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When Elite Prospect Sabrina Ionescu Has The Ball, Be Very Afraid

Sabrina Ionescu is planning to take her smooth, understated and stellar game to Cal, Oregon State, Oregon or Texas. Courtesy USA Basketball

Sabrina Ionescu -- panicked, horrified and full of dread -- could only sit there, eyes squeezed shut, and scream.

Across the way, a few kids giggled.

One of the best basketball recruits in the nation and the No. 4 prospect in the espnW HoopGurlz Top 100 for the 2016 class, Ionescu and her Cal Stars teammates recently attended the movie "Unfriended" together as a bonding exercise. The movie, with the tagline "This April, revenge comes online," is a horror film; Ionescu hates horror films.

"I'm thinking that what's happening [on the screen] could happen to me," she explained.

And, apparently, reacting appropriately.

"Sabrina was literally screaming," teammate Evina Westbrook said. "There were a couple of 7-year-olds next to us, and they were fine. They were laughing. But Sabrina hates scary movies with a passion. She had her eyes closed a lot."

The panic and terror that Ionescu feels during those moments must be what opposing players, coaches and fans go through when the ball is in her hands in a clutch moment.

Ionescu, an undeclared 6-foot senior point guard from Miramonte (Orinda, California), is a three-time first-team all-state player. She has drawn more than 50 scholarship offers and has narrowed her list to Cal, Oregon State, Oregon and Texas.

"She has a European-esque game," said Kelly Sopak, her high school and club coach. "She's very deceptive. Her biggest advantage is that people underestimate her.

"Her style is so smooth. It's not a dominating style. She understands momentum and feel and knows where her teammates are and gets them involved.

"Before you know it, she has 20 points and double-figure assists, and it looks effortless."

All-day basketball

Ionescu, 17, and her twin brother, Eddy, grew up playing basketball, following in the sneaker steps of their brother Andre, who is nine years older.

But while Andre never took basketball too far -- just one year of high school ball -- Sabrina and Eddy were dedicated to the sport.

On weekends, summer days and any other time they could, Sabrina and Eddy would go to Larkey Park in Walnut Creek and play one-on-one.

"We would play from 10 a.m. until sundown," said Eddy, now a 6-foot-5 shooting guard who is considering attending Oregon next season as a walk-on.

"Our mom and dad would bring us lunch. We would stay on the court as long as we could."

Those one-on-one games stopped about four years ago. That's when Eddy hit a growth spurt, making the games a bit unfair. But before that ...

"She whipped my butt until the sixth grade," Eddy said. "Now we just do drills together.

"Our games were super competitive. We probably got into a fight every time, calling every single foul. I think that elevated her game because no girl was going to push her as hard as I did at that age."

Ionescu gives her brother credit for helping her game.

"Playing against boys gave me my competitive edge and my feistiness," she said. "You have to play five times harder and smarter against boys because they are bigger and better."

Ionescu learned her lessons well, bursting onto the national scene in the summer of her freshman year, making Team USA's U16 team. Ionescu was not among the 35 girls invited to the Colorado trials, but she made the 12-player cut, beating out more than 100 girls for the right to represent her country.

She won a gold medal while playing for Team USA in the FIBA Americas U16 championships in Cancun, Mexico. Later, she won a gold medal at the 2014 U17 FIBA World Championship in Pilsen, the Czech Republic.

"She's the best point guard I've ever played with," said Brianna Holt, a former AAU teammate who is now a 5-11 shooting guard at Cal Poly. "She makes people around her better. She can also go into the paint and rebound or post up."

Getting stronger

Ionescu was 5-10 and just over 90 pounds when she won her first spot with Team USA. Now she's six feet and 140 pounds.

"As she has gotten bigger and stronger, her passing has become more dynamic," Sopak said. "Before, she could see the opening. But now she can deliver the ball with a crisper pass."

Ionescu has gotten stronger, in part, by working out almost daily with the Miramonte football team.

But she also has done good work at the dinner table ... and the lunch table ... and at breakfast ... and between meals, too.

It's not unusual for the candy-loving Ionescu to eat her food and some of her teammates' meals as well.

"She will go around the table and get some food off of everybody," Westbrook said. "She'll say, 'Oh, can I have some of this? Oooh, can I have some of that?'

"She always gives you that smile and those eyes. And she's our teammate so ... how can we say no?"

Making a college decision

Ionescu, who has a 3.5 GPA, is interested in studying law. But she also can see herself becoming a coach when her playing days are over.

As for college, Ionescu said she is wide open on her four schools.

If Eddy follows through on his plans to go to Oregon, that could give the Ducks an edge. And Cal, being closest to home, has to like its chances to land this family-oriented star.

After meeting with Cal earlier this week, Ionescu has plans to visit Texas this weekend and Oregon the following week. After a weekend off, she visits Oregon State and hopes to make her choice following the completion of her trips.

"I want a place where I fit in, and I know I'm happy," she said. "It's a place where I have a good relationship with the coaches and players, and I know 100 percent this is where I want to be the next four years.

"It's going to be a tough decision. But with the help of my coach and my family, it should get easier."

Once she makes her decision, she hopes to truly enjoy her senior year, building on the accomplishments she has already put on her résumé. She has led Miramonte to an 87-8 record the past three years, winning two section titles in the process.

She averaged 23.0 points and 7.3 assists last season and is already the school's career leader in those two categories.

Ionescu also helped Cal Stars finally win the prestigious Nike Nationals this year at North Augusta, South Carolina, which was a goal of hers since she joined the club team in the third grade.

Her twin brother said he knows what his sister is capable of and has high hopes for her.

"I expect her to kick everybody's butt," Eddy said. "I love watching her because she is so complete. She can play anywhere from point guard to center. That's why I expect her to destroy."