Sabrina Ionescu makes big impression

Courtesy of Beverley Sopak

Sabrina Ionescu was selected to represent the United States at the FIBA Americas U16 championships in Mexico.

Late last month, 124 of the nation's top young basketball players gathered in Colorado Springs, Colo., hoping to make USA Basketball's U16 national team.

A handful had been invited based on their experience and reputations. The rest -- including Sabrina Ionescu from Miramonte (Walnut Creek, Calif.) -- filled out applications and made their way to Colorado hoping to turn heads.

By May 27, the final day of camp, there were just 44 players left, and all had taken seats on the court as the names of the chosen dozen were read in alphabetical order.

Courtesy USA Basketball

Sabrina Ionescu has impressed coaches with her versatility and enthusiasm.

DeJanae Boykin, Kalani Brown, Chassity Carter, Lauren Cox ...

"It was nerve-wracking," Ionescu said.

Crystal Dangerfield. Chelsea Dungee, Asia Durr.

And then, finally, Sabrina Ionescu.

It was all the 15-year-old could do to keep from crying tears of joy right then and there.

Ionescu texted her high school coach, Kelly Sopak, who has also directed her in travel ball since she was in the fourth grade, and her father, Dan Ionescu.

Then, mindful of the players who did not get selected, Ionescu tried to discreetly flash the thumbs-up sign to her mother, Liliana Butas, who was outside the gym watching from a window.

"I wasn't 100 percent sure she made the team until she came outside and said, 'Mom, I did it,'" Butas said. "I was teary-eyed. I was so proud of her. It was overwhelming."

Ionescu was just one of two players who made the team without an invitation. Taylor Murray of Annapolis Area Christian School (Odenton, Md.) was the other. Tori McCoy, Taylor Murray, Arike Ogunbowale and Katie Lou Samuelson round out the roster. Nancy Mulkey is an alternate.

Sopak, who was sleeping at 7:30 a.m. on a Memorial Day Monday when he got Ionescu's text followed by an emotional phone call from Butas, raves about his star guard, who recently completed her freshman season.

Ionescu is listed at 5-foot-10 and 100 pounds, but Sopak said 5-foot-11 and 90 pounds is closer to the truth.

"As slight as she is, she does not get bumped around," Sopak said. "She's wiry. When you bump her, she maneuvers her way around you.

"She has excellent fundamentals, handles the ball really well and has a lot of range on her shot."

Sopak said he didn't just hand Ionescu a starting job as a freshman. He wanted her to earn it and started her, on average, only once every three games until she refused to be denied.

She ended up leading the team in scoring at 13.8 points per game. She also averaged 3.9 assists and 3.9 steals on a 27-3 team. Sopak surmises that it was Ionescu's versatility that was most appealing to the Team USA selection committee.

"She played all five positions for us," he said. "She is the type of player who, if she is playing a pickup game and notices her team doesn't have a center, she will play that spot."

Another one of Ionescu's special traits is her ability to rise to the occasion. Against Archbishop Mitty (San Jose, Calif.) and its well-respected coach, Sue Phillips, Ionescu posted 24 points, 12 rebounds and 5 steals in a 69-55 Miramonte victory.

Phillips was later named head coach of USA Basketball's U16 national team.

And even though Phillips was not part of the five-person selection committee, she knew exactly who Ionescu was when the teenager arrived in Colorado.

"She has put together a well-balanced game on both sides of the ball," Phillips said. "She demonstrated the ability to take and make high-percentage shots. She sets picks and sets up teammates for assists. She's just an asset when she is on the floor."

Ionescu also has the intangibles coaches look for.

"She is an enthusiastic teammate," Phillips said. "She's a pleasure to coach."

Ionescu said she didn't think her chances of making the team were very good when camp opened. But she was determined to make a positive impression.

"I tried my hardest to be vocal when a lot of other girls weren't," said Ionescu, who has a 3.4 GPA. "I knew I had to show leadership, be an encouraging teammate and not be a ball hog or someone who is selfish."

Ionescu, an intense competitor, said it's all about the gold when Team USA competes in the FIBA Americas U16 championships June 19-23 in Cancun, Mexico.

The United States opens against Brazil on June 19 and takes on Argentina on June 20 and Costa Rica on June 21. The semifinals are set for June 22 and the final will be on June 23.

The top four teams will advance to the 2014 U17 FIBA world championship.

Playing for Phillips, Ionescu said, is a perfect fit.

"She's a lot like Kelly," Ionescu said. "She wants you to work hard, take your criticism and use it in your favor. I enjoyed being coached by her."

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