Sabrina Ionescu made WNBA history in just her sixth game, as the New York Liberty won their third straight to start the season.
Behind WNBA history from Sabrina Ionescu, the New York Liberty won their third straight game to open the season. The top pick in the 2020 WNBA Draft earned the first triple-double in team history (10th in league history) en route to an 86-75 win over the Minnesota Lynx. New York (3-0) has won their first three games of the season for the first time since 2007.
ESM has three stars from Tuesday’s win…
3rd Star: Betnijah Laney
20 points, 5 assists
Poor Laney had perhaps the quietest 20-point game in team history, but it says something that Tuesday’s output was her lowest-scoring effort of the season. She’s also making the most of her chances, sinking 8-of-12 opportunities. A corner triple from Laney made it 50-47 in the third quarter, giving New York a lead they would never relinquish after trailing at halftime.
2nd Star: Sami Whitcomb
13 points, 8 rebounds
In the lead-up to the Minnesota game, head coach Walt Hopkins referred to her as an “unsung hero” in the Liberty lineup. The two-time champion was anything but unsung on Tuesday, hauling in a career-best eight rebounds and helped man the interior when it looked like Sylvia Fowles was about to take over. Fowles scored 16 points in the first half, but was held to only 10 in the second, part of that tally coming when the outcome was decided. It was in part thanks to the rebounding efforts of Whitcomb, who also sank some clutch triples to permanently give the Liberty the lead.
1st Star: Sabrina Ionescu
26 points, 12 assists, 10 rebounds
A kid from Brooklyn who needs no supersoldier serum, Ionescu’s first two outings on Atlantic Avenue have been downright historic. Whether it was through clutch deep shots (one first-half three was taken from the 25th anniversary logo near midcourt) or setting up her teammates down below (namely Kylee Shook), Ionescu made sure the Liberty suffered no hangover from their opening two wins over Indiana. Everyone knew the kind of impact Ionescu could potentially make on both a New York and national landscape, but even the most unapologetic fan of the Oregon Duck couldn’t have seen this coming.
The Liberty return to action on Friday night on the road against the Washington Mystics (7 p.m. ET, YES).
The New York Liberty look to build on their first 2-0 start since 2016 as they enter the first full week of the 2021 season.
Three days into the 2021 WNBA campaign, the New York Liberty have earned the right to check a box on their season’s to-do list.
The Liberty (2-0) matched their win total from all of the woebegone 2020 season in the Bradenton bubble, sweeping the Indiana Fever in a home-and-home set on Friday and Sunday. Sabrina Ionescu’s game-winning triple in the final seconds allowed them to earn a 90-87 win in their full-time debut at Barclays Center before they held the lead all the way through the rematch at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, a 73-65 triumph.
“It does mean something, going a whole season to get two wins versus coming out the gate the way that they did,” head coach Walt Hopkins said after Sunday’s win. “To have two wins and to come in on a back to back, for them to make the adjustments and to be able to still win on the road, it says a lot about them.”
ESM looks backward and onwards as the Liberty and the WNBA prepare to move forward on their respective 25th anniversary seasons…
Betnijah Laney was getting buckets in the 1st half 👀
Ionescu might’ve stolen the show with her Friday heroics, but Laney was by far the most consistent shooter the Liberty had to offer. The Rutgers alumna is once again making metropolitan basketball magic, pacing the Liberty in the early going with 25 points a game (second in the league after the first three days of action). Laney is proving that the successful Most Improved Player campaign she staged in the bubble was no fluke.
“I just want to continue to get better. That’s what I’m doing, I take my craft seriously. I’m continuing to build off of last year,” Laney said on Sunday, remarking on her first two games in the New York system. “It’s a pretty free and open offense, which I think works well. For me, it’s a lot similar to the offense that I saw last year (in Atlanta). “y teammates encouraged me and they find me and allow me to, you know, get to my shots and everything.”
Michaela Onyenwere hits the 3 for the first basket of the season!
Fresh out of UCLA, Michaela Onyenwere has made an instant impact in the New York lineup. She has appeared in the Liberty’s opening five in each of her first two contests and has tallied double figures in both appearances. The 18 she had on opening night in Brooklyn set a new team record for most points in a freshman debut, breaking a three-year mark held by Kia Nurse.
