Brink-less Sparks can’t keep up with Liberty

By DOUG FEINBERG AP Basketball Writer

NEW YORK — The Sparks’ winless road trip didn’t figure to get any easier in New York.

Sabrina Ionescu scored 31 points and Jonquel Jones added 22 to help the New York Liberty beat the Sparks, 93-80, on Thursday night, as the visitors dropped to 0-5 on their seven-game trip.

The Sparks (4-12) were playing their first game since they lost star rookie Cameron Brink to an ACL tear in her left knee.

The Liberty (13-3) led 60-54 with 2:58 left in the third quarter before Ionescu and Jones combined to score the first 11 points of a 13-0 run to give New York a double-digit cushion. Ionescu got it started with consecutive 3-pointers and Jones added one. Ionescu then found Jones for an easy layin on the next possession.

“We talked about it right before the timeout understanding we had to go in and make a push and we did that,” Ionescu said. “Got stops defensively and got great looks offensively. Transition offense is one of our best offenses. J had some big shots and went on a really big run there and that helped us to win the game.”

Zia Cooke hit two free throws with 3.6 seconds left in the quarter to end the drought for the Sparks.

The visitors chipped away at the lead and only trailed 82-76 with 2:56 left before consecutive 3-pointers by New York put the game away.

Aari McDonald scored 15 points and Cooke added 13 to lead the Sparks.

New York was missing guard Betnijah Laney-Hamilton who has been bothered by a right knee issue the last few days. Coach Sandy Brondello said that Laney-Hamilton had soreness as well as swelling and discomfort after the team’s red-eye flight back from Phoenix on Tuesday night.

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The Liberty are still playing without Nyara Sabally (back) and Courtney Vandersloot (personal).

New York held a moment of silence before the game for Vandersloot’s mom Jan, who died over the weekend, according to the team.

She had been diagnosed with advanced multiple myeloma in July 2022.

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“We’re a family you know. As much as we love basketball, we understand it’s a business,” said Jones, who also had eight assists and seven rebounds. “It makes you put things in perspective and there are a lot of other things going on in life. We want to support her.”

Neither team got off to a great start offensively and the game was tied at 33 with just over three minutes left in the first half before the Liberty closed the second quarter with a 10-3 run.

Jones had the first five points of the spurt and Breanna Stewart had a turnaround shot on the baseline just before the half ended to make it 43-36.

The teams will play again on Saturday at noon PT.

SPARKS ADJUST TO BEING WITHOUT BRINK

Kia Nurse offered words of encouragement to Brink.

The veteran guard knows exactly what the rookie is going through, having torn her ACL in 2021. Brink tore the ACL in her left knee in Tuesday’s loss to Connecticut. She’s still talking to doctors to figure out when she’ll have surgery, Coach Curt Miller said after the team’s shootaround before Thursday’s game.

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“What happened to Cam was unfortunate and I’ve been there, I feel for her,” Nurse said. “We’ve got her in our hearts and prayers as she goes through this. She’ll be around us when she can be.”

Nurse said she’s talked to Brink a few times already and offered to be a sounding board for questions that the 22-year-old center might have.

“I know the ACL process is very different for each and every person that goes through it,” Nurse said. “There were some commonalities that I was grateful to have other people tell me about before surgery. I’m here with her and supporting her. There are a lot of emotions that go through it. You literally go through a wave of emotions for about a year straight.”

Brink’s rookie season ended after 15 games and she was averaging 8.1 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.5 blocked shots. Miller said her value to the Sparks went well beyond her stats.

“The thing you hear first and foremost from our players is they are going to miss the positivity,” he said. “They are going to miss the presence she brought on a daily basis that allowed us to smile. She was a sponge and remarkable being able to be very conscious that she needed to learn a lot more and was willing to grow.”

Brink flew back to Los Angeles and wrote her thoughts on the injury in an Instagram post on Wednesday.

“You never think it will happen to you. And despite all the hard work sometimes it does,” she said. “This is hard to fathom but I know it will only make me stronger,” Brink said. “I will not be derailed and I will continue to love this life – I’m not defined by basketball, but it is something that I love deeply and I will work everyday to get back to it. It’s not goodbye basketball it’s just a see you later. I’m always so thankful for your thoughts and prayers.”

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Brink is on the U.S. 3×3 team for the Paris Olympics and a replacement will have to be selected.

“Our thoughts are with Cameron as we wish her a speedy recovery. As a result of Cam’s injury, USA Basketball will begin the process of selecting an athlete to join the 2024 USA 3×3 Women’s National Team,” USA Basketball said in a statement. “We hope to see Cam back on the court and representing the red, white and blue soon.”

It’s the second consecutive Olympics that the U.S. team will have to replace one of its original players. Former Mater Dei High and UConn star Katie Lou Samuelson missed the 2021 Tokyo Games after she caught COVID right before the Olympics. She was replaced by Jackie Young, who helped the team go on to win a gold medal.

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