May 19, 2021 

Many heroes in New York’s 3-0 start

Ionescu, yes, but Whitcomb and Shook also vital to Liberty surge

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The Liberty’s trio of leaders from left to right: Sami Whitcomb, Sabrina Ionescu, and Betnijah Laney. ( Photo Credit: the New York Liberty’s Twitter account, @nyliberty.)

NEW YORK — Sabrina Ionescu pays attention to the game score rather than the box. She knew she had been “getting a lot of something,” but it wasn’t until Jazmine Jones tapped her on the shoulder once she hauled down her final rebound, that she knew she had it. That’s what she told the media last night after she notched her first triple-double: scoring 26 points on 7-16 shooting while dishing out 12 assists and crashing the boards 10 times.

In the tune of Carrie The Musical, Tuesday was a night that the New York Liberty will probably never forget. Walt Hopkins and Shelley Patterson finally defeated their former employer in Lynx Head Coach Cheryl Reeve and outrebounded the Lynx in addition to Ionescu’s monster night.

But the general mentality for the Liberty as they were leaving the floor recalled another verse in Carrie the Musical’s “A Night We’ll Never Forget”: “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” With the crowd roaring while Ionescu was wearing a headset to talk to the YES Broadcasters, Chris Shearn asked her about her teammates.

“They’re phenomenal players,” she said. “We’re just getting started. We’re just getting to know one another. Players are still trickling in and so it’s just up from here. We are going to continue to get better every day and not settle.“

Ionescu was confident while unassuming during postgame. When she was asked about her first triple-double, the point guard replied that her own feat wouldn’t have been possible without the other New York players out there on the floor with her on Tuesday night.

“It’s not just me,” she told Shearn. “It’s everyone getting in position to score and rebound, so I’m just really proud of this team and how we fought tonight.”

And that’s correct. If Betnijah Laney missed a read, Kylee Shook set a weak screen or if Sami Whitcomb couldn’t pickpocket Kayla McBride, would Ionescu have accomplished her first triple-double? Probably not.

Hopkins didn’t want to take Sami Whitcomb off the floor

An emotional moment and hug between teammates Betnijah Laney and Sami Whitcomb. ( Photo Credit: the New York Liberty’s Twitter account, @nyliberty.)

After starting the first three quarters 1-for-5 from downtown, Whitcomb was encouraged to keep shooting. When the Liberty were ahead by only two scores, Whitcomb knew she had the opportunity to extend the lead for good. In that fourth quarter, she knocked down two three balls in less than two minutes. The first came on a hand-off from Ionescu at the top of the key, and the second came on a Laney pass from the strong side. Crystal Dangerfield was late on the closeout, and Whitcomb, in her neon green kicks, fired from deep. Swish. After her arm dangled in the air once she saw the ball fall through the net, Whitcomb pointed to Laney, flexed her arms, and roared in front of Ionescu and Shook.

“I think I typically am someone that shows my emotions when I think it’s the right moment and it felt like the right moment,” she said. In that moment, the Liberty extended their lead from four to seven and never looked back.

Against the Lynx, however, Whitcomb showed how much of an underrated defender she is. In the first quarter, she came up with two steals alone and then played smart defense on Rachel Banham that led to a Bec Allen interception followed by a Jazmine Jones score in transition. Head coach Walt Hopkins didn’t want to take Whitcomb off the floor on Tuesday night. “Her effort and energy and leadership you guys, oh my gosh, I mean we really got a good one there,” he said.

While Hopkins noted that her three-point shooting percentage is a bit lower than to be expected, he explained that something he’ll work on with not only Whitcomb but with the entire team is slowing down the pace at which the Liberty fire their shots, especially when they often get open looks.

Hopkins said if Whitcomb came out and shot 0-for-9 from three-point range, he would still have praised her effort on the defensive end, a part of her game that goes widely unnoticed. For Whitcomb, the key to being more aggressive on the defensive side on Tuesday night was all about the opportunities she got in her matchups. She had the advantage against Banham and made both McBride and Aerial Powers work.

There was an urgency to the way Whitcomb played the Lynx due to the assignment that bigs such as Shook and Stokes had to handle. Whitcomb leaped to get every single one of her 8 rebounds from Tuesday, a career-high for the veteran shooting guard. She understood the load that the New York posts had to deal with and knew that this will be a priority all season long. Boxing out Fowles, Jessica Shepard and Damiris Dantas is no walk in the park.

“It’s hard to box them out, keep them from getting it, and then go and get the rebound,” she said postgame. “They need us to come in and kind of swoop in and get those boards as they’re boxing them out. So yeah it’s for sure a priority for the guards. We’ve got good rebounding guards, big guards, we can do that.”

Sophomore post player Kylee Shook battles for position against Sylvia Fowles. ( Photo Credit: the New York Liberty’s Twitter account, @nyliberty.)

“We aren’t 3-0 without Kylee Shook”

At the pregame warm-ups at the Barclays center on both Friday and Tuesday night, there was something I didn’t expect to see. (Or maybe I should have?)