They Said It
“Simply put, she’s a bucket. In the first game, she did a pull-up and I was like, she is so good. Nobody came, nobody can guard Betnijah. She’s just so versatile, and her pull-up is always on, and even if it’s not, she finds other ways to get to the basket and facilitate…It’s just so cool. She’s definitely a vet that I can look to and ask questions, tell me where I need to be…She’s hard to guard and she’s just all around just a great teammate.”–Michaela Onyenwere on Betnijah Laney
“I think already having two and a half games under my belt from last season, I think that was what I needed, being able to see play against some top teams. I think that kind of gave me some confidence coming into this season and just understanding my role on this team, what we’re trying to accomplish, what I can do to help others, and what all of us can build together. So I’m definitely not taking that for granted.”-Sabrina Ionescu on how her brief time last year helped in her 2021
The first Walt Hopkins Bowl in Brooklyn stages the head coach and assistant Shelley Patterson against their former colleague and Minnesota head coach Cheryl Reeve. This game will also mark Minnesota assistant coach and Hall of Famer Katie Smith’s first visit to a New York basketball arena since she was relieved of her duties as Liberty head coach after two seasons in 2019.
The Lynx (0-1) are coming off a narrow loss to Phoenix on Friday night, as Diana Taurasi’s buzzer-beater negated an 18-point showing from Aerial Powers, who made her Great Lakes debut after parts of three seasons in Washington. Minnesota (14-8 last season) swept both matchups from the Liberty last season by a combined 56-point margin.
Friday @ Washington
(7 p.m. ET, YES)
The Liberty will face off against Tina Charles for the first time since the franchise’s all-time leading scorer was dealt for picks that eventually became Jazmine Jones and Michaela Onyenwere. Washington (0-1) played their first game in DC since they clinched the 2019 championship on Saturday, falling to Chicago 70-56. They welcomed in Charles but are still without 2019 MVP Elena Delle Donne, who is recovering from back surgeries.
Last season’s pair in Bradenton was split evenly, with the Liberty earning their first win of the year on August 7. Layshia Clarendon put up 14 points and six assists in the victory.
Sunday @ Chicago
(1 p.m. ET, ESPN)
A battle between New York and Chicago will have a strong Oregon feel to it, as Eugene gamechangers Ionescu and Ruthy Hebard will do battle for the first time. A showdown with the Sky produced the other of the Liberty’s Ionescu-free wins last season, as Clarendon put in 17 points, ending with the game-winning free throws, en route to a 101-99 win. Jocelyn Willoughby shot a perfect 5-for-5 from the field in the same game.
Chicago is one of the WNBA favorites this season with Windy City native Candace Parker in tow. She tallied 16 points and eight rebounds in the opening win over the Mystics, aided by 19 more from Kaleah Cooper.
The New York Liberty led from start to finish on Sunday in Indianapolis, sweeping an early-season pair from the Fever.
Behind 20 points from Betnijah Laney, the New York Liberty swept an early-season pair from the Indiana Fever, emerging from Bankers Life Fieldhouse with a 73-65 victory. Sabrina Ionescu, Michaela Onyenwere, and Jazmine Jones all reached double figures, as the Liberty led by as much as 19 and never trailed in their visit to Indianapolis
ESM has three stars to highlight…
3rd Star: Kylee Shook
6 points, 7 rebounds
Though some assistance emerged from the return of Bec Allen, Shook once again faced a literally tall task in guarding Teaira McCowan in the interior. Though Shook missed some putbacks that could’ve expanded the lead, she held her own against rebounding machines McCowan and Jantel Lavender, hauling in a team-best and career-high seven boards. As a team, the Liberty strongly improved their rebounding efforts. They allowed Indiana only nine second chances (as opposed to 22 on Friday) and only lost the rebounding battle 40-38.
