This was the moment the Liberty needed Natasha Howard and Sabrina Ionescu for.
The Liberty’s playoff hopes hung by the thinnest of threads. They needed to beat the Washington Mystics to try to snag their first playoff berth in four seasons. They went on to win, 91-80, on Friday and it was Howard and Ionescu — who had their best and most complete games wearing Liberty uniforms — who made sure of it.
Howard set the tone from the onset, controlling the opening tip and scoring the first points of the game. And Ionescu sealed it in the final 18 seconds with the deciding jumper and the final points of the game.
Howard has struggled to get back to her true form most of the season. Then on Friday, her two-way abilities went unmatched. She got the first points of the game by faking out Tina Charles in the first quarter and getting her to foul while she drained a mid-range two-point shot for the Libs.
She played heavy coverage on Charles and was a big reason the top shooter in the league was held to 10 points. (Charles scored 30-plus points on the Libs in their last two meetings this season). Howard looked like the player that wanted this win the absolute most on Friday, and was responsible for 24 points, 10 rebounds and three steals.
“I’m really, really proud of the way that [the team’s leaders] stepped up and particularly Natasha. … She looked like Natasha Howard,” Liberty head coach Walt Hopkins said after the game.
And Ionescu has easily been the team’s weakest defender. Yet, in the first half, she was trying to box out Tina Charles. She was diving for loose balls, at one point sliding on her knees to recover one just inches from the boundary on the wing. And she was shooting with an accuracy she hasn’t flexed most of the season.
When the Mystics started encroaching on the Liberty’s 24-point lead in the second half, there was Ionescu, dropping another trey or a long two. In fact, when the Mystics cut the home team’s lead to five points in the fourth quarter, Ionescu charged down the court and pulled up for a jump shot to extend the distance on the scoreboard.
“Sabrina really controlled the game for us offensively and got us where we wanted to get late in fourth quarter,” Hopkins said of Ionescu, who finished with 22 points, nine assists, five rebounds and a steal.
It was somewhat poetic the Libs’ path forward would need to go through the former face of their franchise and against a team also fighting for a playoff spot. And it was a fitting end to a season that, at least for now, has no conclusion.
The Liberty are now in the waiting game. Their final season record stands at 12-20, with the Mystics at 12-19 and the Los Angeles Sparks at 12-19, as well. The Mystics and the Sparks have their season finales on Sunday. If either of them win, the Liberty can at least bid adieu to this season knowing they left it all on the court this last game.