Kylee Shook warms up not only with the posts and bigger wings in Laney, Rebecca Allen, Michaela Onyenwere, DiDi Richards, and Stokes, but she also takes shots with the guard group. Shook is out there with Ionescu, Whitcomb, Clarendon, and Jones. And on Tuesday night, that extra work showed.

Hopkins was asked pregame if the newly available Stokes would start and play the bulk of the minutes against Sylvia Fowles, one of the best centers to ever play the game. His answer was to stick with the second-year player Shook. “Kylee had one of the toughest matchups in the league [in the Fever’s Teaira McCowan] and we won both games,” he said. “So I think Kylee definitely deserves a shot and will get a lot of minutes tonight.”

And she got 27 of them on Tuesday night, scoring 10 points on 4-5 shooting including 2-2 from three-point range, a point total that would have kept the Liberty from defeating the Lynx 86-75. With a +/- of 21, Shook noted in postgame that during the offseason, she worked on how she could fix a shot that looked flat in the Wubble and even in college. She learned that there were ways she could improve the arc she put on the ball and she realized that her thumb needed to shift.

Hopkins wanted Shook’s work to be tested in live game action. After a few plays where the Liberty head coach noticed that Ionescu wasn’t hitting an open Shook, he asked his point guard to adjust and find her. Moments later, both players executed with Ioenscu finding Shook wide open at the top of the key. And then in the second half, the pair tried it again, a moment that made former Liberty head coach and current Lynx assistant Katie Smith put her head down and beat her hand into her fist.

But besides her ability to put double digits on board scoring, rebounding it 6 times, and dishing out three assists, Hopkins was impressed and proud of how a second-year big was able to contain Fowles. His plan for Shook was to have her show her hands and not foul Fowles. The idea was, if the Lynx center scores, she scores. In the first half, that plan, accompanied with sending some guards to help Shook, wasn’t the most successful. Fowles scored 22 points in the first half, but following some adjustments at halftime, Shook found a way to let Fowles score only four more. She forced the center into tougher angles and tougher shots. She became more aggressive, something Hopkins has been waiting for her to unleash.

“If I go out and just give my all and be aggressive then the rest will come,” Shook told the media postgame. And come it did.

According to Hopkins, what was most remarkable about Shook is how reliable she is for a second-year big. Playing a position that usually takes longer development in the WNBA, it’s no small feat that New York can rely on her at 6’4 to defend both Fowles and McCowan.

“Kylee has been fantastic for us,” he said to the media during postgame. “There’s no way we start the season 3-0 without Kylee Shook.”

Making adjustments and decisions

The work isn’t over for the Liberty and neither are the arrival of new additions. Natasha Howard landed in New York on Monday and is expected to undergo the league COVID protocols, which means that she’ll have to test negative six days in a row before she can fully join the team for practices and games.

But the Liberty have a problem, and it’s a good one. Once Howard is activated, another player is going to be cut since both Jocelyn Willoughby, who’s out for the season with a torn Achillies, and Neah Odom, who is recovering from a sore Achilles are still on the roster. Someone is going to have to go as soon as Saturday.

Hopkins mentioned on May 13 before opening day that “there’s a complex dance” that he, the staff, and GM Jonathan Kolb have to deal with when it comes to roster spots. Do the Liberty waive DiDi Richards? She’s been vital to the early success, especially on the defensive end.

Do the Liberty suspend Kiah Stokes for when she has to leave the team in June for Eurobasket? Or do the Liberty waive Stokes if they find they believe in Shook’s ability to back up Howard.?Or, is Layshia Clarendon— the veteran point guard and born WNBA leader who’s only seen three minutes of playing time in three games— instead moved?

A screenshot from Michaela Onyenwere’s Instagram that proves she got her second COVID shot on Wednesday.

Come Friday during their road game against the Mystics, the Liberty might need to lean on some of their reinforcements in Clarendon and possibly Stokes. Rookie Onyenwere got her second COVID shot on Wednesday and potentially others such as Shook and Jones got their second as well. (Shook mentioned in a media availability before the season that she got hers on the 20th of April, the same date that Onyenwere was vaccinated.) How will the side effects of shot two affect the Liberty’s rotation on Friday?

COVID side-effects or not, the Liberty still have the same goal for when they match up against their former franchise player Tina Charles. For Laney, she finds her motivation in the fact that not many in the league or in the media believe that the Liberty are for real and can put a postseason run together.

“I’m just trying to prove people wrong, just show people that we are very well capable of the things that people think we aren’t,” she said after Tuesday night’s win. “So we’re just going to continue to work and continue to try to get better and make a run this season.”

Written by Jackie Powell

Jackie Powell covers the New York Liberty and runs social media and engagement strategy for The Next. She also has covered women's basketball for Bleacher Report and her work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Harper's Bazaar and SLAM. She also self identifies as a Lady Gaga stan, is a connoisseur of pop music and is a mental health advocate.

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