NEW YORK -- The widely anticipated playoff matchup between the No. 2 seed New York Liberty and the 7-seed Washington Mystics delivered in Tuesday night's Game 2, as the Liberty overcame a late deficit to prevail 90-85 in overtime and sweep the best-of-three series in an intense instant classic that felt more like a WNBA Finals showdown than a first-round contest.
With the victory, the Liberty won their first playoff series since 2015, also the last time they advanced as far as the semifinals. After assembling a superteam in the offseason by bringing in Breanna Stewart, Jonquel Jones and Courtney Vandersloot, New York is one step closer to its goal of bringing home the franchise's first WNBA title.
The Liberty will face either the No. 3 seed Connecticut Sun or the sixth-seeded Minnesota Lynx -- whom New York went 4-0 and 2-1 against, respectively, during the regular season -- in the semifinals, which will start Sunday. The Sun and Lynx face off in a decisive Game 3 at 8 p.m. ET Wednesday. By virtue of being the higher seed, New York will host Games 1 and 2 and, if necessary, 5.
Washington -- which was considered a dark horse title contender heading into the season after bringing back multiple players from its 2019 championship team -- bowed out of the playoffs after limping through an injury-plagued summer. The Mystics were well within reach, though, of forcing a winner-take-all Game 3 in D.C. behind a career night from guard Natasha Cloud (33 points, nine assists, six rebounds).
"When's the last time you've seen someone play that hard?" Liberty coach Sandy Brondello said, referring to the Mystics, whom she said were closer to a No. 3 or No. 4 seed than a 7-seed. "It was crazy. I'm exhausted."
After the Liberty dominated the first half, the Mystics controlled the second, climbing ahead by six with 3:56 remaining in regulation. New York stormed back, but Washington regained a two-point lead with 27.3 seconds to play. The Liberty then snagged two offensive rebounds that ultimately led to game-tying free throws from Jones with 11.3 seconds on the clock, before the Mystics threw away the ball on their next possession out of a timeout, effectively forcing overtime.
"It's hard to get over a heartbreak of some of the lack of discipline that we had that just couldn't finish the game," said Elena Delle Donne, Washington's two-time league MVP.
After a rough shooting night in Game 1, two-time Finals MVP Stewart led her team in scoring in Game 2 (27 points, going 6-for-6 from the free throw line in overtime), but she didn't get the Liberty to the semifinals alone.
Jones finished with 19 points and 14 rebounds (New York is now 13-0 when she has a double-double), though no plays were as critical as her offensive board and free throws at the end of the regulation. Vandersloot had 10 of the Liberty's 21 assists and hit timely baskets in overtime. Betnijah Laney made key shots down the stretch, as well, while Kayla Thornton brought huge hustle plays. Sabrina Ionescu, whom the Mystics were determined to slow down after she scored 29 points in Game 1, was more than happy to set up her teammates to score or serve as a decoy.
"It feels really good that it felt like a real team win," Vandersloot said afterward. "Those feel different, and it can start a run, it can start momentum. But we felt a lot of chemistry, and it felt like, 'Yeah, we did this together,' which is a good feeling."
"That's the beauty of this team. It's pick your poison every single night," she said. "And as long as we can continue to stay together and win, that's why we're all here, is to play unselfish basketball."
The Mystics weren't able to extend their season, but they showed the relentlessness that helped them get through a trying campaign.
"Any other team in the W, if they lost three starters, what would they be?" Cloud said, referring to Shakira Austin, Ariel Atkins and Delle Donne being sidelined for a large stretch of the season. "They wouldn't be in the playoffs, so it says a lot about our team."
Delle Donne finished 4-for-16 from the field and briefly left the floor in the third quarter to "get some things loosened up" after a hard fall. Despite missing 17 regular-season games with an ankle sprain and a hip injury, she said she was healthy for these playoffs and was just having a tough night offensively.
It was Cloud -- a former second-round pick out of St. Joseph's -- who shined for Washington, becoming the first player in franchise history to have a 30-point, five-assist and five-rebound game, while scoring or assisting on 53 of the Mystics' points. Her big night came after she made comments on Monday insisting she would guard Ionescu all 40 minutes in Game 2 and that the Liberty were in for a "rude awakening."
Cloud has long been known for her defense, but her 33 points (including going 5-for-7 from 3) were well above her career high (26 points) and playoff career best (21 points) marks. The 29-point swing between her Game 1 and Game 2 scoring tied the largest increase in individual scoring from one game to the next in WNBA playoff history.
"She backed it up," Mystics coach Eric Thibault said. "It was probably one of the best games of her career."
After their intense matchup in which Cloud and the Mystics did relatively contain Ionescu (11 points, five assists), Cloud and Ionescu hugged it out following the matchup.
"I know I talk s---, and I know I was in Sabrina's stuff and I know I took a few hard fouls on her," Cloud said afterward. "Even though I take that villain role in the game, I have a lot of respect for Sabrina and who Sabrina is, what she is to our league, who she is as a player. And so iron sharpens iron, that's what I said to her."