2nd Star: Jazmine Jones
10 points, 2 steals
The hockey playoffs are in full swing, so maybe now’s a good time to focus on some plus/minus rankings. Jones was quiet on Friday, but rose up in major opportunities off the bench. Her prescience provided a game-best 12-point swing, as she re-entered double-figures on 4-of-7 shooting. Her prowess came up big on a day where Ionescu was mostly neutralized by Danielle Robinson, who kept Indiana in the game through four charges taken and forcing Ionescu into eight turnovers.
1st Star: Betnijah Laney
20 points, 4 assists
The shooting numbers weren’t as pretty for Laney this time around (6-of-17), but she hit some clutch baskets and wasn’t afraid to counter Indiana’s physicality. When it became clear that the Fever were going to stay in the game through taking charges and dominating the paint, Laney took care of the issue through her outside and mid-range game. She currently leads the team by averaging 25 points over the first two games.
The Liberty (2-0) return to action at home on Tuesday night against the Minnesota Lynx (7 p.m. ET, YES App/ESPN3).
As the New York Liberty prepare to make their Brooklyn debut, ESM has everything you need to know about their opening day lineup.
New York City-branded basketball being played in New York City…groundbreaking concept, isn’t it?
Following two years of Westchester County exile and a pandemic-induced trip to Florida to compete in the WNBA’s Bradenton bubble, the New York Liberty return to action within city limits on Friday night against the Indiana Fever (7 p.m. ET, YES/NBA TV). With the WNBA celebrating its 25th anniversary, the Liberty likewise celebrate theirs as one of three original franchises that remain in the markets in which they began. Aligned with the Brooklyn Nets ownership group, the Liberty will now call Barclays Center their full-home after two previous decades at Madison Square Garden.
Though the Liberty have yet to capture an elusive WNBA title, they remain one of the league’s most storied franchises, with Tina Charles, Teresa Weatherspoon, Becky Hammon, and Rebecca Lobo being among the legendary faces of basketball to traverse the New York hardwood. The team entered a period of rebuilding, its most recent edition in Florida coming under first-year head coach Walt Hopkins Jr.
The rebuild cratered last season to the tune of a Floridian ledger of 2-20, but New York management was enthused by the moral victories they took with them. Hopkins has established a new order focused on defense and fearless shooting, with the proceedings set to center around 2020’s top overall pick Sabrina Ionescu. The touted Oregon Duck was limited to only three games due to an ankle injury, but positives emerged through other rookies like Jazmine Jones and Leanna Odom.
This offseason, the Liberty made several moves that are set to add to the team’s win total. They signed 2020’s Most Improved Player Betnijah Laney from Atlanta and acquired Natasha Howard, Sami Whitcomb, and their five championship rings among them from Seattle. Such moves caused nearly half of the WNBA’s dozen general manager to label the Liberty as the most improved team heading into Friday’s tip-off events.
The preseason accolades, however, mean little, if anything, to Hopkins:
“How can we be the most improved team when we haven’t played a game?” Hopkins rhetorically asked on Thursday. “We still have a lot to prove to ourselves in terms of our capacity now to apply what we’ve been working on the last couple of weeks…“You’re going to hear me as a broken record all year talk about focusing on our day to day and our controllable. You won’t hear me too often acknowledge expectations as being something that we’re focused on here.”
Meet the 2021 New York Liberty below…
(*-Unavailable until further notice)
F Rebecca Allen*
College: Australia Experience: 6th season 2019 Stats: 7.2 PPG, 2.5 RPG
Allen seems tailor-made to play in Walt Hopkins’ system: she’s a tenacious defender with a sense of fearless shooting, a trait well on display in her most recent campaign in New York. Prior to opting out of the 2020 season, Allen set a record by putting up 20 points in a single quarter en route to a career-best in scoring. She kept up the good work through overseas action in Spain, where she averaged a team-best 11.5 points for Valencia BC.
Hopkins will have to be a little patient for Allen to make her debut, as her extended international endeavors made her a late arrival to the prep for an American title. With the departure of close friend Amanda Zahui B, Allen is now the longest-tenured member of the Liberty, having arrived as a free agent in 2015.
