty were held to 33.8% shooting and a season-low point total after scoring only eight in the fourth quarter.

A team that likes to push the pace finished with “0” in the column marked fast-break points. The Liberty also had only four points in the paint in the second half.

“I felt like we came in and played probably the most consistent 40 minutes that we’ve played all year,” Connecticut coach Stephanie White said, “particularly on the defensive end of the floor, being disruptive, making things as difficult as possible for a really good offensive team.”

Breanna Stewart topped the Liberty with 19 points but shot 7-for-25, including 0-for-8 from beyond the arc. Alyssa Thomas, with help from friends, blanketed her.

“Connecticut, they knew where I was all night and made sure to continue to bring bodies,” Stewart said.

The Liberty owned a 40-37 halftime lead. Then Natisha Hiedeman nailed two three-pointers to highlight a 16-2 Sun run to start the third, good for a 53-42 advantage.

The margin shrunk to five twice, the second time on a three-pointer by Jonquel Jones, who helped take Connecticut to the WNBA Finals last season before receiving the trade to the Liberty she wanted.

But Bonner countered with two free throws and Allen, who was sent by the Liberty to the Sun in the Jones deal, hit a three to push the edge to 61-51.

“There’s no hard feelings,” Allen said. “For me, it’s been a blessing.”

Bonner scored 15 in the second half. She nailed a short jumper at the buzzer, making it 65-55 after three.

Connecticut outscored the Liberty 28-15 in those 10 minutes.

Bonner began the fourth quarter with a three and followed with a midrange jumper to give the Sun a 15-point lead with 8:40 left.

“Alyssa made me mad,” Bonner said of her fiancee when asked why she erupted after halftime.

Like the third quarter, the Liberty started badly in the first quarter. The Sun blazed from the floor, making nine of their first 12 shots in taking a 23-14 lead.

Jones knows changes are needed for Game 2.

“More energy,” she said. “More effort.”

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