Katie Smith
AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

The New York Liberty fell to the Connecticut Sun, but a strong effort led by a first-year duo provided good vibes.

Magliocchetti with the Liberty

If moral victories counted, everyone would be undefeated. The New York Liberty, however, will happily take what they can get. Victory was not to be on Friday night against one of the WNBA’s top contenders. But rookie wonders provided a fascinating glimpse of New York basketball’s hopeful future.

Marine Johannes set a new career-high with 21 points, while Han Xu enjoyed the first extended action of her professional career. The Connecticut Sun triumphed in a 94-84 decision, but an aura of hope took over Westchester County Center.

“I hope it’s a positive. I hope they have a lot of confidence in themselves that no matter who, what, when, they can play,” head coach Katie Smith said of Friday’s game. “I hope (tonight) breathes a little confidence into a lot of these players, not only for the rest of the season, but into the future.”

With the Liberty (9-22) removed from the WNBA playoff picture, they were in dire straights with Connecticut coming to town. The Sun (22-9) are not only closing on one of the postseason’s automatic trips to the semifinals but also homecourt advantage through the WNBA Finals.

Friday’s win situated them only a half-game behind the Washington Mystics for the latter honor. A scary situation became even more brutal for the Liberty when it was revealed top scorer and seven-time All-Star Tina Charles (rest) would sit out.

New York’s youngsters rose to the occasion.

Johannes rediscovered her outside shooting prowess, sinking 4-of-5 three-pointers in the first half. She would eventually finish 8-of-14 from the field and dished out six assists, another new personal best. The French newcomer also reached double figures in scoring for the first time since Aug. 7.

Smith was impressed with Johannes’ aggressiveness against the feisty Sun.

“I thought she was aggressive,” she said. “There was a little lull there where she really wasn’t looking to score. I like the aggressiveness. I think she has great vision. She’s comfortable, has quickness to get around traps. She can knock down shots.”

White Plains would later roar for the antics of 19-year-old Han Xu.

The historic second-round pick from April’s draft has struggled to establish a firm spot in the Liberty’s rotation, but Friday proved to be a welcome exception. She entered the game in the first quarter en route to playing a career-high 18 minutes.

It was the first of several landmarks Han set in Westchester. She also put up 12 points, half of which were earned through a pair of three-pointers that brought things to a fever pitch.

Smith noted that New York’s elimination could lead to new opportunities for the China-born rookies. Both she and Han were pleased with the way phase one of the plan turned out.

“Overall, she knows how to play, I’ve always said it,” Smith said. “She knows the game. She’s smart on both ends. Just boxing out, certainly physicality on some players. But I thought, overall, (she was) very comfortable defensive and offensively.”

With the help of injured fellow rookie Asia Durr, Han remained humble after her big moment.

“I’m feeling excited. I haven’t calmed down yet. I think I played good today, but I played bad today (as well),” she said. Han noted she shot 5-of-14 from the field and only earned one rebound, stats she’s eager to remedy. “(My) rebounding is super bad. I need to be smart to get a rebound. And, you know, I shoot a lot, but miss a lot of times. I need to make it.”

In the end, though, Han was grateful for the reaction from the Liberty crowd.

“Thank you. Thanks, everybody. I keep learning. I won’t give up so I can play better.”

One final heroine arose in the hopeful New York effort in the form of Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe. The Canadian veteran stepped in for Charles to make her first start since July 2017. She would respond with a season-best 10 points and a new career-high seven rebounds.

“I’m really proud of how the team played tonight,” Raincock-Ekunwe said. “We played well, we played together, we passed the ball well, we worked well together. It’s late in the season but I’m still trying to get better.

“I’m hopeful we can get some wins.”

Courtney Williams led the Sun with 29 points. Her sharpshooting (10-of-19 FG) helped Connecticut stave off a Liberty rally in the third quarter. Raincock-Ekunwe’s entrance into double figures earned the Liberty a 61-57 lead, but the Sun embarked on a 10-0 run over the final 2:20 to reestablish the lead. Six points in that run came from the hands of Jonquel Jones (12 points). The victory also allowed Connecticut to sweep 2019’s three-game set with the Liberty.

A loss is a loss, but it’s one from where the Liberty can glean many silver linings.

“Loved the energy. I thought we moved the ball. I thought people were attacking. A lot of people were involved,” Smith said. “(We were) locked in and really bringing the energy on both ends.”

The Liberty will play their penultimate home game of the season on Tuesday against the aforementioned Mystics (7:00 p.m. ET, NBA TV).

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