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Liberty look to carry on without Ionescu

Team still in search of win No. 1 entering Wednesday's game vs. Lynx

August 5, 2020 John Torenli
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The New York Liberty hoped to rebrand their struggling franchise, move into their new Brooklyn digs at Downtown’s Barclays Center and rebound from the two worst seasons in franchise history this year.

Most of those hopes were predicated on the arrival of top overall draft pick Sabrina Ionescu, whom many deemed a transformational player for both the team and the WNBA.

Less than two weeks into this abbreviated 22-game season, however, the Liberty (0-4) have no wins and can’t even host a single contest in our borough as the league is holding its entire campaign at a bubble site in Bradenton, Florida due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Worst of all, New York doesn’t even have Ionescu to hang its hopes on anymore.

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The rookie point guard and two-time Wooden Award winner suffered a Grade 3 sprain of her left ankle during the second quarter of last Friday’s 84-78 loss to the Atlanta Dream, putting her out of commission for at least the next month and perhaps for the rest of her first season as a pro.

“It’s a massive loss,” first-year Liberty head coach Walt Hopkins said of Ionescu’s injury, which occurred when she stepped on the foot of Atlanta’s Betnijah Laney while dribbling the ball up the floor last week.

Life with Ionescu wasn’t exactly producing instant results for the Liberty, who went 0-3 in the games in which the first-year phenom participated.

New York suffered a 96-67 drubbing at the hands of Diana Taurasi and the Phoenix Mercury on Sunday in its first game without its heralded young star, leaving Hopkins and his charges to figure out a way to earn win No. 1 Wednesday night when they take on the Minnesota Lynx (3-1).

“There’s not a lot of time to adjust X’s-and-O’s-wise when someone gets hurt,” veteran Liberty guard Layshia Clarendon admitted.

“Then emotionally, Sabrina just brings a tenacity to her and a fire and the competitiveness that you could really tell we were missing, especially toward the end of [Sunday’s] game.”

Though it was a small sample size, Ionescu displayed plenty of grit as well as flashing her formidable skills during the two-plus games in which she participated.

After struggling mightily with her shooting touch in her WNBA debut against Seattle in the WNBA season opener on July 25, the NCAA’s all-time leader in career triple-doubles lit up the Dallas Wings for 33 points, seven rebounds and seven assists last Wednesday, albeit in a 93-80 defeat.

The 22-year-old Walnut Creek, California native appeared on her way to another prolific effort Friday, scoring 10 points on 4-of-5 shooting in 12 minutes before slumping to the court in pain.

Though her injury won’t require surgery, Ionescu is too valuable to the future of the Liberty to rush back into action, especially with the team’s hopes of advancing to the playoffs already in doubt due to its poor start in Bradenton.

Also, New York proved it was willing to go through some struggles this year when it unloaded former WNBA MVP Tina Charles and several other veterans in the offseason in the hopes of building around Ionescu and a group composed mostly of first- and second-year players.

“I told her at least it was this year, when it was a rebuilding year,” Clarendon said of her exchange with Ionescu following the injury diagnosis.

“She got a taste of what it was like to play in this league. Now she can just really have a good, healthy offseason and get prepared for next season.”

Kia Nurse poured in 17 points, but the Liberty lost to Phoenix Sunday in their first game without injured rookie point guard Sabrina Ionescu. Photo: Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP

The rest of the Liberty do not have that option.

Following Wednesday’s tilt with Minnesota, New York will play 17 games in the next five weeks, none of which will feature the one player the Liberty hoped would make them a potential playoff contender by the end of the year.

Kia Nurse, who missed last Friday’s game with an ankle injury of her own, led New York with 17 points against Phoenix and Clarendon added 12 for the short-handed Liberty.

But none of that was enough to help them ward off a furious fourth-quarter rally by Phoenix, which outscored New York 34-11 down the stretch.

“We just kind of lost our fight and quit,” Clarendon said of the Liberty’s late collapse.

“It was embarrassing to see and something we just addressed in the locker room. That’s a character thing that we’re continuing to grow in.”

They’ll have to continue that growth and character development without their most important player.

At least until next year.

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