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Opening Day Sabrina again flashes scoring potential

Another 25-point game for Sabrina Ionescu in a season opener and a great win for the New York Liberty.

Connecticut Sun v New York Liberty
Sami Whitcomb (left) and Sabrina Ionescu
Photo by Steven Freeman/NBAE via Getty Images

Sabrina Ionescu is known for her unique ability to score, assist and rebound — all at prolific rates. Last year, in her first full season in the WNBA, she averaged 6.1 assists (third in the league), 5.7 rebounds (20th in the league and second among guards), but also 11.7 points per game, which didn’t blow anyone away. Of course, that’s around what we expect from all-time great point guards Sue Bird (11.9 career scoring average) and Courtney Vandersloot (10.1), but we know Ionescu is capable of even more as a scorer. She is of course the only NCAAW Division I player to ever record 2,000 points, 1,000 assists and 1,000 rebounds in a career.

Ionescu’s scoring potential was on full display during her sophomore season’s opener on May 14, 2021. She dropped 25 points, including the game-winning three, which she dreamt about hitting the night before.

She went on to average 17.8 points through the first six games of the season and 14.8 over her final 12, including her one playoff game. It was the in-between stretch that dragged her average down.

Well, call her “Opening Day Sabrina” because she started off 2022 with the same point total she achieved in 2021’s opener and her New York Liberty needed every single bit of it to defeat the hyped-up, albeit incomplete, Connecticut Sun, 81-79, Saturday night at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

Connecticut’s Alyssa Thomas, who missed almost all of last season with a torn Achilles, reminded us that she’s one of the best players in the league by also scoring 25 points and looking unstoppable at times. Both Ionescu and Thomas had their runs, but it was Ionescu who delivered the final blow with a 3-pointer at 3:01 remaining that gave the Liberty the lead for good and a layup immediately following that.

“I really take it more as a team battle than an individual battle,” Ionescu said when asked about winning the scorer’s duel with The Engine. “Super excited how we were able to figure out what worked for us and continue to run those actions and continue to run multiple actions off of those actions and get the reads that we wanted, get everyone involved, get everyone touches. But I think this is not the best basketball that we’ve played and not anywhere close to the best basketball that we’ve played and I think that’s really exciting.”

Of New York’s big three (Ionescu, Betnijah Laney and Natasha Howard), Ionescu has the most upside and, at age 24, the most room to grow. So don’t be surprised if she takes the jump from the third of that big three to the first this season, as she did in the team’s opener.

Howard joined Ionescu at the postgame press conference after scoring 16 points, so her star power was also evident. Laney sat out the contest with a knee injury.

On the other side, Connecticut was missing two stars in DeWanna Bonner (overseas) and Courtney Williams (suspended two games for involvement in an off-court fight).

2021 Most Improved Player candidate Sami Whitcomb had a great game for New York with 15 points, five rebounds, five assists and three steals. Another encouraging sight for the home team was the play of Jocelyn Willoughby, who missed all of last season with a torn Achilles. She played great defense and notched 13 points. In 22 career games coming in, she had scored 13 or more just three times, with her career-high being 21. In addition, her 28:38 of playing time was the third-highest of her career, with the highest being 30:51.

When asked what areas of Willoughby’s game stood out to her, Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello, who is now 1-0 in New York, said:

“All areas to be quite honest, for someone that hasn’t played for over a year, coming back from the injury that she had. She’s just so steady, really, for a young player. What I like about her is she’s one of those players that knows what she does. She’s a fierce competitor and she has an engine. ... It was at both ends of the floor. And she’s a player, we hadn't seen her play last year, it was an unknown. But she’s impressed me a lot in training camp and I know she’ll get better and better with more time back playing the game.”

Reigning MVP Jonquel Jones managed 15 points, seven boards, two steals and two blocks in defeat. She made two threes, but missed five, including two in the final three minutes, both of which would have given the Sun the lead. Her made three with 3.3 seconds remaining was too little too late.

Jasmine Thomas added 13 points for the Sun and reigning Most Improved Player Brionna Jones was good for 11. B. Jones also had three blocks, all of which came in the first half.