Jonquel Jones, Liberty hand Sun first loss of the season in key Commissioner’s Cup game

Jonquel Jones decimated her former Connecticut Sun team in a Saturday matinee in a key Eastern Conference WNBA Commissioner’s Cup game.

The Liberty star knocked down a 26-footer to put her team up six with 3:23 remaining. Following a trey by Connecticut sharpshooter Tyasha Harris, Jones rattled in her own trey with 1:15 remaining to put the Liberty up four.

“It’s a wonderful luxury to have someone like JJ on our team,” head coach Sandy Brondello said about her star center.

The plays were part of the Liberty’s pristine half-court offense displayed in the fourth against the WNBA’s last undefeated squad. The final dagger came on a Betnijah Laney-Hamilton assist to a cutting Sabrina Ionescu with 43 seconds remaining. The layup put the Liberty up six en route to an 82-75 win at Mohegan Sun Arena. Those two points were part of the 18 Ionescu scored or assisted on during the final 8:30 of regulation, per ESPN. The Sun scored just 13 points during that span.

Ionescu said postgame the run was inspired by her getting “mad” following Brondello’s decision to bench the star following a turnover.

“So I think it was just staying patient but definitely lit a fire up inside me a little bit,” said Ionescu, who finished with a game-high 24 points and five assists. “[We] came out and decided to settle down and execute.”

What followed was icing on the cake: “Let’s go Liberty” chants inside the away arena.

The win hands the Sun (9-1) their first loss of the season. It also assures the Liberty (10-2) will finish atop the Eastern Conference in Cup standings.

Jones logged 22 points, eight rebounds, five assists and four blocks. Connecticut’s DeWanna Bonner scored a team-high 16 points in the loss.

The Sun got started by blitzing Ionescu and the other Liberty ballhanders at the perimeter, like they did to start last year’s second-round postseason matchup. That look led to an open layup for Jones and the former Sun star later ran in transition to score on a Breanna Stewart assist. The Liberty led 15-7 by the time Stephanie White called her first timeout midway through the first.

“I think it opened up everything,” Ionescu said about the Sun’s early trap defense. She added that if “there’s two on the ball, someone’s open.”

The Liberty eventually finished the first quarter up 10 as Ionescu made all four of her shots (two treys) in the period.

The Sun then began to pick apart the Liberty’s defense and went on a 12-2 run that tied the game with 6:21 remaining in the second. Tiffany Mitchell tied the game after converting a traditional three-point play after getting whacked by Jones in the paint. Bonner’s free throws a minute later put her team up two but Ionescu got herself to the line to tie the game again. Ionescu’s free throws ended a four-minute scoring drought for the Liberty.

The scoring slump was the Liberty’s latest example of poor second-quarter performances. They lost the quarter, 21-11, but went into halftime tied thanks to the play of Jones. The team looked to her when the offense stalled and she contributed with five points during the final 2:42 of the second. She went into halftime with nine points (4-of-5 shooting), four boards, three blocks and two assists.

Connecticut’s stout defense — led by star Alyssa Thomas — returned after halftime. Thomas smothered Stewart all night, leading to the 2023 MVP to shoot just four first half attempts. Stewart ended with 13 points and seven boards on 5-for-11 shooting.

Thomas put her team up seven midway through the third after smothering Ionescu, ripping the ball away from her and finishing on the break on the other end. But Stewart found some breathing room and tallied six points down the stretch of the third, including a tough floater over Thomas while running away from the rim. The Liberty entered the fourth down three.

Saturday’s fourth quarter was reminiscent of last year’s playoff matchup, when two of the four games were decided by single digits. This time around was a bit different as the Liberty were without Courtney Vandersloot (personal reasons). Kayla Thornton started in her place.

Both Laney-Hamilton and Thomas finished on triple-double watch. The Liberty star recorded 10 points, seven boards and six assists while last year’s MVP runner-up 10 points, 12 boards and seven assists.

Connecticut benefitted from the play of center Brionna Jones, who missed the second half of last season due to an Achilles injury. The big finished with 13 points and four boards.

But Jonquel Jones was too much for Connecticut. And her surging play has the Liberty in another Commissioner’s Cup championship game.