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Liberty beat Mystics, hang on to playoff hope

New York Liberty forward Natasha Howard against Washington

New York Liberty forward Natasha Howard against Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud in the first half at Barclays Center on Friday, September 17, 2021. Credit: Noah K. Murray

Despite dropping eight straight games, the Liberty showed up for their final game of the regular season still alive in the playoff race.

They needed to beat Washington on Friday night at Barclays Center and then hope for help from two teams Sunday — the WNBA’s last day of work in the regular season — to grab the eighth and final ticket to the postseason.

Their 24-point lead slipped to five in the fourth quarter, but the Liberty held on to beat the Mystics, 91-80, behind 24 points and 10 rebounds from Natasha Howard and 22 points, nine assists and five rebounds from Sabrina Ionescu.

Now the Liberty will turn into Minnesota and Dallas fans.

Washington — which was missing star Elena Delle Donne because of continued back issues and got just 10 points from league scoring leader Tina Charles — and Los Angeles are 12-19. If the three teams finish with the same record, the Liberty (12-20) will qualify on tiebreakers.

So they need the Mystics to lose at home to Minnesota and the Sparks to lose on the road to Dallas.

"I think it would be a tremendous experience for us," Liberty coach Walt Hopkins said. " . . . So we’re hopeful. For the first time in this stretch of games, we finally took care of what we needed to take care of. Now it’s up to fate or destiny."

The 24-point advantage shrunk to five for the fourth time in the fourth when Myisha Hines-Allen scored on a jumper in the lane with 4:25 left.

Ionescu countered by nailing a three from the right side. Betnijah Laney, who had 10 points and 11 assists, followed with a bucket from in close and later hit a free throw to increase the Liberty’s lead to 87-76 with 2:42 to go.

"We were faced with an opportunity to really just say, ‘Not this time. Not tonight,’ " said Sami Whitcomb, who scored 13, including her 1,000 career point.

By halftime, the Liberty had built a 47-29 cushion. They opened the third with a 10-4 run to go up 57-33.

The Mystics then outscored them 28-11 to cut it to 68-61 after three. Ariel Atkins hit four three-pointers in the run and scored 17 of her 29 in the quarter. But the Liberty came through down the stretch, unlike so many times previously.

The Liberty haven’t made the playoffs since 2017, but this team with so many new parts and young elements showed some growth.

"We are able to continue to score and continue to stay together," Ionescu said. "That’s a huge growth moment for us this season that we finally reached."

New York Sports