BY LESLIE MONTEIRO
(Photo by Steven Freeman/NBAE via Getty Images)
Sabrina Ionescu’s trajectory from her Oregon Ducks days said she will be a WNBA star. The late Kobe Bryant thought highly of her to the point they became friends. She was a highlight reel. She was a winner. Her 2,562 points, 1,040 rebounds and 1,091 assists in her college basketball career told her story. Her 26 career triple-doubles hold the NCAA record that may not be broken ever. Her Final Four appearance gave a taste of what’s to come.
Ionescu hasn’t experienced WNBA success yet. In her first season, she played only three games after suffering a Grade 3 left ankle sprain that had her miss the season. Her second season was more like a first full season, and it showed by playing like a rookie instead of being a dynamic player that can win games for the Liberty. It did not help she was still playing hurt as she suffered tendinitis on her ankle.
She entered her third WNBA season on Saturday night with not much fanfare. She obviously had to earn her keep after two uneventful seasons, especially in a demanding sports town that needs a reason to pay attention to her, the Liberty and the sport she plays.
She may be on her way if her first game of the 2022 season served as an indication. Make no mistake. She starred in the Liberty’s 81-79 victory over the Eastern Conference favorite Connecticut Sun at Barclays Center. On her way to a 25-point performance, she started the 10-4 Liberty run that gave them a 78-74 lead by scoring on a 3-point play (a jump shot before the free-throw shot that gave her 20 points), hitting a 3-pointer and driving in a layup that set the stage for Jocelyn Willoughby‘s jumper to finish the run.
Maybe we knew Ionescu would do something special when she plodded her way to make a shot that had her in the bonus for a three-point play late in the second quarter. She executed it to cut the Liberty’s deficit to 28-27 after starting the game on a 12-2 hole. Her 3-pointer gave the Liberty a 33-30 lead, the team’s first in the contest.
It did not come easy for her to begin with. She scored two points on 1-of-4 shooting, and she couldn’t get anything going with her patented jump shot.
Rather than force-feed the issue, she focused on doing the little things before letting the game come to her. She set up Natasha Howard (16 points) using the pick-and-roll that helped the Liberty start their comeback. She facilitated the offense by setting up picks. She did the grunt work of getting rebounds and forcing turnovers.
Then, everything came to place in the second quarter when her shots came together. She scored 13 of her 15 first-half points in that quarter.
It was only fitting that the opportunity presented itself for Ionescu to be the star down the stretch.
She knew what she was doing out there in plotting her attack. She took her time in creating her shot. She had a good grasp of when to execute.
Crazy as it sounds, her best play came when she was dribbling to make her move and then found a room to pass the ball to Willoughby (13 points), who scored, giving the Liberty a 42-33 lead. Making shots can be a highlight reel, but there’s nothing like making a play and seeing a teammate execute on a pass that does not get talked about much or mentioned in the boxscore.
Like Sami Whitcomb (15 points) and Willoughby, Ionescu took hits and kept on grinding. This epitomized her toughness along with her’s team’s toughness that lacked for a long time. Her intangibles and her offense make her a complete player that the Liberty can enjoy.
This hasn’t been fun for Ionescu the last two seasons. That’s the way it goes with injuries. It’s easy to say that she could be star-crossed. After all, nothing good happens with the Liberty when one looks at their sorry history.
If there was anyone on the Liberty deserving of a good night, it was Ionescu.
Maybe now she can relax and put her injury behind her for good. Maybe this starts what could be a good season for her and the Liberty.
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