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Chicago State’s Aaliyah Collins is right where she’s meant to be

(Sebastian Montoya for Chicago State Athletics)

CHICAGO — A minute and a half into the overtime period in an off-the-national-radar Monday night contest, Aaliyah Collins jogged the ball up the floor. Her Chicago State Cougars were tied with Wisconsin 56-56, and the freshman eyed her teammate on the right wing.

In the blink of an eye, Collins crossed over to her left, beat her defender, faked a pass to the left corner, and flipped the ball toward the rim. It didn’t drop, but a foul was called. She calmly sank both free throws.

Outside of the fact that it put her team ahead, few observers at the time were aware of the significance of that moment. You see, those free throws didn’t just give the Cougars the lead — they gave the Cougars the lead for good. On Monday, Nov. 22, 2021, Chicago State won its first basketball game in 674 days.

“We were celebrating like we had won a championship,” Collins says.

Most players of Collins’ caliber aren’t interested in going on to play for a team that just went winless a season ago. Collins, after all, was the 2021 Washington State Girls Basketball Player of the Year. But for the self-described underdog, the fit was perfect.

“Chicago State kind of checked off a lot of the checks on my list that I was looking for in a school,” Collins says. “I really wanted to be close to the city. I wanted a lot of ethnicity. I wanted to be far from home.”

As for the basketball? That only added to her drive.

“People might look at that and then they wouldn’t want to come because of the record,” Collins says. “But who says that can’t be you to help change it?”

Collins has “wanted to prove people wrong” ever since she didn’t make the fifth-grade basketball team almost a decade ago. “Before high school, I wasn’t really the best player,” she says. “I struggled a lot.”

It’s safe to say Collins has already proven plenty of people wrong: Her 2.6 steals per game rank in the top 30 in the country, and she’s the only freshman in Division I averaging at least 14 points, three assists and 2.5 steals per game. The dynamic point guard is on pace to shatter program records in several categories.

It’s the type of season that surely has many coaches kicking themselves. The few Division I offers Collins had received got pulled when the pandemic hit, and she went multiple months without a single scholarship offer.

“It was very discouraging at first,” Collins told Sam Brief last month on the Chi State Pod. “I went through a really tough time of confidence in myself.”

It wasn’t until the winter of Collins’ senior season that her former teammate’s uncle, who had a connection with then-first year Chicago State head coach Tiffany Sardin, put the two in touch.

“I was surprised she was still available,” Sardin says. “We got lucky.”

Due to COVID-19 restrictions at the time, Sardin had to rely on film, phone calls and Zoom during the recruiting process. That included watching clips of Collins running track and showing off her speed.

“She was getting smoked, and then out of nowhere she turned the jets on and won the race,” Sardin recalls. “I had to watch the clip several times thinking, ‘Wow!’”

Once the two connected, it fell on Sardin to convince the high school sensation to come play for a program without a rich history. “I was very honest and answered any and every question Aaliyah and her parents had,” Sardin says. “They were prepared and did a lot of research on Chicago State and me as well.”

Sardin’s biggest selling point? “I did tell her I thought she could be a special player that Chicago State hadn’t seen in a long time,” Sardin says. “If she wasn’t allergic to working hard, being challenged and held accountable … then come be the reason why something is changing.”

Collins committed not long after, and the two have been forming a special bond ever since.

“I have so much respect for that woman,” Collins says. “Before one of our games, she told me, ‘I put a lot of trust in you.’

“I’m like, ‘I’m a freshman — you sure you want to do that?’ But that just kind of stuck with me because that’s a lot for a coach to put trust into a freshman.”

That trust is looking like a wise decision on Sardin’s part as Collins inches closer and closer to becoming Chicago State’s first ever WAC Freshman of the Year. Collins already has five WAC Freshman of the Week awards under her belt, and in January she became the first mid-major player in two years to win the USBWA Tamika Catchings National Freshman of the Week — an honor given in recent seasons to players such as Ayoka Lee, Aliyah Boston, Paige Bueckers, Caitlin Clark, Azzi Fudd and Aneesah Morrow.

But it’s not any individual accolades that Collins is most concerned with.

“I wanna catch some more dubs,” she says.

