NEW YORK (AP) — Sabrina Ionescu had a dream that she would hit a winning shot in her New York City debut.
That dream became reality when Ionescu made a 3-pointer from the wing with less than a second remaining to give the New York Liberty a 90-87 victory over the Indiana Fever on Friday night in the WNBA’s season opener.
“I 100% had a vision of hitting a game-winner,” said Ionescu, who was wearing mentor Kobe Bryant’s Lakers jersey in the postgame press 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.”
The No. 1 pick in the 2020 draft scored 25 points in her first game in nearly 10 months after injuring her ankle three contests into her rookie season that was played in Florida because of the coronavirus pandemic.
With the game on the line, she got the ball near the wing and hit the deep shot to give the Liberty the lead with 0.4 seconds left. Indiana couldn’t get a shot off before the buzzer on the other end.
Ionescu also had 11 assists and six rebounds in her Barclays Center debut. The former Oregon star scored the final eight points for New York, which trailed 86-82 with 39.7 seconds left. Ionescu hit a 3-pointer from the wing and then made two free throws with 21.8 seconds remaining to tie it at 87.
“She has a pretty special way of rising to the moment. You get to see it every day in practice,” Liberty coach Walt Hopkins said. “Those big time situations is where she shines, it’s what she lives for. I’m pretty excited she’s on my team.”
After a timeout, Indiana worked the clock down before Kelsey Mitchell was called for a traveling violation with 5.8 seconds left setting up Ionescu’s winner with her family watching in the arena. She ran across the court with her arms waving to the crowd after the ball went through the net.
Betnijah Laney scored 30 points to lead New York and rookie Michaela Onyenwere added 18.
The Liberty were still missing Natasha Howard, who they acquired from Seattle in a trade in the offseason. She is finishing up her overseas season in Italy. New York was also missing Kiah Stokes and Rebecca Allen, who are playing overseas as well.
The Liberty did have Laney, who they signed as a free agent in the offseason. The league’s Most Improved Player last year made her presence felt right away scoring 11 points in the first quarter and had 20 at the half when the game was tied at 47.
“She was pretty fantastic, I was asked before the game, who was the surprise people should look out for and I said Betnijah,” Hopkins said. ‘She’s a really special addition for us.”
New York led by four heading into the fourth quarter, but Indiana used an 11-2 run midway through the final quarter to go up 86-82.
Mitchell finished with 23 points and Teaira McCowan added 22 points and 16 rebounds for Indiana.
The game tipped off the WNBA’s 25th season and was the Liberty’s second regular season game ever at their new home Barclays Center. They played a game against Seattle in the 2019 regular season at the arena.
“Everyone has a little bit of jitters tonight. It’s an exciting time, it’s the 25th year. we’ve invested a lot in this process and our team and what we’re trying to accomplish,” Fever coach Marianne Stanley said before the game. “Once the ball is tossed for the opening tip people will be able to settle in.”
New York re-signed forward Joyner Holmes on a hardship contract after cutting her Wednesday. She averaged 2.9 points and 2.7 rebounds last year for the Liberty. The move was necessitated as New York was missing Leaonna Odom (Achilles Tendon); Jocelyn Willoughby (Achilles Tendon) as well as Howard, Stokes and Allen.
This game was part of the inaugural Commissioner’s Cup. Teams will play games within conference and the franchise with the best record in the East and West will face off on Aug. 12 in a title game. Players on the winning team of that championship game will each earn $30,000.
The teams will play again in Indianapolis on Sunday.