Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu reacts as time runs out in...

Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu reacts as time runs out in overtime against the Mystics during the second half at Barclays Center on. Tuesday. Credit: Noah K. Murray

It could have been a rude awakening.

A bounce here, a bounce there and one of the best WNBA team’s ever assembled could be headed to Washington this weekend to play an elimination game instead headed to the WNBA semifinals for the first time since 2015.

The Liberty used their incredible team depth to bounce back from a horrible second half and defeat the Mystics, 90-85, in overtime for a first-round sweep at the Barclays Center Thursday. They advance to play the winner of the Connecticut Sun-Minnesota Lynx series in the next round. Game 1 will be at the Barclays Center Sunday at 1 p.m.

As impressive as the Liberty were in overtime, the fact that they had to get to the extra period to put this team away could be a cause for some concern for a team whose goal is to win it all this year.

“It was right there for the taking,” Mystics coach Eric Thibault said. “It’s tough.”

It certainly was.

Th Liberty squandered an 11-point halftime lead when they started missing shot after shot in the third quarter. At the same time, Natasha Cloud – who had predicted that the Liberty were “in for a rude awakening” after the Mystics’ Game 1 loss – was having the game of her life, finishing with a career-high 33 points while guarding Sabrina Ionescu.

The whole thing was close to falling apart when Jonquel Jones made the kind of gutty, game-turning play that separates a great team from a very good one.

With 11.1 seconds left in regulation and the Liberty trailing, 76-74, Ionescu missed a free throw. She said she then purposely missed the second free throw and Jones flew toward the basket. Jones got the rebound and was fouled. She then made both of her free throws to tie the game and send it into overtime.

"You all saw it, we felt it, Jonquel's a phenomenal rebounder, she's really hard to keep off the glass," Mystics forward Elena Delle Donne said. “Those moments are really heartbreaking.”

It was Breanna Stewart who came up with the key free throws in overtime, hitting two with 11 seconds left to give her team a three-point lead.

Stewart, the No. 2 scorer in the league during the regular season, bounced back from the 10-point game she had in Game 1. Playing all but 56 seconds of the game, Stewart finished with 27 points and nine rebounds.

“It could have gone either way, we know that,” Liberty coach Sandy Brondello said. “Sometimes a little luck has to go your way. We stayed together and found a way.”

That may be the big positive that the Liberty coach can take out of this series. Her team needs just five more wins to be the first basketball team to win a title in New York since the Nets won the ABA title in 1976. The fact that they have been battle tested early in the playoff and found a way to stay together is a good thing, and maybe enough to make us forget the clumsy way they took their foot off the gas pedal in the second half of the game.

The Liberty, who finished with the second-best record in the league, have scary depth and we are just beginning to see how important that is in the playoffs. When Stewart struggled in Game 1, Sabrina Ionescu torched the Mystics for 29 points. When Ionescu took a step back in Game 2, Betnijah Laney and Jonquel Jones each scored 19.

This is why Liberty general manager Jonathan Kolb was named the WNBA Executive of the Year last week. The Liberty had a historic offseason, acquiring 2021 MVP Jones in a three-team trade, and signing Stewart and seven-time WNBA assist leader Courtney Vandersloot as free agents. The three joined forces with 2020 No. 1 draft pick Ionescu and 2021 All-Star Laney.

When you have a team like that, anything short of making the Finals is going to be considered a failure. (See the Nets under Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving).

Said Brondello: “We’re locked in. This is the playoffs. We’ve got bigger goals in mind here.”


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