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Sabrina Ionescu debuts at Barclays Center in style

Sabrina Ionescu dreamt of making a game-winning shot on Thursday night and made one on Friday night to lift the New York Liberty past the Indiana Fever in the WNBA’s season opener.

Indiana Fever v New York Liberty
Sabrina Ionescu (jersey #20)
Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Sabrina Ionescu had 5.8 seconds to work with.

She inbounded the ball to Kylee Shook and then used a Shook screen and handoff to give her some space on the left wing.

She didn’t hesitate. Her 3-point attempt went through the net with 0.4 seconds remaining and her New York Liberty (1-0) held on to defeat the Indiana Fever (0-1) 90-87 on Friday night in the WNBA’s season opener.

You couldn’t have scripted a better debut for Ionescu (25 points, 11 assists) at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center.

“I actually, not gonna lie at all, dreamt about it last night,” said 2020’s No. 1 draft pick, who carries the weight of extremely high expectations on her shoulders after playing just three games in the Bradenton, Fla. wubble last year due to injury. “I try and not think about basketball too much the night before a game because I get nervous and don’t sleep. But I 100 percent had envisioned hitting a game-winner.

So when we were tied and walking into the huddle, I just was smiling because it was almost like too good to be true. I was like ‘I’m gonna hit this.’ The coaches drew up a play for me to get the ball. My coaches believed in me, my team believed in me. I was just ready for the moment, you know, I’ve been waiting a while to get back on the court. So just so happy we were able to get this win.”

Ionescu scored the final five points of the game and the Liberty’s last eight.

The Fever had a chance to go up two and leave very little time left on the clock when they took over possession with 21.8 seconds remaining, but their star player, Kelsey Mitchell (team-high 23 points) barely travelled with 5.8 ticks left, turning the ball over to the Liberty.

Indiana was up four with 47 seconds to go before Ionescu made a three to cut it to one with 39.7 remaining.

Free agency acquisition Betnijah Laney, who was 2020’s Most Improved Player, led New York with 30 points (20 in the first half) and was 4-of-5 from distance. The Liberty, who love to shoot threes, were 13-of-26 as a team after finishing last season dead last in the league at 27.7 percent.

Indiana Fever v New York Liberty
Betnijah Laney (jersey #44) high fives Sabrina Ionescu.
Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

“It was something that I focused on in the offseason and had been able to excel at in training camp,” Laney said of 3-point shooting. “So for it to show up on the court when the lights are on is real good.”

Ionescu was 4-of-8 from deep and rookie Michaela Onyenwere, who finished with 18 points, was 3-of-6. Onyenwere wasn’t a big 3-point shooter in college but went to her long range shot right away as she opened the scoring for the 2021 season with a made triple 1 minute and 13 seconds into the contest.

“There was a lot of question about (her 3-point shot) when we drafted her,” Liberty head coach Walt Hopkins said of Onyenwere. “We knew from watching her shot that we had no concerns. I’m not saying she's going to shoot 3-of-6 every single game, but she’s more than capable of having nights like this.”

Onyenwere scored more points in a WNBA debut than any Liberty player ever.

It was a back-and-forth game with no big leads, but the Liberty’s leads were bigger and they just could not pull away. They led by seven with 7:17 to play and by eight at the 8:14 mark of the fourth.

Laney cooled off in the third, but Ionescu had some long passes ahead to teammates that kept New York going. She was two assists off from tying Teresa Weatherspoon’s Liberty single-game record set in 1998.

The game was tied at 47 at halftime.

It was a game of runs early on before the teams started trading baskets about halfway through the second. A Laney three made it 36-33 New York. K. Mitchell answered to make it 36-36 with 3:50 to go before the break. The largest lead the remainder of the second was two and it was 38-38, 40-40 and 45-45.

Down 12-10 early, the Liberty started to get hot. Sharpshooter Sami Whitcomb hit her second three of the game and then passed up a three to find a wide open Onyenwere for a layup to make it 15-12. Laney then made three triples that gave New York leads of six, 11 and seven, respectively. The last of those treys made the team 6-of-7 from deep. The Liberty led by five after one.

In addition to K. Mitchell, Teaira McCowan was a bright spot for the Fever, scoring 22 points and hauling in a game-high 16 rebounds.