Caitlin Clark Buzz Overshadows New York Liberty’s WNBA Title Chase

New York looks to extend its winning streak against the two-time champs.

AP/Doug McSchooler
Caitlin Clark (22) passes the ball from under the basket while being defended by Seattle Storm guard Jordan Horston (23) and center Mercedes Russell (21) during the first half of a WNBA basketball game May 30, 2024, at Indianapolis. AP/Doug McSchooler

All the noise surrounding Caitlin Clark’s rookie season in the WNBA has obscured a team that should be getting more attention — the New York Liberty.

Ms. Clark has generated most of the WNBA headlines since becoming the no. 1 overall draft choice. Her pro debut and omission from the U.S. Olympic team for the Paris Games fueled the buzz. Yet while Ms. Clark grabs the spotlight, the Liberty is building what could be a special season. 

The Liberty (11-2) will be looking for an eighth consecutive victory on Saturday when they visit the two-time defending WNBA champion Las Vegas Aces at Las Vegas. After consecutive losses in late May dropped their record to 4-2, the Liberty have reeled off seven straight wins, including a 93-88 victory over Washington Sunday at Barclays Center.

“I think our connection and our commitment got better. Everything became better,” the Liberty head coach since January 2022, Sandy Brondello, said. “This last stretch has been great for us.”

While everyone focused on whether Ms. Clark would make the Olympic team and why she didn’t, the Liberty played five games in eight days, including three straight on the road, where they defeated Chicago, Atlanta, and Connecticut before disposing of Washington at home. 

The victories earned the Liberty home court for the Commissioner’s Cup final on June 25 against the top team in the Western Conference standings. The Liberty won the 2023 Commissioner’s Cup, an annual in-season tournament that offers a $500,000 prize pool to the winning team, according to the WNBA website.

“Our fans are amazing,” forward Jonquel Jones told reporters after the Mystics game. “They show up and they show out. They give us that extra boost that we need to win games. So we’re happy that they’re going to be able to watch the Commissioner’s Cup and cheer us on. We want to do everything possible to get the win for them.”

The Liberty feature their version of the Big 3. Breanna Stewart is the league’s seventh-leading scorer at 18.9 points a game. Sabrina Ionescu (17.8) and Ms. Jones (15.5) are the Liberty’s other top scorers. Ms. Stewart is the top rebounder with 9.4 boards a game, while Ms. Jones is shooting 56.7 percent from the field.  Ms. Stewart and Ms. Ionescu were named to the U.S. Olympic team headed to Paris in July.

New York plays five more games before the Commissioner’s Cup game, starting with Saturday’s matchup against the defending champions at Las Vegas.

“Regardless of the situation we’re in, we can use every game, every opportunity to get better and be ready so that when we’re in the playoffs, we’ll be able to say that we’ve been tested in various situations,” Ms. Jones said.

While the Liberty seeks to extend its winning streak, the Aces are desperate to find a winning consistency after a mediocre 5-5 start. Las Vegas guard A’ja Wilson leads the league in scoring with an impressive 28.3 average and is tied for the league lead with 11.4 rebounds a game. Yet the Aces, who have four players on the Olympic team — Ms. Wilson, Chelsea Gray, Kelsey Plum, and Jackie Young — have lost three straight games, heading into a matchup Thursday night at Phoenix before hosting the Liberty. It’s the worst ten-game start for Las Vegas since 2018.

“This is a long, long season,” Ms. Wilson told reporters after a 100-86 loss to Minnesota Tuesday. “I’m not going to press the panic button. I’m going to make sure my teammates don’t press the panic button because I’m still going to bet on us.”

The Aces, coached by Becky Hammon, beat the Liberty in four games of a best-of-five series last year to become the first back-to-back champions since the Los Angeles Sparks in 2001-02.

The Liberty are determined to get back to the Finals and deliver a championship for New York, which saw the Knicks of the NBA and the Rangers of the NHL fall short in their quests for the ultimate glory this season. “Last year we gained so much experience,” Ms. Brondello said. “There’s no easy games in the WNBA anymore and that’s going to make us better.”

The New York Sun

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