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A star is born: Sabrina Ionescu hits buzzer beater to help Liberty celebrate return to New York

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Indiana Fever v New York Liberty Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

The New York Liberty’s Brooklyn debut did not disappoint. Not in the slightest.

After falling behind the Indiana Fever by three points with 1:32 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Liberty responded with a 9-3 surge ultimately culminating in Sabrina Ionescu’s game-winner several feet behind the 3-point stripe.

Final score: Liberty 90, Fever 87.

Ionescu, the No. 1 overall pick in 2020, shone throughout the night, scoring 25 points and dishing 11 assists. Considering that she suffered a major ankle injury last year - cutting her season short midway into her third game in the WNBA “wubble” - and hadn’t played in 10 months, 36 minutes was definitely a hearty load for the star. Postgame, coach Walt Hopkins acknowledged that he rode Sabrina hard, saying:

“She was playing a heck of a game. And right now, it’s about putting the best group out there that we can to try to win. And I thought, Sab was just really playing well and we wanted to ride her so we stuck with it.”

“I 100 percent had a vision of hitting a game winner,” said Ionescu, who wore her friend and mentor Kobe Bryant’s Lakers jersey in the postgame news conference. “We were tied walking into the huddle and I was smiling. It was too good to be true. ... I was ready for the moment.”

In fact, she said post-game that she had dreamed about hitting the winning shot on Thursday night...

Here are Ionescu’s game highlights in what was her fourth game as a pro:

Another player who logged major minutes tonight was Betnijah Laney. Laney, the Liberty’s big offseason signing, had 30 points on 11-18 shooting and 4-for-5 shooting from beyond the arc, as well as being a team-high +9. When Hopkins was asked pregame which player was going under-the-radar but who he expected to play well, the second year head coach instantly replied with Laney. Postgame, he reflected on his prediction:

“I got asked before the game who would be the surprise that people should look out for and I said Benijah immediately. 4-of-5 from three, 4-of-6 from the free throw line, 5 rebounds, two assists, and some stellar defense. She’s a really, really special addition for us. And on top of that, the intangibles are through the roof with her. She’s a really good leader, a really good teammate, extremely coachable. We lucked out, that she chose us in free agency, we really did.”

Laney appreciated the vote of confidence from her coach: “I’m just happy that I’m playing under someone who believes in me and everything I have to offer, and is backing me.”

Making it sweeter: The Liberty beat the team that cut Laney before last season ... and before she earned Most Improved Player honors with the Atlanta Dream.

Michaela Oneywere had a fantastic game of her own. The rookie’s 3-point shooting had been described during training camp as a “pleasant surprise” by assistant coach Shelley Patterson and it showed Friday night. Onyewere, who played collegiate ball with UCLA, went 3-for-6 from deep on her way to 18 points in her WNBA debut. Those 18 points were a Liberty record for points from a rookie in a debut.

Despite a modest statline - only two points and two rebounds - second round draft pick DiDi Richards made a major impact after being inserted in the second half. After building a reputation for being a defensive stalwart at Baylor, her prowess on the defensive end helped the Liberty handle Indiana’s size down low. Here’s what coach Hopkins had to say about Richards postgame:

“DiDi’s energy was huge. I thought DiDi and Reshanda [Gray] were both tide-changers. When they came in, the rebounding changed, the pace of the game changed, we really got out and ran,” Hopkins explained.

“DiDi did such a good job spreading the ball around making passes. That one where she danced around, got a steal, came down the other end, hit a little pullup. You know, she’s gonna be a really nice piece for us. Again, the further into the season we get, and the more comfortable she gets, people are going to be pretty surprised she was there at 17.”

As for the Fever, they hurt the Liberty inside and out. 6’ 7” center Teaira McCowan had 22 points and 16 rebounds, seven being offensive ones. On top of that, guard Kelsey Mitchell had 23 points despite a cold shooting night from deep. The Liberty were without their best defensive big —and three time WNBA champion — Natasha Howard who is still playing in Europe.

Other milestones

The game also marked the beginning of the Liberty’s 25th season and the team’s return to the city. Over the last decade, the Liberty have played only four seasons inside city limits. They were exiled to the Prudential Center in Newark from 2011 through 2013 while Madison Square Garden underwent renovations, then moved to the Westchester County Center in White Plains for the 2018 and 2019 seasons. Finally, last year, the team played in the WNBA “wubble” in Bradenton, Florida.

Attendance for the game was listed at 1,225, the maximum under the state’s health and safety protocols.

What’s Next?

The Liberty will once again face off against the Indiana Fever in Indianapolis on Sunday afternoon at 2 p,m. in a re-match on Friday’s matchup. The game will be broadcast on the YES app.