Sky open playoffs with 98-91 loss to Liberty in Game 1 of best-of-three series
Sabrina Ionescu and Natasha Howard each had 22 points while Betnijah Laney added 17 points, five rebounds and five assists
Wintrust Arena was covered in “Recrown Skytown” memorabilia ahead of the Sky’s first-round, best-of-three series against the New York Liberty and the 2021 WNBA championship trophy sat at center court five minutes before tipoff.
But Wednesday night, the Sky looked questionable to make it out of the first round let alone contend for back-to-back titles.
The Liberty, led by Sabrina Ionescu and Natasha Howard, overwhelmed the Sky from three-point range, shooting 44% from deep en route to a 98-91 win.
As the buzzer sounded, Ionescu marched towards her bench before stretching her arms wide and letting out a yell in what she described as moment of happiness and relief.
“We battled through ups and downs,” Ionescu said. “We came here and did what we needed to do and what nobody thought we could do.”
Three of the Sky’s four regular-season matchups against the Liberty were decided by fewer than 10 points, so a tight contest was expected. The Sky held a six-point lead with under four minutes to play when the Liberty took control.
A perfectly-placed over-the-shoulder no-look pass from Marine Johannès to Howard sparked the Liberty’s late surge. The Sky missed 10 of their last 11 shots (0-for-8 from the field and 0-for-2 from the free throw line) while the Liberty went on a 13-0 run, outscoring the Sky 25-17 in the fourth quarter. Ionescu and Howard finished with a game-high 22 points each.
Betnijah Laney, who returned to the Liberty lineup after having surgery in June to repair a torn meniscus, was another difference-maker. She finished with 17 points, five rebounds and five assists. Former Sky center Stefanie Dolson was the fourth Liberty player who scored in double figures, finishing with 13 points and going 3-for-4 from deep.
“We relaxed and they came back at us and showed how lethal they can be,” general manager/coach James Wade said.
Howard impacted the game on both ends of the floor, limiting Emma Meesseman to just four points. The Liberty held the Sky to 11 second-chance points in large part due to Howard’s dominance. She had seven rebounds and three assists to go along with her game-high night scoring.
One bright spot for the Sky was their ability to control the paint. They outscored the Liberty 50-40 inside led by Kahleah Copper who finished with a team-high 21 points to go with her eight rebounds.
Candace Parker and Courtney Vandersloot each finished with double-doubles. Vandersloot had 13 points and 10 rebounds and Parker had 17 points and 10 rebounds. In total, five Sky players finished scoring in double figures, but it wasn’t enough to overcome their inability to defend the three-point line.
All week the Sky talked about coming out with a sense of urgency and closing this series out on their home floor. Wednesday night they failed to maintain that sense. As the Liberty mounted their comeback, the Sky looked lost.
“Ball movement,” Azurá Stevens said. “I think we sort of panicked and forced a little. We haven’t panicked all year and tonight we might have a little. That’s a little uncharacteristic.”
Stevens finished with 16 points and four rebounds.
Wade said earlier in the week that he wasn’t a fan of the new playoff format that gives the lower seed homecourt advantage in a deciding Game 3. Before his team even gets there, they’ll play a must-win Game 2 on Saturday.
In the locker room, the message from Vandersloot and Parker was about staying together.
“We know that we made it tough,” Parker said. “But just as we have in the past we have to take it one game at a time. We can’t look ahead.”