Sabrina Ionescu inbounds the ball, then quickly retrieves it at the top of the key. The New York Liberty trail the Chicago Sky by two with just 15 seconds remaining on the clock. Rebekah Gardner, who has hounded New York’s All-Star guard all night long, draws the assignment. Rather than holding for the last shot, Ionescu recognizes an opening and drives right, Gardner tight on her left hip. Around the free throw line, Ionescu gives her defender a bump, shielding the ball with her body, as Michaela Onyenwere clears towards the corner, dragging the defense of Emma Meesseman with her. (Onyenwere would say after the game that she was supposed to set a ghost screen—approach as if she’s coming to set a pick, then sprint away from the action to clear space—but it didn’t work out that way.) Ionescu picks up her dribble and goes up strong, and Gardner fouls her in an attempt to contest. The layup rattles around the rim and drops. And-one. Ionescu steps to the line and puts the Liberty in front with 10.1 to go, a lead they would not relinquish.
After the game, Onyenwere lauded Ionescu’s effort in the game’s closing seconds. “Sab is just like that. I mean, there’s really no other way to say it. She’s a dog, and she lives for those moments, and we trust her wholeheartedly to take those shots. She saw that they were pushing her right and took that personal. She went and got fouled, got an and-one, and made the free throw. We are really trusting of her when we’re in those positions, where we’re down one or whatever it may be. So, she took the shot, got the and-one, and we got the win.”
The approach was simple, according to Stef Dolson. “Obviously, it was for Sab to make a play, and she did that. We wanted to try to move the ball side to side and then tell her to make the decision. We set flares and screens to make their other players not realize that she’s just going downhill, and she made a great play and finished that layup.”
Ionescu has frequently stepped up in the clutch for New York throughout the season. She scored eight points in that closing quarter to help earn the victory over Chicago, the eighth time this season she’s notched eight or more in the fourth. Even when she’s struggled for a majority of the night, Ionescu is capable of flipping a switch, as she did against the Las Vegas Aces on July 12, nearly keying a remarkable comeback with an absurd shooting display in the final few minutes.
That night, Vegas held her to just six points on two-of-nine from the floor through three quarters. And then, well, this happened.
By the time the final buzzer rang out, Ionescu had netted 21 points in the fourth on seven-of-eight shooting (including four-of-five from deep), the scoring output a WNBA record for the final quarter. While the Liberty still fell short, largely due to the Aces’ near-flawless 34/35 free throw performance, the team set a league record with 73 points in the second half (even more remarkable because they’d managed just 28 before the break).
“I think I’m still figuring out what I need to do to try to help this team win,” Ionescu said of her fourth-quarter heroics. “I’m learning and growing every game, and I think just playing with a little bit more purpose. Sometimes, that might be scoring. I don’t want to wait until the fourth quarter to do that. So, I think I’m still learning and adjusting. But I think it’s just understanding that I have to have that scorer’s mentality and provide that night in and night out, in every quarter.”
For head coach Sandy Brondello, the reasoning is simpler than that.
“She wants to win. Sab’s got this will to win like some of the best players.”
If anything, Brondello would like to see that late-game intensity carry throughout. “Early in the game, she’s trying to get everyone involved, like you should as a point guard and leader of the team, even though at times we think she needs to be a little bit more aggressive. Down the stretch, the light goes on and she wants to win. Some days, she might have better days than others, but she has had some really great fourth quarters for us.”
She rose to the challenge again on August 3, on the second half of a back-to-back against the visiting Los Angeles Sparks. Through three quarters, Ionescu had managed just nine points on three-of-12 shooting. She’d struggled all night to shake LA’s defensive pressure, ratcheted up after the Liberty’s 102-73 blowout win 24 hours earlier. Ionescu took over in the fourth quarter, scoring 11 points, including the final eight. With just 77 seconds to go, she propelled the Liberty in front for the first time in the game when she was fouled following a steal. Her end of game box score: 20 points, eight rebounds, six assists, a pair of steals, and a team-best +12. The pair of victories helped them leapfrog Los Angeles in the standings for the moment in the ever-changing playoff picture.
Photo of the quarter scoring summary and the lead tracker, from the Liberty’s 64-61 defeat of the Sparks on August 3, 2022, courtesy of WNBA.com
Despite her success, Ionescu’s fourth quarter usage ranks just 11th in the W, an indicator that she’s finding success without always having the ball in her hands. She doesn’t just put on blinders and attack down the stretch, either. Ionescu still generates 1.62 assists per fourth quarter, trailing only the Sky’s Courtney Vandersloot (1.83) and Alyssa Thomas of the Connecticut Sun (1.64).
“I think it’s really just reading: it just depends what the defense gives you,” Ionescu told Winsidr ahead of the team’s July 31 matchup against the Phoenix Mercury. “It’s never something that I can predict or go in with my mind set on. It’s dependent on the flow of the game, whether that fourth quarter is more of a fast pace or slow it down and look for scoring opportunities. I think it’s just finding an even balance between being able to use my scoring threat but also my passing ability.”
That day, Ionescu would set a franchise record with 16 assists. Bec Allen discussed how much the young guard’s skill distributing the ball opened the court up for her teammates. “It’s amazing because you see a stat sheet where you’ve got a whole lot of scorers, and that makes us really tough for other teams to defend. The way that she moved the ball and found the right passes, that pick and roll was brilliant for us. I really hope that she leaves feeling really proud of this game because that’s also a huge milestone.”
Thanks to Ionescu’s individual success, New York finds itself controlling its own destiny for a late-season playoff push. The Liberty currently sit in seventh place, and they will close out the season facing teams in direct competition for the tightly contested final three postseason positions. Ionescu maintains the same approach: one game at a time. “At the end of the day, no matter who’s in front of us, we’ve just got to really focus on ourselves, being the best team that we can be,” she said. “Everything else will sort itself out.”