Although her team lost in the CIF Open Division state final, the versatile guard still racked up a triple-double and did enough all season to hold off duo from champion team Chaminade for state’s highest individual accolade. Ionescu is only the fourth Ms. Basketball State Player of the Year from the CIF North Coast Section and the first since 2005.
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In some years the race for the most prestigious honor in California high school girls basketball is a one-filly sprint, and in others it’s almost too close to call. Then there are times like this season when it’s somewhere in between.
Sabrina Ionescu from Miramonte of Orinda came into the season as the favorite after snagging both State Sophomore and State Junior of the Year awards and herself considered a distant runner-up to last year’s winner, Katie Lou Samuelson of Santa Ana Mater Dei.
As it came down to the wire, the choice was not an easy or clear cut one, but in the end, and after careful consideration that included analysis from three Southern and three Northern California coaches with over 20 CIF state titles combined, Ionescu has been named the 2015 Ms. Basketball State Player of the Year.
When she received the same 6:30 a.m. but 9:30 New York time call Samuelson got last year the day before this year’s Jordan Brand Classic All-Star Game on Friday in Brooklyn at the Barclays Center, Sabrina wasn’t quite sure what was up.
“How come I’m getting the same call as Katie Lou?” she asked.
When informed it was because she was joining Lou, the 2014 winner and UCLA star Jordin Canada (Windward, Los Angeles), and the darling of this year’s NCAA Final Four, Kelsey Plum (2013 at La Jolla Country Day) of Washington, plus a girls basketball who’s who of list winners from every year since 1972, Ionescu had her usual modest but sincere response.
“Thank you so much. It’s an honor and humbling following in the footsteps of those other great players,” Ionescu said. “It’s special and makes me very happy to be chosen for the top award from my home state.”
Ionescu’s previous awards were the Gatorade State Player of the Year, selection to the McDonald’s and Jordan Brand national all star games, San Francisco Chronicle Bay Area Metro Player of the Year for the second straight season, and she was recently named American Family Insurance All-USA Player of the Year.
Ionescu is the first girl from Northern California to win the Ms. Basketball monicker since Chelsea Gray of Stockton St. Mary’s captured the 2010 award. She is also only the fourth girl from the CIF North Coast Section to be honored and the first since 2005 when Piedmont star Courtney Paris was the winner. The other NCS winners were 1991 recipient Tanda Rucker of Berkeley, and 1997 winner Erin Buescher of Santa Rosa Rincon Valley Christian.
“It’s a well deserved award for an amazing kid and player. She forced everyone on our roster to improve a great deal and that made our team so much better,” said Miramonte head coach Kelly Sopak from New York where he will be an assistant on the West squad and coaching Sabrina for a final time in the Jordan Brand game.
“From the time she was young, I told her there are two people on the team that can never have a bad practice or bad game, the coach and the best player. I’m not certain her coach ever lived up to that but I do know she did. Looking back, I can’t recall a single bad practice or bad game from Sabrina. That is what I’m going to miss the most,” continued Sopak, who has coached Ionescu for several years in his Cal Stars program and last summer won a Nike National championship with Ionescu as the team leader.
Ionescu could have almost assuredly qualified for a third appearance on the USA National Team to go with 2013 and 2014, but gave up the chance to help her Cal Stars win the national club title.
When her team lost to Chaminade in the CIF Open Division title game, it made the Ms. Basketball race even tighter than it had been entering the CIF state playoffs. However, after polling the six state championship coaches and the Cal-Hi Sports staff of basketball analysts it was still Ionescu, and partly because of her performance in the state title game defeat.
Not only did she register the only known triple-double in a state championship game in the 35 years the CIF has had girls championships after scoring 24 points with 10 rebounds and 10 assists, Ionescu literally put the team on her back against the duo of Ms. Basketball runners-up Valerie Higgins and Leaonna Odom of Chaminade.
With Miramonte trailing 37-17 in the second quarter, Ionescu took charge to get her team within 10 points at halftime. She continued her relentless play and due to her efforts Miramonte actually led 53-52 near the end of the third quarter before the overall talent and depth of Chaminade was more than she could almost single-handedly sustain in an 80-71 defeat.
In a 32-1 season this year, Ionescu averaged 25.9 points, 8.8 assists, 7.3 rebounds and 4.5 steals per game while also making 102 3-pointers and shooting 49percent from the field, 40 percent from 3-point range and 89 percent from the foul line.
Ionescu also led Miramonte to a 27-3 record as a freshman, 30-2 as a sophomore and last season she had almost identical numbers in leading the Mats to a 30-3 record.
The McDonald’s game is not technically part of the criteria for the Ms. Basketball honor, but it was hard to ignore her MVP performance after a record 25 points with 10 rebounds in leading the West to a 97-88 overtime victory.
What the experts say
All of the coaches were willing to comment on Ionescu and the other finalists, but only one, Pinewood head coach Doc Scheppler, whose Panthers played and lost to Ionescu and Miramonte four times over the last two seasons, wanted their name used.
“I’ve seen all the top players and she’s not the most athletically talented player but Sabrina is the most complete ‘basketball’ player in the state and maybe the country,” Scheppler said. “Even when teams like Chaminade set their defense to minimize her scoring, she still does all the other things to give her teammates’ advantages with her passing, draw and kick for open 3’s, draw and dump to weak side posts, and she gets on the boards as well. Bringing her team back from 20 down was a prime example of her relentless competitiveness.”
