The Sandy Brondello era in Brooklyn started off on a high note, as the New York Liberty took down the Connecticut Sun 81-79 in Saturday's season opener behind third-year guard Sabrina Ionescu's 25 points.
"It's a great win for us at home," Ionescu said. "We had a great crowd. Super excited to be able to start the season off like that."
Brondello, the former longtime Phoenix Mercury coach, took over this past season in New York, which also saw some personnel changes with the free agency acquisition of Stefanie Dolson and returns of Jocelyn Willoughby, Han Xu and A.D. Durr.
2021 WNBA All-Star Betnijah Laney and DiDi Richards missed the game Saturday with injuries, as did Bec Allen, who is still playing overseas, but Brondello was still pleased with how the team started the 2022 campaign despite those absences.
"We weren't quite sure what we would get on the offensive end. I knew what we'd get on the defensive end. I think this team is tough, and I think you see the style of play that we wanted to play," Brondello said. "We competed with one of the best teams in the WNBA. We're both missing players obviously, we had to dig deep.
"For me, it's always nice to win your first game, and the fans can get to see what we're trying to do here... a bit of relief, I suppose."
Ionescu, the 2020 No. 1 pick, was one of four Liberty players to reach double figures, scoring or assisting 41 of New York's points and finishing with a fairly efficient clip (10 for 18 shooting including 3 for 6 on 3s). Her six assists ensured she recorded her fourth career game with at least 25 points and five assists, the third-most in Liberty history.
"I think it was really just the patience and poise of our offense that led a lot of us to easy shots and shots that we normally make, and so I think that's what we have to continue to do," Ionescu said.
It was a confidence-instilling performance for the former Oregon star, whose WNBA career had up to this point been hindered by an ankle injury she suffered three games into her rookie year. She missed the rest of that season, and though she returned to play 30 games in 2021, she had lingering issues that summer and has since admitted she shouldn't have played through it all.
Ionescu spent the entire offseason rehabbing and said in the preseason that she finally feels healthy again. Though she doesn't typically fixate on what could be the outcome of a game before playing it, she had a good feeling before Saturday that the Liberty were going to win.
"A breath of fresh air to be able to play and not thinking about my ankle and figuring out ways to try and hide it or figure out different ways to try and help the team when I'm not able to do what I want to physically, and so I'm really excited," Ionescu said. "I am super excited about the progress that I've made and just being able to play in a game like that at that intensity and do what I needed to do to help us win."
Ionescu started slow with just two first-quarter points before putting up 13 of the Liberty's 26 in the second quarter, which helped them outscore the Sun by 15 that frame. With the Sun up one going into the fourth, Ionescu dished out a pair of assists to start and scored eight straight points late in the period to put the Liberty up for good.
"I was really happy with Sab tonight. She's back healthy, and that's the number one thing," Brondello said. "She's so skilled, she wants to win and we put her in positions that we can have pretty good success. She's got the ball in her hands, but at times, it's just more about making sure she gets it on second touches and not just trying to force it on that first action. So I think once she let the game come to her a little bit, she's got wide open, her teammates were finding her open and as great players do, they make plays, so really happy for her."
It was ultimately a team-effort for the Liberty to take down the Sun, who are considered by some to be title favorites, as New York scored 31 points off 16 Connecticut turnovers.