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Liberty go to 3-0 behind Sabrina Ionescu’s historic triple-double at Barclays Center

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Minnesota Lynx v New York Liberty Photo by Steven Freeman/NBAE via Getty Images

With Sabrina Ionescu, their generational talent, racking up the franchise’s first ever triple-double, the New York Liberty defeated the Minnesota Lynx Tuesday, 86-75 and now sit atop the WNBA standings with a 3-0 record, their best start since 2007. In doing so, the Liberty also surpassed their win total in last year’s “wubble.”

In only her sixth career WNBA game, former No. 1 overall pick, Ionescu notched her first career triple-double, and the first ever in the Liberty’s 25-year history, 26 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds. Moreover, it was only the ninth triple double in league history and Ionescu became the youngest WNBA player to put up a trip dub...

Here’s Chris Shearn’s call of the big moment...

Oh baby, indeed.

Postgame, though, Ionescu was all about the team: “I’m excited, but I think I’m more excited that we got a win.”

As she’s done after every game, Ionescu then switched into Kobe Bryant gear to meet with reporters. Ionescu was a protege of Bryant and spoke at his memorial service.

Teammates and coaches alike have continued to rave about Ionescu, who is taking the league by storm in what she considers to still be her rookie season, having played only two and a half games last season before going down with a season-ending ankle injury.

In her first six games as a pro, the Oregon product has now posted a triple-double, hit a buzzer-beater and recorded a 33-point game for the Liberty.

Liberty head coach Walt Hopkins said of Ionescu, “she really picked apart a good Minnesota defense” and that she stayed composed, distributed for her teammates, while also finding ways to score.

“She’s really got a special mentality when it comes to her confidence in herself, her teammates, and her desire to win,” said Hopkins. “She’s impressing me, and that’s hard to do, because I know what she’s capable of.”

Starting center Kylee Shook echoed her coach’s sentiments:

“She’s always amazing. She always comes out with a level head, knowing what she needs to get done. It’s not a surprise to me that she got [the triple double] and she did it this early.”

Liberty co-owner Joe Tsai offered his congratulations in a late night tweet...

Despite the season’s hot start and his star’s milestone, Hopkins emphasized postgame it wasn’t about the wins. It was about the process:

“Obviously, the wins are fantastic, but had things gone other ways I’d be sitting here saying the same things - you guys know, because I did it last year when we were losing - that I’d see the growth and I’d see the places where we needed to get better.”

Since the beginning of training camp, the Liberty have tried to cultivate a defensive identity, prioritizing grit and hustle. Despite lacking a dominant interior presence to counter opponents post players -- which New York has already seen a lot of to start this young season — the Liberty are early leaders in defensive rating, ranking third in the 12-team league.

Hopkins told the media earlier in the year that during possessions when the Liberty don’t give up offensive rebounds, their defense numbers are “ridiculous.” So what happens on a night like Tuesday, where New York out-rebounded “one of the best rebounding teams in the league?”

The numbers tell the story: the Lynx were held to 75 points on 37.8 percent field goal percentage.

After a tight first half, the Liberty were able to build momentum in the third quarter by outscoring Minnesota by nine and ultimately pulling away in the fourth led by Ionescu.

One major reason: the Liberty’s ability to thwart legendary Lynx center Sylvia Fowles. In the first half, Fowles posted a stat line of 18 points and seven rebounds on 7-of-8 shooting from the field. In the second half, though, Liberty center Kylee Shook was up to the task, limiting Fowles to eight points and four rebounds on 4-of-9 shooting, as well as a -8 plus/minus. Postgame, Hopkins sang Shook’s praises, saying she was “phenomenal” and did a “really, really good job” handling Fowles down low.

“Syl[via Fowles] was vintage Syl[via Fowles] tonight, and Kylee’s had her hands full for three straight games and boy, she’s really stepped up big. You know, for us to come away with three straight wins. In the Liberty’s first two games, Shook had to deal with Indiana Fever’s Teaira McCowan, who’s one of the WNBA’s tallest players ever at 6’7”.

Betnijah Laney, who the Liberty signed as a free agent, continued her stellar play, scoring 20 points on 8-for-12 shooting. A member of the league’s All-Defensive team last year, the Rutgers product has carved out her name on offense as well, scoring at least 20 points in each of the three games. Before Tuesday’s contest, Hopkins insisted this isn’t some aberration of her catching a “hot streak”, but “that’s just simply who she is.”

Postgame, I asked Laney how she was able to maintain such consistency on the offensive end. Her answer:

“Just continuing to work and practice. You know, I know where I’m going to get my shots from, I know what kind of shots I’m going to take and that’s what I work on so that once I get into the game I stay fluid.”

The Liberty are doing all this despite the lack of arguable their most accomplished player: three-time WNBA champ Natasha Howard, one of the league’s top frontcourt players. The 6’3” Howard, acquired in a sign-and-trade from the Storm over the summer, is in health and safety protocols after returning from playing overseas. She’s expected back next week, likely for next Tuesday’s matchup against Dallas, if not Sunday against Chicago.

And as YES’s Shearn reminded viewers as the clock wound down at Barclays Center, there’s a historical precedent for the Liberty’s early season success. The Libs also started 3-0 in their inaugural season 25 years ago as well. They made the Finals that year.

As for the Lynx, there weren’t many star performers other than Folwes who finished with 26. Keyla McBride had 16 points on 5-of-12 shooting, but New York did a great job handling players like Aerial Powers.

The Liberty face off against the 2019 champion Mystics in the nation’s capital on Friday night at 7:00 pm. The game will be broadcast on YES.