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Collins drives to the basket against Wichita State earlier this season. (Courtesy of Wichita State)

That mentality is what fueled Collins to lead her high school team to an unbeaten season as a senior; it’s what Sardin referred to when she called Collins a “fierce competitor” upon signing her; it’s what prompted Collins to apologize for a loss to the league’s best team during an interview for this piece.

The true test of that desire to win comes when no one is watching — when the scoreboard is off and the cameras aren’t rolling. It was one of those times, after Collins injured her ankle during a summer workout, that Sardin saw who her top recruit could become.

“She wasn’t going to say a word, just fight through the pain,” Sardin says. “It really bothered her not being able to practice or go full in summer training for a few days. At that moment, I knew this kid was going to be special in this program and league. I’m not sure anyone else would’ve battled through the discomfort and pain she was feeling just to be out on the court training with her teammates.”

When it comes to in-game results, Collins is off to a good start: She’s led Chicago State to three more wins since that first one in November to match the program’s total from the previous five seasons combined. With a young, up-and-coming coaching savant in Sardin at the helm, there will undoubtedly be more where that came from.

As Collins continues to garner more recognition, she credits her family for where she is today. She has two older siblings, Kaela and Anthony, whom she calls her “biggest motivators,” and she attributes her love of the sport to her father, Tony. “[My dad] is very passionate about the game, and he kind of just spread that passion to me,” she says.

Aaliyah also believes Tony, who coached her during her elementary and middle school years, is responsible for her lockdown ability on the court.

“He definitely worked with me a lot on defense because he’s a big believer in defense, too,” she says. “I feel like he’s been a big part of my success in basketball.”

For as much love as Aaliyah has for her parents and siblings, however, they aren’t the ones she’s most excited to talk to when she calls home.

“Sometimes I’ll be calling my parents, and I’ll be like, ‘Where are the cats?’” she says. “Before even really talking to [my parents] I wanna see the cats please!”

That Collins ended up wearing a cougar on her jersey is fitting. Collins’ enthusiasm for her three cats (“those are my babies,” she says) is emblematic of what sets her apart — an ebullient energy that shines through in her play.

That same energy carries over into Collins’ fandom. The native of Snohomish, Wash. pulls for the Seattle Storm — an appropriate choice for a player with shades of former Storm guard Jordin Canada in her game.

Like Canada, Collins hangs her hat on the defensive side of the ball. While her jump shot is a work in progress — ”I have been in the gym day in, day out working on that,” she says — she’s already producing on the offensive end, as well. She’s averaged over 20 points per game in the team’s wins, including 25 against the Badgers in Madison.

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(Kena Krustinger for Chicago State Athletics)

It takes an exceptional coach to turn around a losing team, but seemingly every great sports rebuilding story is co-authored by a star athlete, a “face of the franchise” type of player with the perfect blend of talent and personality to elevate both a program’s performance and its marketability. Steve Kerr and Steph Curry took the Warriors from one playoff appearance in 18 years to perennial contenders; Brad Underwood and Ayo Dosunmu brought Illinois men’s basketball back to prominence after years of irrelevance; Adia Barnes and Aari McDonald led Arizona to last year’s national title game three years removed from a 6-24 season.

Chicago State is still climbing the front end of the mountain, but Sardin may have found her Aari McDonald in Aaliyah Collins. So for the first time in recent memory, there is hope for the program on the South Side of Chicago. Hope that behind Sardin, Collins and company, the Cougars are well on their way to “catching some more dubs.”

Calvin Wetzel is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports, covering basketball and betting. He also contributes to Her Hoop Stats, CBS SportsLine and FiveThirtyEight. Follow him on Twitter at @cwetzel31.

New Washington Spirit Head Coach Jonatan Giráldez Arrives in DC

head coach Jonatan Giráldez
Jonatan Giráldez joins the NWSL from FC Barcelona Femení. (Ramsey Cardy/UEFA via Getty Images)

Five months after announcing that the Washington Spirit had hired Barcelona Femení coach Jonatan Giráldez as the team's new head coach, Giráldez has joined the club in Washington, DC.

Giráldez is coming off of a successful season with the Spanish side, having won UEFA Women's Champions League, Copa de la Reina, Supercopa, and Liga F in his final season to complete a lauded Quadruple.

