Two words echoed among the many Liberty’s players in the times before the beginning of the W.N.B.A. season: “defense” and “identity.”
They said they needed to get well on defense. (And so they did try this.)
They said they desired to be generally known as a troublesome and winning team. (They won, but not as much as that they had hoped.)
Then two latest words forced their way into the Liberty vocabulary during a season of injuries, comebacks and losses: “adversity” and “resilience.”
“Being along for the ride through lots of the adversity that we faced this season is something that I’ll definitely learn from,” Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu said.
She continued: “It’s just helped me understand what it takes to win, and sometimes those wins weren’t pretty, but we found a way.”
The Liberty’s season ended Tuesday with a first-round playoff loss to the Chicago Sky, the No. 2 seed and the league’s defending champions. The perfect-of-three series, just like the Liberty’s season, showed the team’s promise, and its pitfalls. On Thursday, as several players and Coach Sandy Brondello reflected on the 12 months, they praised each other for persevering but wished that they hadn’t needed to be so resilient.
“We saw glimpses of just how great we will be no matter what was occurring, no matter injury, no matter record, no matter just really any type of obstacle that we were coping with,” said Betnijah Laney, who missed a lot of the season due to a knee injury.
She added: “And still with the ability to make that playoff push was really good for us. And just imagine if we had all of that your complete season where we might’ve ended up: We’d probably still be playing immediately.”
The Liberty opened the season with a good win at home over the Connecticut Sun, then plunged right into a seven-game losing streak. They lost each Laney and Jocelyn Willoughby to injuries through the streak, a blow for a team hoping to make its name on defense and toughness. Brondello said Laney, a 2021 All-Star, was the team’s hardest player and Willoughby was considered one of its best defenders. Other players were out and in of the lineup all season with quite a lot of maladies, including a concussion, a hamstring injury and a chin laceration.
It was difficult to construct chemistry, which is significant for each team but especially a young one with a latest head coach. Brondello was in her first season with the Liberty after eight seasons with the Phoenix Mercury, a veteran team that won a championship in her first season there in 2014. She said coaching the Liberty had required more teaching and patience, but she didn’t should cope with anything that she had not seen before.
Before the season, Brondello said she hoped to construct a troublesome, defensive team with an “aggressive mentality.” The Liberty were that type of team at times — after they went on a 13-0 run to seal a Game 1 playoff victory against the Sky in Chicago — but their inconsistency cost them. A 16-0 Sky run within the fourth quarter of the decisive Game 3 in Brooklyn pushed a victory out of reach.
“They should feel pressure,” Brondello said of her team’s young players, adding that she would look so as to add more experienced players through the off-season.
“We’re just a number of pieces off,” she said.
Ionescu, 24, who was named to her first All-Star team this 12 months, was the team’s top scorer with 17.4 points per game and led the Liberty with 6.3 assists per game. Forward Natasha Howard, a past defensive player of the 12 months, led the Liberty in rebounds (7.3) and steals (1.3) per game. Ionescu, who had two triple-doubles this season, was just behind Howard with 7.1 rebounds per game.