G Layshia Clarendon
College: Cal-Berkeley Experience: 9th season (2nd in New York) 2020 Stats: 11.5 PPG, 3.9 APG
One of the WNBA’s most outspoken players in off-court issues (sitting on the WNBA’s Social Justice Council), Clarendon was a rarity on last year’s Liberty roster as a player with at least a half-decade of professional experience. Their services in the Bradenton bubble went far beyond simple veteran mentorship, as they put up a career-best in scoring and played a major role in the New York offense when Sabrina Ionescu went down with an injury. It marked a strong return to the court for Clarendon, who was limited to nine games in 2019 due to an ankle injury of their own.
With several new veterans in two, Clarendon will likely serve as a spark and de facto fifth coach off the bench.
F Natasha Howard*
College: Florida State Experience: 8th season (1st in New York) 2020 Stats: 9.5 PPG, 7.1 RPG
With the Liberty eager to clog up their porous defense (allowing over 85 points per game over the last two seasons), there was perhaps no one better to call than Howard, one of the most fearsome defenders in the Association since her 2014 entry. It cost a hefty price…the Liberty shipped off the top overall pick of April’s WNBA Draft and All-Star Kia Nurse in the three-team deal to obtain her…but Howard, a Hopkins protege during a championship trek in 2017 with the Minnesota Lynx, promises to be well worth it.
Among the accolades in Howard’s packed trophy closet are three championship rings (including one from the bubble as a member of the Seattle Storm), the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year title, and a pair of All-Defensive First Team nods. She’s been a part of three of the last four WNBA championship efforts. It might take a little longer to get back to those levels in New York, but the Liberty’s investments make it clear they want her to play a huge part in that.
It’s a little early to crown Ionescu the face of the WNBA…after all, she only has three games under her belt, having suffered an ankle injury in only her third professional excursion. But the walking college basketball record book is back for what basically amounts to a second rookie season and is dangerously motivated.
While Ionescu’s impact on a national level can’t be fully assessed just yet, there were plenty of tantalizing glimpses of her hardwood heroics on display in her brevity. Notably, she put 33 points in just her second career contest against Dallas (squaring up against fellow Eugene standout Satou Sabally). Time will tell how long it takes for her to regain her elite form, but there’s no doubt that the journey will be watched by anyone with a passing interest in what lies ahead for a league celebrating its silver anniversary.
Last season, a New York Liberty rookie, chosen at one of the bookends of the all-virtual draft made a major difference in one of the guard roles. She saw her efforts rewarded with a spot on the league’s official All-Rookie team. Unpredictably, however, the player in question was not Ionescu but Jones, the 12th and final pick of 2020’s opening round.
Jones was another player who filled Ionescu’s sneakers, taking over a point guard role she hadn’t played since her high school days at Florida A&M Developmental. She wound up leading all rookies in steals (1.4 a game) and was one of six to earn double figures in scoring. Her energy, constantly captured through the team’s social media accounts, would likely top charts if there was a number able to be attached to it.
F Betnijah Laney
College: Rutgers Experience: 6th season (1st with New York) 2020 Stats: 17.2 PPG, 4.9 RPG
Laney knows a thing or two about making an impact through basketball in the tri-state area. She previously a hoops heroine in Piscataway, where she played under the legendary C. Vivian Stringer, setting Scarlet Knight records in the process.
“Character” has been one of the most prominent buzzwords during the training camp process. Laney more than fulfills that trait through her work in the bubble. Having survived transfers to three different WNBA squads over her first four seasons, Laney broke out as a member of the Atlanta Dream in Bradenton, more than tripling her previous career-best output in scoring. The Liberty would certainly know about her breakout: Laney’s trek toward Most Improved Player honors began when she earned her first career 30-point game in a July win against New York.
F Leaonna Odom
College: Duke Experience: 2nd season 2020 Stats: 5.5 PPG, 2.3 RPG
Time will tell, but Odom could wind up becoming one of the most valuable diamonds in the rough to emerge from the bubble. The Liberty’s latest draft pick from last year’s sizable haul (15th overall) developed a notorious reputation as a strong defender, frustrating some of the league’s most notable names, including Diana Taurasi and DeWanna Bonner.
Alas for the Liberty, they’ll have to wait a little bit to see Odom resume her defensive prowess. The team announced on Thursday that she’ll miss tonight’s opener with an Achilles injury.