“It’s sooo close between Ionescu and Higgins,” said a Southern California coach with multiple state championships. “If there can’t be Co-Ms. Basketball winners, then I give the edge to Sabrina. She has a pro skill set, is deceptive, knows how to score, shoots the 3-ball, feeds her teammates, commands the court – she gives a lot.”
“Overall, Sabrina had the best season as a whole and was consistently dominant all year. To me that makes her the winner,” said another coach from SoCal with lots of CIF state titles.
Only non commit and any regrets
When Ionescu takes the court in Brooklyn on Friday night she will be the only non-committed player in the girls game, but she takes it in stride.
“It’s still up in the air and I don’t have a timeline right now. There’s no pressure,” said Ionescu, who confirmed she’s narrowed it to Cal, Oregon (where her twin brother Eddy has committed) and Oregon State.
The Mats fell short of a perfect season and a state championship, but Ionescu, who actually isn’t being looked at as a scorer at the next level but as a distributor and defender, really has no regrets.
“I didn’t care if I scored or not, I did whatever was called for in the game for me to do to help the team win,” Sabrina said. “No one thought we could get to state but from our first practice it was definitely an accomplishment as a team getting there, and I enjoyed the process.”
The little sister
Like some other Ms. Basketball winners, Sabrina played with boys, including oldest brother Andrei, and previously mentioned twin Eddy, a 6-foot-5 wing who was one of the leading players on the Miramonte boys team this season.
“Playing with boys gave me my competitive nature, and with my brothers it was very competitive,” she remarked.
Ionescu might be the little of sister of her family, but she has now written her name into the Cal-Hi Sports and California girls basketball annals by capturing the state’s top girls basketball award.
OF THE YEAR
(All selections by Cal-Hi Sports)
Note: All-time list before 1980 compiled by our founder, the late Nelson Tennis, based on research.
2016 Sabrina Ionescu, Orinda Miramonte, 6-0
2015 Katie Lou Samuelson, Santa Ana Mater Dei, 6-3
2014 Jordin Canada, Los Angeles Windward, 5-7
2013 Kelsey Plum, La Jolla Country Day, 5-10
2012 Nirra Fields, Santa Ana Mater Dei, 5-8
2011 Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, Santa Ana Mater Dei, 6-0
2010 Chelsea Gray, Stockton St. Mary’s, 5-11
2009 Layshia Clarendon, San Bernardino Cajon, 5-9
2008 Jasmine Dixon, Long Beach Poly, 5-11
2007 Jeanette Pohlen, Brea Olinda, 6-1
2006 Jacki Gemelos, Stockton St. Mary’s, 6-0
2005 Courtney Paris, Piedmont, 6-4
2004 Candice Wiggins, La Jolla Country Day, 5-11
2003 Dominique Banks, Stockton St. Mary’s, 5-8
2002 Sa’de Wiley-Gatewood, Lynwood, 5-7 Soph.
2001 Loree Moore, Harbor City Narbonne, 5-8
2000 Diana Taurasi, Chino Don Lugo, 5-11
1999 Diana Taurasi, Chino Don Lugo, 5-11 Jr.
1998 Michelle Greco, La Crescenta Crescenta Valley, 5-10
1997 Erin Buescher, Santa Rosa Rincon Valley Christian, 6-2
1996 Maylana Martin, Perris, 6-3
1995 Renee Robinson, Atherton Sacred Heart Prep, 5-10
1994 Nicole Erickson, Brea Olinda, 5-7
1993 Danielle Viglione, Fair Oaks Del Campo, 5-10
1992 Charisse Sampson, Los Angeles Washington, 5-11
1991 Tanda Rucker, Berkeley, 507
1990 Lisa Leslie, Inglewood Morningside, 6-5
1989 Lisa Leslie, Inglewood Morningside, 6-5 Jr.
1988 Trise Jackson, Lynwood, 507
1987 Terri Mann, San Diego Point Loma, 6-2
1986 Terri Mann, San Diego Point Loma, 6-2 Jr.
1985 Sharon Turner, Oceanside El Camino, 5-9
1984 Doretha Conwell, Los Angeles Locke, 6-3
1983 Doretha Conwell, Los Angeles Locke, 6-3 Jr.
1982 Cheryl Miller, Riverside Poly, 6-2
1981 Cheryl Miller, Riverside Poly, 6-2 Jr.
1980 Jackie White, Fresno San Joaquin Memorial, 5-8
1979 Jackie White, Fresno San Joaquin Memorial, 5-8 Jr.
1978 Jackie White, Fresno San Joaquin Memorial, 5-8 Soph.
1977 Denise Curry, Davis, 6-1
1976 Denise Curry, Davis, 6-1 Jr.
1975 Anita Ortega, Los Angeles, 5-9
1974 Ann Meyers, La Habra Sonora, 5-9
1973 Ann Meyers, Anaheim Connelly, 5-8 Jr.
1972 Ann Meyers, La Habra Sonora, 5-8 Soph.
Note: List also extends back with assorted years back to 1905 in the Cal-Hi Sports State Record Book and Almanac.
Harold Abend is the associate editor of CalHiSports.com and the vice president of the California Prep Sportswriters Association. He can be reached at email@example.com. Don’t forget to follow him on Twitter: @HaroldAbend