Game Preview: Liberty to Face Wings in Battle of First-Time All-Star Guards

By Justin “Say Say” Rivers

Betnijah Laney and the New York Liberty (9-9, 3rd in Eastern Conference) will closeout two-game homestand with a matchup against fellow first-time All-Star Arike Ogunbowale and the Dallas Wings (9-9, 4th in Western Conference).

Last game, New York hosted a tough Washington team that was riding a three-game skid coming into the contest. At halftime, the Liberty faced an 18-point deficit, after having given up 16 fast break points and allowed the Mystics to score 51 points, shoot over 55% from the field, and 45.5% from deep. This deficit would extend to 20 points after a Tina Charles fadeaway jumper with 8:49 remaining in the third; however – thanks to the infectious grit and hustle of Jazmine Jones and Reshanda Gray, who combined for 20 second-half points, New York hunkered down on defense and battled back!

Jones led the way with a team-high 12-point second half, and Reshanda Gray scored eight of her 11 total points in the final half. Not only did the team erase a 20-point deficit to come away with a three-point victory, but they also impressively held the opposition to 28 second-half points, 28.6% shooting from the field, and 0-for-13 shooting from beyond the three-point arc.

The biggest star of this matinee was none other than Jazmine Jones. Highlighted by a gritty and-one layup in transition and an attempt to save a ball from going out of bounds that resulted in her doing her best Simone Biles impression, Jazmine had an amazing game. In the end, she finished with 17 points, five rebounds, and zero turnovers off the bench. Plus, after starting the game shooting 0-for-4 from the field, she shot 3-for-4 in the second half to finish 4-for-9 from the field, 2-for-3 from deep, and 7-for-7 from the charity stripe.

All in all, the Liberty finished with five double-digit scorers. Betnijah Laney impressed yet again and paced the Liberty offense, scoring a team-high 19 points on 7-for-14 shooting. Rookie Michaela Onyenwere had an 11-point afternoon, and Reshanda Gray shined with an 11-point, 6-rebound performance. She combined with Sabrina Ionescu as a great roller in P&Rs, as Ionescu found her for several wide open layups down the stretch. As for Ionescu, she finished with 15 points, five rebounds, and five dimes on 6-for-7 shooting. Hitting 3-for-4 from three, she was even locked in from beyond. Moreover, Sami Whitcomb proved that she does not need to be a sniper from deep to have a large impact on the game, pulling down a team-high nine boards.

Coach Walt Hopkins’s New York squad has had plenty of great performances this season; however, this one has to be up there, because this was their best second half of the season and – in the end – a great all-around performance. The team will look to build upon this great half against the Dallas Wings.

BACK TO BACK

Last Thursday, the WNBA announced that the Liberty’s standout rookie, Michaela Onyenwere, has garnered her second-consecutive KIA Rookie of the Month award – effectively going “back to back like [she’s] Jordan ’96, ’97.” During the month of June, the 6-foot, surefire ROY front-runner averaged 8.9 points and 2.5 rebounds per game. Her standout performance of the month came in a 23-point victory against the Atlanta Dream, in which she dropped 18 points on an efficient 6-for-8 shooting from the floor. She is the first rookie in franchise history to take home consecutive Rookie of the Month honors since the inception of the award in 2010.

Since being drafted by the Liberty with the No. 6 overall pick in the 2021 WNBA Draft out of UCLA, Onyenwere has yet to miss any of the Liberty’s 18 games this season, and she has started in all of them. Thus far this season, she is averaging 10.2 points and 2.8 rebounds per game. She leads all rookies in points, minutes, and blocks per game, as well as leads all rookies in total made three-pointers. Plus, Onyenwere is top-2 in rebounds per game among rookies.

BATTLE IN THE BACKCOURT

Monday’s game will feature a pair of first-time All-Star guards, one in each team’s backcourt. Before New York’s Betnijah Laney and Dallas’s Arike Ogunbowale make their respective All-Star Game debuts in nine days in Las Vegas, they – two of the WNBA’s top bucket-getters in 2021 – will first duel each other for the second time this season on Monday night.

When the two matched up six games into the Liberty’s season, both players exceeded the 20-point threshold; however, although Ogunbowale, who is averaging 20.2 points per game and shooting 38.7% from deep this season, dropped 24 points in the matchup, the Liberty held her to a very inefficient 6-for-20 (.300) shooting performance. On the other hand, Laney, who is averaging 19.7 points and 5.2 assists per game on 50% shooting from the field, efficiently dropped more points than Ogunbowale with a 26-point night on 9-for-15 (.600) shooting. Plus, her squad also came away with an 88-81 victory.

Hopefully, Monday night’s showdown results in a similar outcome.