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WNBA tip-off: Liberty's Sabrina Ionescu opens 25th anniversary season with winning shot

·7 min read
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The 25th season in WNBA history tipped off on Friday night with one of its largest young stars leading the way. Sabrina Ionescu headlined the opening game with the New York Liberty, one of the league's founding teams, making their home debut at a sold-out Barclays Center in Brooklyn. 

Ionescu hit the winning 3-pointer and closed in on a triple-double in a thrilling start to the 2021 campaign. It's only her fourth career WNBA game. 

Friday had four games on the slate with two prime-time matchups set for ABC on Saturday. All count toward standings in the Commissioner's Cup, the new in-season tournament. 

New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu eacts after making the game-winning 3-pointer against the Indiana Fever on May 14, 2021 in New York. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)
New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu eacts after making the game-winning 3-pointer against the Indiana Fever on May 14, 2021 in New York. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)

Sabrina Ionescu lifts Liberty at the buzzer

Ionescu lifted the Liberty to a thrilling 90-87 win in the season opener, and her first in the WNBA after she was injured in her third career professional game. There were 11 ties between the last two teams in the 2020 league standings until the 2020 No. 1 draft pick called game. 

It was the ice-cold Ionescu everyone came to know in her time at Oregon, and she lit up in the final minutes. Her 3-pointer with 39.7 seconds on the clock brought it within one and her free throws tied it, 87-87, with 21.8 seconds remaining after a Fever free throw.

The Fever stuffed the Liberty in the paint, which they had done all game, but with the last shot in their hands, Kelsey Mitchell was called for traveling. It set up Ionescu's heroics.

"I wanted it. I haven't played in awhile," Ionescu said on the NBA TV postgame. "I wanted it for this team. We grinded out a huge win, and I'm just happy to have fans here, family in attendance."

Ionescu put up a 25-point, 11-assist double-double with six rebounds. It came despite a rough night overall from the floor, shooting 7-for-18 but 4-for-8 from 3-point range. She made all seven free throws. 

It was 2020 Most Improved Player Betnijah Laney who poured in the points for the Liberty. She had 20 in the first half and finished with 30 on 61.1% shooting, including going 4-for-5 from 3-point range. Michaela Onyenwere scored the first points of the season on a 3 and finished with 18 points in her league debut. 

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The Liberty (2-20 last season) were sharp from the tip and made 13-of-26 3-pointers, a style they want to play but had trouble executing last season. Their offensive movement was sharp with 20 assists on 31 made baskets; they started the game assisted on all 14.  

The problem was down low. New York remains without center Natasha Howard, who is still overseas with her Italian team. Late arrivals are not uncommon in the WNBA, but this season COVID-19 has forced delayed championships overseas and quarantine protocols in the U.S. upon returning. 

Her entrance to the staring lineup will be a needed boost to the defense, on the boards and scoring in the paint. Indiana's Teaira McCowan controlled all of that, finishing with 22 points and 16 rebounds. The Fever scored 50 points in the paint and were outrebounded, 45-28, while the Liberty relied on their hot shooting and crisp passing. 

The Fever took their last lead with 1:56 on a layup by Jantel Lavender and Mitchell pushed it to 84-81 with a jumper before Ionescu took over. Mitchell had 23 points and Lavender scored nine, the third-most for an Indiana squad without Lauren Cox (injury). 

Diana Taurasi hits winning 3, then chaos ensues

Phoenix Mercury star Diana Taurasi nailed a winning 3-pointer with 6.8 seconds left against the Minnesota Lynx ... or did she? 

The clock appeared to stop after Mercury forward Brianna Turner corralled a steal from Lynx guard Crystal Dangerfield and Taurasi sailed down the court and hit the 3-pointer. After reviewing the play, officials counted the basket and put 1.1 seconds on the clock. The Mercury won, 77-75.

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Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve was incensed on the sideline, which carried over to postgame

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The Mercury spread the scoring around with Skylar Diggins-Smith leading the way with 18 points and Brittney Griner chipping in a double-double (17 points, 12 rebounds). Taurasi had 14 points and eight rebounds.

Kayla McBride and Dangerfield each scored 17 for the Lynx. Sylvia Fowles had a double-double with 11 points and 11 rebounds. 

Rookie Charli Collier dazzles in debut, while Allisha Gray leads Wings in rout

Allisha Gray scored 23 points and had nine rebounds as the Dallas Wings took over in the second half and routed the Los Angeles Sparks 94-71.

Top overall pick Charli Collier made her WNBA debut, posting a double-double with 11 points and 10 boards. 

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Arike Ogunbowale chipped in with 17 points as the Wings shot 47.1% from beyond the 3-point arc. Dallas committed 26 turnovers.

Los Angeles Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike reaches for the ball controlled by Dallas Wings rookie forward Charli Collier during their game on May 14, 2021 in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)
Los Angeles Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike reaches for the ball controlled by Dallas Wings rookie forward Charli Collier during their game on May 14, 2021 in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike had a team-high 18 points, while her sister, Chiney, had 12 after opting out of the 2020 season. The Sparks shot just 35.9% from the field and were outrebounded 45-25. 

Sun dynamic duo Jonquel Jones, DeWanna Bonner score 47 in opening win 

Jonquel Jones and DeWanna Bonner combined for 47 points in their first game together, and the Connecticut Sun walked out of their season-opener with a 78-67 win at the Atlanta Dream. 

The Sun built their lead in the first half, going up 22-17 after one quarter and 43-33 at the break. They edged the Dream enough in the second to keep distance. 

Jones, who opted out of the bubble season, led all scorers with 26 points on 10-for-15 shooting from the floor. She added eight rebounds, three assists and one steal. Bonner, a 2020 free agent signing, scored 21 points and was 4-for-7 from 3-point range. She added seven rebounds, five assists, three blocks and one steal. It amounted to a 42-26 advantage on the boards. 

The Dream came in with a balanced attack, but were 35.9% overall from the floor and hit only 3-of-18 attempts from behind the arc. Odyssey Sims and Courtney Williams each scored 14 points. Sims added four rebounds and two assists; Williams had four each. 

Free agent signing Tianna Hawkins scored 11, and Chennedy Carter scored 10. Rookie Aari McDonald saw 16 minutes of game time and didn't made any of her four shot attempts, but did score a free throw. She had two rebounds, one assist and two of the team's 14 steals. 

Atlanta is playing with an interim head coach in Mike Petersen after Nicki Collen took the Baylor coaching job 10 days ago.

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