Sabrina Ionescu honors Kobe Bryant, hits game-winning 3 to start the WNBA season

Sabrina Ionescu had a dream that this was coming.

On Friday, her first game back since a sprained ankle sidelined her for most of her rookie season in 2020, Ionescu hit a game-winning three with less than one second remaining to give the New York Liberty a 90-87 win over the Indiana Fever in the first game of the 25th WNBA season.

“I actually — not going to lie at all — dreamt about it last night,” Ionescu told reporters after the game — while wearing the Lakers jersey of the late Kobe Bryant, her friend and mentor.

“I try not to think about basketball too much the night before a game because I get nervous and don’t sleep,” Ionescu said. “But I 100% had envisioned hitting a game winner. So when we were tied, and walking into the huddle, I just was smiling because it was almost like too good to be true. I was like, I’m going to hit this if the coaches draw up a play for me to get the ball.

“My coaches believed in me. My team believed in me. I was just ready for the moment. I’ve been waiting a while to get back on the court. I’m just so happy that we were able to get this win.”

Ionescu spoke at the memorial service last year for Kobe and Gianna Bryant, after the two along with seven others were killed in a helicopter crash on January 26, 2020. Bryant will be inducted Saturday into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a member of the class of 2020.

“I’m excited to get down there and watch it, be with family and friends and being able to just watch his legacy live on through all of us, everyone that was close to him, everyone that he touched,” Ionescu said. “It’s amazing to see how that’s going to continue to live on in young girls, boys, people everywhere. I’m super excited to go and see that. No one is more deserving. He deserves it, and I’m so happy for him.”

Ionescu, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 WNBA draft, tied the game with two made free throws with 21.8 seconds left. After Indiana guard Kelsey Mitchell was called for traveling with 5.8 seconds to go, New York got the ball back, setting up Ionescu to make her dream a reality, draining the three-point shot and leaving just 0.4 seconds left on the clock. She finished with 25 points, 11 assists and six rebounds.

This was her first game at the Barclays Center in New York, as last year’s WNBA season took place in Bradenton, Florida, because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“She has a pretty special way of rising to the moment,” Liberty head coach Walt Hopkins said of his star guard. “You get to see it every day in practice. But those big-time situations is where she shines. It’s what she lives for. I’m pretty excited that she’s on my team.”