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Is Jonquel Jones the key to the Liberty’s WNBA title run?

NEW YORK — The Liberty trailed by two points with 12.6 seconds left in Game 2 of the first round of the playoffs against the Washington Mystics. Sabrina Ionescu stepped to the free throw line with a chance to tie the game but missed on her first attempt. The crowd at Barclays Center groaned, but the Liberty remained confident. Jonquil Jones lies on the floor.

Ionescu intentionally missed his second foul, putting into practice a play the team had been practicing all season: Jones, New York’s best offensive rebounder, sprinted through the paint after the ball bounced off the rim. Go to the penalty area on the right and block the ball. She fought back and was fouled.

When she stepped to the line, Jones believed she had to make the free throws, especially after costly turnovers on several previous possessions. Two-time MVP Breanna Stewart has no doubt Jones will knock them out. “I knew we were going into overtime,” Stewart said, “and that’s what happened.”

Jones hit two free throws to send the game into overtime, and the Liberty swept their opponents and advanced to the WNBA semifinals for the first time since 2015. That’s what Jones came to New York for – to help the Liberty win the franchise’s first WNBA championship, even after the season. It didn’t start out as she hoped.

For the second-seeded Liberty to beat the third-seeded Connecticut Sun — including Friday’s Game 3 in Uncasville (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2/ESPN App) — New York The team needs an active and confident Jones on both ends of the floor. The same would be true if the Liberty advanced to the WNBA Finals, where they would likely face the defending champion Las Vegas Aces, if they tied 1-1 in the best-of-five semifinals. Jones is ready to deliver.

A year ago, Jones might have been on the other side of this matchup. This past offseason, with one year left on her contract, the 2021 MVP requested a trade from the Suns — with whom she has made two Finals appearances over the past four years — —Traded to New York. A three-team deal in January brought her and Kayla Thornton to Brooklyn, creating buzz around the league before free agency officially opened.

Jones knew something special could happen in New York, especially when her former UMMC Yekaterinburg teammates Stewart and Courtney Vandersloot followed her with free agent signings.

Liberty coach Sandy Brondello said New York will need time to figure out how to put all the new pieces together. But Jones, a 6-foot-6 Bahamian center, also struggled to find her footing early, in large part because of her feet.

Jones suffered a stress reaction in his left foot in last year’s Finals and is still training with a nutritional injury this spring. She sat out most of training camp and then was on a minutes restriction at the start of the regular season. She didn’t start out where she wanted to and she was settling into a new team and system.

Prior to the All-Star break, Jones was averaging 22.6 minutes, 10.3 points and 6.1 rebounds, both of which were much lower than her usual numbers.

“Walking around the court, I just didn’t feel like myself,” Jones told ESPN this week. “I felt like I wasn’t adjusting well enough to be able to walk around the court and do the things I normally do.”

The physical limitations began to take a toll on the mental ones. Jones wanted to play well so badly that “I mentally took myself out of the game,” she said. She said she got caught up in negative self-talk, didn’t look like herself on the floor, and wasn’t happy. “You can definitely see it there,” she said.

Jones’ new teammates helped her get through it, helping her get through it. Brondero and her staff always believed in her and told her she was going to be okay.

“We all believe that she can fill this role on this team and play such an important role,” Ionescu said, adding that she has been a great teammate even as Jones finds her own path. . “That’s why we really want her to be here and she really wants to be here.”

Things started to change for Jones after the All-Star break in mid-July, when she finally felt like “everything came together: mentality, my physical condition and being able to do what I wanted to do on the court.”

Jones won the MVP in large part because she was able to regain her joy on the court; this season, her mid-summer transformation struck a familiar tone: She turned to “finding fun in the game instead of looking at statistics or worrying about what I’m giving numbers”.

In addition to scoring, Jones focuses on impacting the game in other ways. Her self-talk became “more positive” and was based on taking one scene at a time. She celebrates and enjoys time with her teammates, whether it’s dancing in warmups with Thornton or dining with Nyala Sabally and Jocelyn Willoughby, who remind her why she plays this game.

“I just told my mom: When I was young, I had to choose between football, basketball and track, and I hated track because I just hated being out there by myself; I always preferred team sports,” Jones said. explain. “It goes back to the joy of playing with people you love, and now we’re getting paid to do it, so it’s even more amazing.”

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Jonquil Jones scores in the paint

Jonquel Jones faced off against a defender and scored an impressive layup for Liberty.

Jones’ mental transformation and physical readiness over the past two-plus months are undeniable: Her scoring has gone up since the All-Star break, and her playing time has increased, but the most obvious difference has been her rebounding , her rebounding average was 10.3 in the second half per game.

Brondero challenged Jones to score a double-double every night; she had only managed two before the All-Star break. Since then, Jones has nine goals and, as the coach says, “the numbers don’t lie.” Jones notched a double-double in the regular season as Liberty went 11-0. Her interior defense along with Stewart also helped New York become one of the best defensive teams in the league.

Jones’ return to form was solidified in the Commissioner’s Cup championship game, where she was named MVP after scoring 16 points and grabbing 15 rebounds against the Aces.

With so much attention on the nascent rivalry between Las Vegas and New York, Jones played a key role in dominating the paint and slowing down two-time MVP A’ja Wilson in the series. Jones had double-digit rebounds in New York’s three wins over Las Vegas (the Commissioner’s Cup final and two regular-season games). In both losses, she finished in single digits. In two games in early August, Liberty defeated the Aces, with Jones helping Wilson score nine points per game.

But beyond that specific matchup, Liberty has consistently pointed to the emergence of Jones when asked why they improved significantly in the second half of the season (Liberty had the best winning percentage since the All-Star break).

In addition to the free throws that forced overtime, Jones also played a key role in New York’s first-round victory over a tenacious Washington team. She averaged 19.5 points and 13 rebounds per game. She reached the double-double threshold in every game in the postseason, and Liberty went 3-1.

Now in the most important stage, Jones is full of confidence. But she learned to keep an even keel.

“I think it’s easy to say that,” she said, “but when you get into the season and you have high expectations going into a new environment, you forget about that. It’s good to have those as your personal foundation. … When things go a little off, you can pull yourself back and reposition yourself.”

In the rollercoaster of any game or series, this lesson will be one worth remembering as the Liberty looks to beat the Suns and whatever team awaits in the Finals. Jones hopes to capture her first WNBA championship.

“We are very proud of her for playing her role on this team,” Ionescu said.

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