Heading into game two of the pandemic-shortened #wubble season, all eyes were on the rookies in Wednesday’s meeting between the New York Liberty and the Dallas Wings.
All ten of them.
The Liberty fell again, this time to the only team younger than them in the W. The final score, 93-80, may imply a closer contest than the one that was played; the Liberty faltered during a 17-2 second quarter Dallas run and never recovered to within striking distance.
For New York, Jazmine Jones (ankle) and Megan Walker (illness) made their WNBA debuts after missing the opener. Most eyes, of course, were on the Oregon Ducks’ reunion, as Sabrina Ionescu and Satou Sabally matched up as opponents for the first time as pros.
Sabally showed good energy, but shot just 5/15 en route to 12 points. She grabbed four boards and played actively on defense.
Ionescu, on the other hand, filled the boxscore. After struggling from the field in her debut, she scored 33 points on an extremely efficient 11-for-20 shooting (55%), while also snagging seven boards and dishing out seven assists. Ionescu, who missed all eight of her attempts from deep in the opener, converted six of her 10 attempts from three.
“She had a heck of a game,” Coach Walt Hopkins said during the team’s postgame. “She did everything she could to get our offense going. Shots fell tonight, did a good job getting to the rim…she was efficient. We just didn’t do enough holistically.”
The rest of the team shot just 20-for-53 — 37.7% — overall, and splashed only 3-for-15 — 20% — from long range. Layshia Clarendon, with 11 points, was the only other player in double figures. Nurse, a surprise starter after her ankle sprain, was clearly at less than 100 percent, and scored just two points on 1/6 shooting, while securing a team-worst -15 +/-. Paired with 20 turnovers, another hefty output, this young team faced lots of adversity on offense.
Even though Ionescu led the team in turnovers with five, three of them were passes that should have been corralled.
The first, a terrific lead pass to Kiah Stokes, would be an easy two if the center gains control. The second, just a possession later, found Ionescu pushing the break to a leaking Nurse, who uncharacteristically fumbled the ball out of bounds. A sloppy backcourt turnover accounted for the third. Another attempted entry pass to Stokes led to turnover number four, as the Liberty post player again failed to snag a pass — this time in traffic — that would likely have led to a score. The last of Ionescu’s turnovers came on an inbound play, this time where Ionescu ran out of time to find an open teammate.
Good Defense Early
New York came out with great energy, though their shots did not fall early. On defense, the effort was strong, with players picking each other up and doing whatever they could to prevent buckets.
With 5:36 to go, Satou Sabally held the ball in triple threat on the right wing, Kia Nurse guarding her. Sabally lost Nurse on a head fake, and took two dribbles towards the basket, but Amanda Zahui B collapsed off her player, Kayla Thornton, to cut her off. Sabally swung the ball into the corner to Thornton, but Nurse covered for Zahui B, ensuring no easy three. Thornton took two dribbles out towards the wing, then swung the ball back into the corner for Sabally, who had replaced her, and set a quick screen on Zahui B. For the second time in six seconds, the Liberty switched, and Nurse leapt out to contest. Sabally’s shot didn’t even draw iron.
About a minute and a half later, Leonna Odom found herself matched up one-on-one with last year’s Rookie of the Year runner-up, Arike Ogunbowale. Odom is a perfect fit in Hopkins’ system for her ability to stay with guards and forwards alike. Katie Lou Samuelson came from Odom’s left to set a screen, but Ogunbowale ignored it and drove right. Odom stayed alongside her the entire time, impeding her path to the hoop. As Ogunbowale left her feet, Stokes left her assignment in the corner to help contest. Again, the shot was wild.
Rough Defensive Stretches
When Dallas made its run in the second quarter, that help defense dissipated.
Allisha Gray held the ball at the top of the key, rookie Walker in front of her. Bella Alarie came and set a screen from her left, momentarily slowing Walker. Alarie’s defender, Kylee Shook, did not hedge to help her teammate recover, but instead hung back in the lane. Even after Gray blew past Walker, Shook did not help, and the Wings scored an uncontested layup. And one.
Less than a minute later, and the same issue with defensive communication and help. As soon as the Wings enter their halfcourt set, Clarendon is screened off her defender, Moriah Jefferson. With Clarendon taken out of the play, Jefferson has New York’s two bigs in front of her, Zahui B and Stokes. Neither step up to stop her drive, though, and she splits through. By the time Stokes recovers, Jefferson is putting up a left-handed layup. And one again.
At the close of the third quarter, rookie Ty Harris walked the ball up the floor, Nurse jogging ahead of her. Nurse anticipated a screen from Izzy Harrison, which never came, but did what New York has done much of the last few games — she went under it. Suddenly, Nurse found herself as the closest player on the court to Dallas’ basket, while the young guard stood unguarded at the three-point line. Calmly, Harris stepped into her shot, a long two, and buried it.
Trust The Process
Much like after the opener, the players are keeping the loss in perspective. There’s much to learn from each contest, for the players and coaches alike.
“We knew coming in, it’s gonna be a process,” Ionescu said after the game. “Piece by piece, we have to keep building every single day in practice. We know it’s going to be a learning curve, there’s gonna be highs and lows… keep working hard and everything will take care of itself.”
Ionescu talked about her own improvements from game one to game two. She didn’t expect the open looks from three to be there at this level, so she rushed her shot against Seattle. Against Dallas, Ionescu settled into a rhythm, falling just one point shy of the team’s rookie scoring record set by Kia Nurse back in 2018.
Ahead of the season, Coach Hopkins put a strong emphasis on three-point shooting as part of the team’s new identity. Two games into the season, New York leads the WNBA in three-point attempts with 26.5. They’re converting just 28.3%, which ranks ninth in the league. “We definitely talk about the quality of the three-point shot,” Hopkins said after the loss. “We don’t just want to shoot threes to shoot threes.”
This season, for better or worse, there’s little time to reflect and lick your wounds. After just one day off, New York takes on the Atlanta Dream, who topped Dallas before falling by thirty to the Las Vegas Aces. The Dream backcourt will be trouble for the Liberty, especially if Courtney Williams is able to make her team debut alongside rookie phenom Chennedy Carter, who already looks pro ready.