Sabrina Ionescu scored 33 points in a game last year, but it was in a loss. She then had 25 points and 11 assists in this season’s opener and hit a game-winning shot near the buzzer, but she wasn't her team’s leading scorer in that game.
On Tuesday night, at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, she put a WNBA team on her back for the first time, made the key plays down the stretch needed for the team to pull away with a comfortable margin of victory and recorded just the 10th triple-double in league history with 26 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists.
Ionescu’s New York Liberty defeated the favored Minnesota Lynx (0-2) 86-75 to improve to 3-0 after the team amassed just two wins all of last season.
“Getting a triple-double in a win is what’s important,” Ionescu said. “If I got that in a loss, it wouldn’t mean anything to me. ... Those things never are easy and they never come without help from everyone else on the court. So I’m just super thankful to have the teammates around me and to be surrounded by such great players. But it’s definitely pretty cool.”
“This team getting to see what they’re capable of this early is a big deal for us,” Liberty coach Walk Hopkins said of the best start for the franchise since 2007. “(Sab) really picked apart a good Minnesota defense. They’re aggressive and they pressure a lot and I thought Sab handled that really really well. She spread the ball all over the court, she was composed. And to go with it she found ways to score. But I really can’t say enough about the team as a whole.”
The Liberty still have not had the services of their most proven star entering the season, Natasha Howard, who has been playing overseas. Ionescu and Betnijah Laney (20 points and five assists on Tuesday) have more than stepped up in her absence.
Ionescu’s 10th assist came with 8:55 to play and led to a Sami Whitcomb jumper that put New York up 64-59. The Lynx cut it back to three twice soon after and to four with 6:05 to go. Ionescu had another assist to Whitcomb (13 points, eight rebounds, three steals) during that stretch. The Liberty then led by at least nine after Whitcomb and Ionescu made back-to-back threes that pushed the team’s lead to 10 at the 5:12 mark.
New York built up a seven-point lead entering the fourth thanks to a 19-10 edge in the third. Ionescu made the triple that gave the Liberty its biggest lead of the third (seven) with 2:42 remaining before the fourth.
The Liberty displayed some stellar ball movement during a 15-0 run early in the first that took the score to 15-4. Ionescu made a nice assist on a Laney three that made it 5-4 and Kylee Shook (10 points, six rebounds) followed with a triple that made it 8-4. Laney then caught the distributing bug on a nice pass to Shook for a layup that made it 10-4. A deep Ionescu three pushed it to 13-4. However, the Lynx fought back to trail by just two entering the second and won the second 24-20.
Ionescu became the youngest player to ever record a triple-double in the WNBA at 23 years and 163 days old. She had an NCAA-record 26 triple-doubles in college and has now already accomplished the rare feat in a league where only Sheryl Swoopes has done it twice. WNBA fans hadn't be treated to a triple-double since Chelsea Gray had 13 points, 10 rebounds and 13 assists for the Los Angeles Sparks on July 7, 2019.
Ionescu joins Lisa Leslie as the only other player to record a WNBA triple-double that featured 20-plus points.
Sylvia Fowles led Minnesota with 26 points and 11 boards, while Kayla McBride added 16 points and Jessica Shepard had 12 points, six rebounds and three assists. The Lynx are expected to be contenders this year, but were without their best player in Napheesa Collier, who is COVID testing following her season overseas.
Whitcomb, who was on the championship-winning Seattle Storm last year had high praise for her new team.
“I think we fight, we really enjoy playing together,” she said. “We’re not afraid of anybody or any expectations other people have for us. We know I think kind of what we’re capable of. And we just play. You know, we’ve got really good players, obviously playmakers, people who can really just knock down shots. I think out energy, our effort and just how connected we are defensively right now is turning into what our identity is as a team.”