NEW YORK — Jonquel Jones was the last of the New York Liberty’s five starters to approach the sideline with just over a minute to play in the fourth quarter. As she walked toward coach Sandy Brondello, she applauded the sellout crowd of 17,143, returning the favor to those at Barclays Center who waved their white rally towels in delight throughout Game 3. Jones shared a brief hug with Brondello, then exchanged high-fives with the Liberty’s assistants while making her way down the sideline. On the baseline, Jones shared an embrace with guards Courtney Vandersloot and Betnijah Laney. Her night had finished. She scored a team-high 27 points, on 10-of-15 shooting from the field.
Watching it all happen, in Barclays Center’s lower bowl, was Yolett McPhee-McCuin. McPhee-McCuin, a Bahamian who is trying to create a coaching blueprint, is now the head coach for Ole Miss. But to Jones, who also grew up in the Bahamas, McPhee-McCuin isn’t only a collegiate coach. “Coach Yo is family,” Jones said. “I knew Coach Yo from before I was ever here.”
Here is the bowels of Barclays Center, walking down a hallway just minutes removed from an effort Jones describes as one of the best in her career. It is after Game 3 of the 2023 WNBA Finals. It’s with a new team, in a new city, and in an arena that has embraced her. In addition to her scoring, Jones hauled in eight rebounds, avoiding elimination to extend New York’s season with an 87-73 win over the Las Vegas Aces. “This is the most aggressive I’ve seen her,” McPhee-McCuin said. “Just super proud of Jonquel.”
JJ put on show for the city with her 27 PT performance in game 3 🔥💪 pic.twitter.com/IHLTMVei2p
— New York Liberty (@nyliberty) October 15, 2023
Jones was one of New York’s three high-profile offseason acquisitions, coming to the franchise as part of a blockbuster trade with the Connecticut Sun. At times throughout the Liberty’s preseason training camp, Jones spent more time on the sideline than on the court. Jones and the Liberty were cautious as she recovered from a stress reaction in her left foot that she said she suffered during last year’s WNBA Finals. Brondello stressed patience, and Jones acknowledged she didn’t feel like herself.
Those days, however, are months in the rearview. Though it took Jones 10 games to record her first double-double this season, it’s now surprising when she doesn’t. The 6-foot-6 center had logged a WNBA-record eight consecutive postseason games with at least 10 points and 10 rebounds before finishing two boards short Sunday.
“It’s OK,” she said coyly of her streak ending.
She had other reasons to celebrate.
Jones has developed into New York’s defensive anchor, helping lead a unit that was No. 2 in defensive rating during the second half of the regular season. After Game 3, Brondello applauded her big’s ability to shot-block — Jones had three Sunday, including one on Kelsey Plum late in the third quarter that sparked one of the loudest cheers of the night — while also changing opponents’ drives on shots she couldn’t make contact with. Jones switched out on the Aces’ guards, limiting their effectiveness as well. Plum, Chelsea Gray and Jackie Young combined for 48 points for the Aces, down from 72 in Game 1 and 61 in Game 2.
On offense, Jones has been New York’s most consistent player and a force on the offensive glass, whether the Liberty are clicking or not. She can also stretch the defense — a first-quarter 3 with just over three minutes remaining in the period saw Liberty Ring of Honor member Sue Wicks rise to her feet in delight from her courtside seat.
It took time for Jones to find her role with the Liberty. Yet Sunday served as a reminder, if anyone still needed it, of just how dominant the 2021 WNBA MVP could be.
McPhee-McCuin wasn’t surprised by it at all. She felt pride watching Jones’ effort. “She’s just such a good person,” McPhee-McCuin said. “This was a great opportunity for her to step up and say, ‘No, this is my time.’”
Jones said McPhee-McCuin’s father, Gladstone “Moon” McPhee, “taught me everything that I know about basketball.” The two still keep in touch. Fifteen minutes after Jones had received her final applause from the crowd of thousands, she walked back out of an arena tunnel to the floor she had starred on. She spotted McPhee-McCuin, and they posed for photos together, basking in the moment.
“I just really believe in Jonquel and I know that she really wants this,” McPhee-McCuin said.
What a game! Super proud of JJ today! I’m not surprised I’m just proud! Jonquel deserves it all! 🇧🇸👑 pic.twitter.com/bI6KKDVp1R
— Coach Yo (@YolettMcCuin) October 15, 2023
Jones’s current coach feels the same way.
“She’s a superstar, this girl. She’s amazing. She’s very humble,” Brondello said. “We wouldn’t be here without JJ.”
The challenge, now, for the Liberty is how to keep their season going and flip the series back to Las Vegas. The Aces still lead 2-1. Jones’ defensive presence will again be key on the inside, but New York will need forward Breanna Stewart to replicate her 20-point, 12-rebound double-double. How Sabrina Ionescu, Vandersloot and Laney perform Wednesday in Game 4 will additionally be critical in determining the Liberty’s fate.
Jones knows she also needs to match Sunday’s effort. Coming into Game 3 she felt energized and didn’t “want to let the moment pass us by.” Feeding off the crowd’s energy, she was relentless and imposing. Jones’ last adjustment of the night might have come in the Liberty’s postseason news conference. Initially, Jones was seated on the media dais to Brondello’s left. But when Stewart and her daughter, Ruby, walked in, Jones slid over two seats. The trio answered questions as Ruby played on the steps leading to the stage. Perhaps Ruby was on Jones’ mind when she reflected on her own journey.
“(Coach Yo has) probably known me from when I was Ruby’s size, to be honest,” Jones said.
Much has changed since the two first met, with Jones showing why she is one of the league’s best players.
“That’s the level I’m gonna have to play, and keep it at,” Jones said. “I felt great out there tonight.”
(Photo of Jonquel Jones, left, and Kelsey Plum: Ethan Miller / Getty Images)