UNCASVILLE, Conn. — The last professional basketball championship teams in New York — the Nets of 1976 in the ABA and the Knicks of 1973 in the NBA — are just grainy memories.
But the remade, star-driven 2023 Liberty, a franchise with no WNBA championship trophies, have a chance to make a bright, new memory, a chance to bring New York its first pro title in the sport in 47 years.
The expectations from Day One revolved around the Liberty facing the defending champion Las Vegas Aces in the WNBA Finals in a supersized clash for supremacy.
And that’s just what’s going to happen.
The Liberty outlasted Connecticut, 87-84, on Sunday at Mohegan Sun Arena to take the semifinal series three games to one and make the title round for the first time in 21 years.
Las Vegas, here they come. The best-of-five Finals between the top-seeded Aces and the second-seeded Liberty tip off there Sunday.
“I think it’s good,” Liberty coach Sandy Brondello said. “That’s the narrative everyone wanted at the start. . . . I think it’s going to be a great series.”
The 2023 MVP, Breanna Stewart, was among those at the forefront of getting the Liberty there, scoring 27 points and grabbing nine rebounds.
“I’ve processed it in the fact that we’re going to the Finals because we’re going after a championship,” Stewart said. “But the fact that the Liberty haven’t been to a Final since 2002 is wild.
“And to have that and know that we have the entire city behind us is something that’s really, really special.”
Jonquel Jones delivered a WNBA-record sixth straight double-double to open the postseason, posting 25 points and 15 rebounds. She also made a steal and five big free throws in the final minute. Betnijah Laney contributed 21 points, seven rebounds and five assists.
The Sun’s Alyssa Thomas, who was shaken up early in the fourth quarter and missed about 2 1⁄2 minutes, delivered a triple-double with 17 points, 15 rebounds and 11 assists.
“I think in the preseason we were picked seventh or eighth,” Thomas said. “To finish third, lose a huge piece in Bri Jones [to an Achilles rupture in June], to fight like we did in the semis, we have a ton to be proud of.”
With the Liberty leading 79-78, Jones grabbed an offensive rebound, got fouled and made two free throws for a three-point lead with 56 seconds remaining.
Jones then stole an inbounds pass, took the ball downcourt and was fouled going to the basket.
Good and good. It was 83-78 with 42 seconds left.
Jones was fouled again with 29.2 seconds remaining. She made one of two for a six-point advantage.
“JJ has been amazing,” Brondello said.
Tyasha Harris countered with a three-pointer, but Laney hit one of two from the line to make it 85-81.
When Harris drained another three-pointer, the lead was down to one with 7.6 seconds to go. The Liberty called for time.
Stewart took the inbounds pass, was fouled at 6.1 and nailed both for an 87-84 lead. Hayes took a final shot for Connecticut, but it was late and from two-point territory.
“Congrats to New York,” Sun coach Stephanie White said. “They earned it. We gave them a battle.”
Connecticut built a 10-point advantage in the second quarter, but the Liberty rallied to go up 45-44 at halftime. They opened an 11-point advantage in the third, but the Sun rallied and led 75-74 with 2:53 left. Stewart then hit a three-pointer to give the Liberty the lead for good.
When it was over, Jones experienced a very different feeling than last year. She decided she wanted to be traded to the Liberty after being with a Sun team that fell in the Finals.
“I just remember a lot of emotions, obviously disappointment and all of that,” Jones said. “I think it’s the beauty of sports to be able to be with this team and be able to be going into a Finals and have the opportunity again, and just going in with the mindset to leave it all on the court and finally get one.”
On to Vegas.