The Liberty’s honeymoon is over.
Tuesday night, the Liberty sputtered down the stretch in College Park, Ga., in a 73-69 loss to the Atlanta Dream, going scoreless over the final four minutes and scoring just 11 points in the fourth quarter to fall to eighth place at 8-9.
A breathless 5-1 start has given way to the middling reality at the WNBA season’s halfway point. But there are playoff spots up for grabs in the middle tier (beneath the league’s top three, eight teams vying for five spots are separated by just two games in the standings) and losses like Tuesday’s don’t help.
“I know that they’re pretty disappointed,” Liberty head coach Walt Hopkins said of his players. “We held them to 35 percent [shooting] and lost. It’s frustrating.”
Betnijah Laney, expected to be named an All-Star on Wednesday, led the way for the Liberty with 16 points and seven assists, but had several costly misses — including a potential game-tying layup with 25 seconds left — and a turnover down the stretch as a 69-65 lead melted away.
Courtney Williams scored 18 points, including a go-ahead basket with 58.2 seconds left, for the Dream.
“I thought Betnijah carried us,” Hopkins said. “It’s hard for me to speak on that last possession because I think we’re not even in that position without the way she played.”
Sabrina Ionescu, who exceeded her 25-minute restriction (part of a prolonged recovery from tearing ligaments in her left ankle) by playing 28:50, scored six points with six rebounds and one assist. Sami Whitcomb, after scoring a career-high 30 points in a win over the Dream in Game 1 of this mini-series on Saturday, had 11 points, and rookie of the year front-runner Michaela Onyenwere had 13.
Next up for the Liberty are a crucial pair of dates at Barclays Center against the Washington Mystics (Saturday) and Dallas Wings (Monday). Both teams also are inhabitants of the crowded near-.500 district from which postseason berths will be decided.
Veteran center Kiah Stokes was a late scratch due to what the Liberty termed “personal reasons.” Asked about Stokes’ absence after the game, Hopkins said, “We’ll have more on that tomorrow.”
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