‘Locked-in’ Ionescu buries Mystics with 7 3s in Liberty’s G1 win

Alexa Philippou, ESPNSep 15, 2023, 11:53 PM ET

CloseCovers women’s college basketball and the WNBA
Previously covered UConn and the WNBA Connecticut Sun for the Hartford Courant
Stanford graduate and Baltimore native with further experience at the Dallas Morning News, Seattle Times and Cincinnati Enquirer

New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu scored a playoff career-high 29 points behind a franchise postseason record seven 3s to catapult the Liberty to a 90-75 victory over the Washington Mystics in Game 1 of their best-of-three first-round playoff series.

Friday’s win marked the first home playoff win for New York since 2015; after eking into the postseason last year, the Liberty transformed their roster into a super team in the offseason and are hoping to bring home the franchise’s first championship next month.

Ionescu’s seven 3s are tied for the third most in any WNBA playoff game and were the most in a playoff opener in league history.

No. 2 seed New York’s win came five days after the No. 7 seed Mystics stunned the Liberty at Barclays Center in their regular-season finale off a Brittney Sykes buzzer-beater, after which Washington guard Natasha Cloud waved goodbye to the crowd.

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“They waved us off our home court last game, and we had to show them what that feels like,” Ionescu told ESPN’s Ros Gold-Onwude after the game. “They punk’ed us and we had to come out here and prove what we’re made of, and we did that tonight.”

The former Oregon guard and 2020 No. 1 overall pick broke the WNBA single-season record this summer with 128 made 3s and is third in the league in 3-point percentage at 44.8%, over 10 percentage points better than she shot from the arc last year (33.3%).

At first on Friday the Liberty’s superstars were quiet, and wing Betnijah Laney — who finished with 19 points — kept the Liberty in the game. Ionescu went into the locker room with 9 points on 1 for 4 shooting from deep.

“B [Laney] was coming down shooting 3s in transition, JJ [Jonquel Jones] was establishing herself inside,” Ionescu said, “and I knew as everyone continued to play well, I’d have an opportunity to come down and knock down shots.”

Upset in the second half after some no-calls from the officials, Ionescu channeled that emotion productively, helping spur her outburst — “some of those 3s were for the refs, with all due respect,” Ionescu said. The guard closed the third frame with a 5-0 personal run in the final minute to put the Liberty up 12 before putting the game away with 4 for 5 shooting from the arc in the fourth, frequently pumping up the raucous Barclays crowd. She then sank a final 3 with 23 seconds remaining in the game and New York up 12.

Ionescu’s seven 3s are tied for the third most in any WNBA playoff game and were the most in a playoff opener in league history until Atlanta’s Rhyne Howard made eight 3s for the Dream later Friday evening.

“I was kind of just in that zone, locked in, the basket felt really big when I was shooting,” Ionescu said. “To be able to win this first game at home is huge just for this crowd and what they meant for us all season long. But also tonight, they were rowdy, they were electric, continued to give us the motivation that we needed and we want to continue to play our best basketball when we’re playing at home.”

Jones added a 20-point, 12-rebound double-double for New York; Myisha Hines-Allen led Washington with a season-high 21 points.

Game 2, which will also take place in Brooklyn, tips at 7 p.m. Tuesday. Washington will hope to keep its season alive and force a winner-take-all Game 3 that would be played in D.C. next Friday.

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