The Liberty’s 2021 draft class isn’t as plentiful as last year’s group, but talent was certainly not sacrificed in the smaller settings. Their first pick was the former Bruin Onyenwere (pronounced On-yen-way-day) with the sixth overall choice.
Onyenwere has a prime opportunity to contribute immediately to Liberty’s hopeful surge. She fulfills the team’s requirement for fearless shooting, as she departed UCLA as the fourth-leading scorer in program history and tried nearly 200 three-pointers over her final three seasons. But with Howard and Stokes’ debuts unscheduled, Onyenwere could be called upon to make a difference in the interior, as she put up over eight rebounds a game during her sophomore and junior seasons.
By every stretch of the basketball imagination, Richards shouldn’t be suiting up for her WNBA debut in Brooklyn. A freak accident in an early practice at Baylor nearly left her paralyzed and she was medically advised to realistically start thinking of career options beyond the hardwood.
However, Richards went to check off another box on the Liberty’s shopping list for character, working her way back and resuming her role as a strong defender. She brings a national championship ring from her sophomore season and three Defensive Player of the Year titles from 2020. Richards more than made up for lost time once the season began, finishing second in the nation with 189 total assists.
Immediately after picking Jones (as well as COVID-sidelined second overall choice Asia Durr in 2019), the Liberty continued to treat UL as a de facto farm team by taking Shook with the first pick of the second round.
Shook deal with a late injury, but has taken on a larger role in her second season. Several of the younger players, and even some veteran newcomers, have praised Shook for helping them get used to the system. With Stokes and Howard’s debut in question and Amanda Zahui B off to Los Angeles, Shook is expected to take on a major role in the interior.
The only leftover from the Liberty’s “baby vet” dwelling in Bradenton (Zahui and Kia Nurse being the others), Stokes’ status will fluctuate throughout the season, as she’s finishing her international duties while also preparing to partake in Turkey’s EuroBasket plans. However, it’s clear that the Liberty have high hopes for her, signing the long-tenured interior prescience to a new contract before last season ended.
Though Stokes’ should return to being a strong paint presicence with Zahui B now out west, the New York coaching staff was very enthused by her newfound liking for outside shooting. No one embraced the Liberty’s new tenet of fearless shooting like Stokes, who did not partake in any 2019 action for personal reasons. She put up 85 attempts from deep last year after trying only three in the four years prior.
G Sami Whitcomb
College: Washington Experience: 5th season (1st in New York) 2020 Stats: 8.1 PPG, 2.3 RPG
It’s almost somewhat easy for Whitcomb to get lost in the Liberty’s stellar transaction log, but she provides accomplished veteran intangibles through both American and Australian endeavors. Whitcomb was another member of the defending champion Storm (though she did not partake in the championship round due to the birth of her first child) and came over with Howard, with whom she likewise collaborated on a 2018 triumph in the Finals.
Whitcomb is on the shortlist of WNBA stars that already know how to make a difference at Barclays Center: she sank a career-best seven field when Seattle came to visit in the building lone regular season game in 2019.
The New York Liberty received their schedule for the 2021 WNBA season, which will begin with four games on May 14. New York will battle the Indiana Fever in a Friday night showdown, tipping off at 7 p.m. ET. TV information will be released at a latter date.
This season marks the Liberty’s first campaign as full-time tenants at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, which they share with the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets. It also marks the 25th anniversary for the Liberty, one of the three charter franchises remaining in the league that likewise celebrates its silver season (the others being the Los Angeles Sparks and Phoenix Mercury).
After a tough two-win season in the WNBA’s Bradenton bubble, the Liberty made several offseason moves that have positioned them as one of the more intriguing teams in the Association. A trade involving the top overall pick in Thursday’s WNBA Draft (7 p.m. ET, ESPN) saw them net former WNBA champions Natasha Howard and Sami Whitcomb, additions that followed the signing of former Rutgers star and reigning Most Improved Player Betnijah Laney. New York will also welcome back several rookie-turned-sophomores from their Floridian endeavor, including 2020’s top overall choice Sabrina Ionescu and WNBA All-Rookie team nominee Jazmine Jones.
The 2021 WNBA regular season will run through Sunday, September 19. A break for the Summer Olympics in Tokyo will commence on July 15 and run through August 11. Each of the league’s dozen teams will play 32 games and partake in the inaugural Commissioner’s Cup, an in-season tournament that will conclude with a championship game immediately after the Olympic pause, setting up the final push to the playoffs. Further details about the Commissioner’s Cup and a planned 2021 All-Star Game will be released at a further date.
Among the notable matchups on the Liberty ledger…
The Liberty will open their season with a home-and-home series against the Indiana Fever. New York undoubtedly will be seeking revenge for the 2019 opener, when Teaira McCowan’s buzzer-beater allowed the Fever to escape Westchester Counter Center with an 81-80 triumph. The teams will then meet at Bankers Life Field house for a 2 p.m. matinee matchup two days later.
Youth in revolt will be on full display on May 25, as the Liberty welcome the Dallas Wings to Brooklyn for a battle between the league’s two youngest squads. It will likely feature the first matchup between Oregon standouts Ionescu and Satou Sabally, a get-together delayed by Ionescu’s injury sustained in the early stages of last season.
The Liberty’s visit to Los Angeles is the only game scheduled for June 20 and it will likely pay tribute to the 25th anniversary of the WNBA’s first game, a 67-57 New York triumph at the Great Western Forum. It will also mark the Liberty’s first meeting with former fan favorite Amanda Zahui B, who signed with the Sparks after five metropolitan seasons.
Howard and Whitcomb will have to wait to weather the Storm, as the defending champions will visit Brooklyn for a two-part series on August 18 and 20.
In another happy return, Kia Nurse will return to New York on August 25 in the new colors of the Phoenix Mercury. Nurse, a first-round pick and All-Star in seafoam, was part of the three-team deal that sent Howard and Whitcomb out east.
The Liberty will conclude the 2021 regular season with a four-game road trip through Minnesota, Seattle, Dallas, and Connecticut before returning home to Brooklyn for their finale on September 17.
The newest member of the New York Liberty enjoyed a breakout season in Atlanta and also appeared on the WNBA’s All-Defensive First Team.
Betnijah Laney is used to putting on a show on tri-state area hardwood as a Rutgers alumna. She’s about to do so on a professional level.
The New York Liberty announced on Tuesday that the team has brought in Laney as a free agent signing. Laney is the defending winner of the league’s Most Improved Player Award as a member of the Atlanta Dream.
“We are beyond excited to welcome Betnijah to the New York Liberty,” said Liberty general manager Jonathan Kolb said in a team statement. “As a player, Betnijah represents everything it takes to wear the seafoam and black, from her resilience, to her dedication, to her never quit attitude. As a person, she is someone New Yorkers will fully embrace as she is as committed to making an impact in the community as she is on court.”
Laney, 27, will appear on her fifth WNBA team after entering the league as a second-round pick of the Chicago Sky in 2015. She previously spent four years at Rutgers under the watch of legendary head coach C. Vivian Stringer in Piscataway. Laney was on the team’s 2014 squad that won the WNIT and later set a Rutgers Athletic Center single-game record with 24 rebounds in a tilt against North Carolina later that year. The previous holder was original Liberty representative Sue Wicks, who carried the mark since 1987.
After prior stints with Chicago, Connecticut, and Indiana, Laney enjoyed a breakout season with the Dream in the Bradenton bubble. She smashed her career-bests with averages of 17.2 points and 4.9 rebounds. Laney made a huge statement during Atlanta’s 84-78 win over the Liberty on July 31, reaching 30 points for the first time in her career. She would top that mark less than a month later in an August loss to Washington.
For her efforts, Laney was awarded the 2020 Most Improved Player Award, previously bestowed to her fellow Piscataway alumna Kia Vaughn, who won it with the Liberty in 2011. Laney was also named to the WNBA’s All-Defensive First Team alongside Atlanta teammate Elizabeth Williams.
In other Liberty roster news, Rachel Galligan has reported that Joyner Holmes has been re-added on a training camp deal. The rookie put up 2.9 points and 2.7 rebounds over 19 games after being signed from Seattle prior to the bubble’s inflation.