While Giráldez was finishing out his tenure in Europe, Adrián González filled in as Spirit interim head coach. González has also seen success, leading the team to its third-place standing with a 9-3-1 record through 13 games.

“I’m thrilled to join the Spirit and begin this next chapter with the club,” Giráldez said in an official team statement. “To be part of the vision Michele Kang has for the Spirit and women’s soccer globally is an exciting opportunity.”

Giráldez has worked at Barcelona since 2019, initially coming on as an assistant coach before moving up to head coach in 2021. The team went 30-0-0 on the season under Giráldez during his first year as manager.

He brings along with him Andrés González and Toni Gordo, who will serve as the Spirit's Fitness Coach and Club Analyst, respectively.

US Track & Field Olympic Trials Touch Down in Oregon

Sha’Carri Richardson competes in the women’s 200-meter preliminary round during the USATF Outdoor Championships
Sha’Carri Richardson will have some competition this week as athletes vie for an Olympic berth. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

The US Olympic Track & Field Trials begin on June 21st, kicking off a 10-day quest to determine who will represent the US in Paris this summer.

The crucial meet will take place in Eugene, Oregon, where the top three finishers in each event will punch their ticket to the 2024 Olympics. As with this past week's US Swimming Trials, even the most decorated athletes must work to earn their spot — and one bad performance could undermine four years of preparation.

Reigning 100-meter World Champion Sha'Carri Richardson headlines this year's field, as the 24-year-old looks to qualify for her second Olympic Games and compete in her first. Richardson is a world champion in both the 100-meter and 200-meter sprint, but missed the Tokyo Olympics due to testing positive for THC shortly after the last US Olympic Trials.

Other standouts include 400-meter Olympic gold medal-winning hurdler Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone, who's currently the most decorated athlete in the active women's US Track & Field pool. McLaughlin-Levrone qualified to run in the 200-meter and 400-meter flat races alongside the 400-meter hurdles at the Olympic Trials, but opted to focus solely on her signature event.

800-meter specialist Athing Mu will also be a huge draw this week, as the Olympic gold medalist looks to shake off a lingering hamstring injury while pursuing her second Summer Games. Gold medal-winning pole vaulter Katie Moon will also attempt to qualify for her second-straight Olympic Games.

Ole Miss star McKenzie Long could be Richardson's greatest competition in the 100-meter and 200-meter events, as well as Richardson's Worlds teammate Gabby Thomas in the 200-meter. In field events, watch for Oregon senior Jaida Ross going head-to-head with reigning world champion Chase Jackson in the shot put, as both push for their first Olympic team berth.

Regardless of why you tune in, the US Olympic Trials are a perpetually thrilling and sometimes brutal qualification process. If you're able to make your way to the head of the pack, a shot at Olympic glory might just be waiting at the finish line.

Fans can catch live coverage throughout the Trials via NBC, USA, and Peacock.

Top Teams Square Off in NWSL Weekend Slate

NWSL Orlando Pride forward Barbra Banda
Orlando Pride, led by forward Barbra Banda, will take on Utah in this weekend's NWSL action. (Nicholas Faulkner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

As the NWSL season continues, a few top-performing clubs will have a chance to boost their standings this weekend.

First-place Kansas City will travel to Providence Park to take on fifth-place Portland, as the Current look to keep their unbeaten streak intact. And in New Jersey, third-place Washington will take on fourth-place Gotham FC, with both teams attempting to extend multi-game unbeaten streaks.

A six-point gap has opened between the fifth and sixth spot on the NWSL table — with just six points also separating the league's top five. Kansas City, Orlando, Washington, Gotham, and Portland have recently proven themselves to be a cut above the rest of the competition. With eight postseason spots up for grabs and half the season behind us, a pattern is forming that indicates the playoff race could come down to spots six through eight on the NWSL table.

Of those top five teams, only Orlando faces an opponent in the bottom half of the league this weekend: The Pride will take on 14th-place Utah, who nonetheless are coming off a win — just their second of the season — over Bay FC last weekend.

But despite Kansas City and Orlando having yet to lose a game, Gotham might be the squad coming into the weekend with the most momentum.

Clutch goals from Rose Lavelle and rookie Maycee Bell gave the Bats a 2-0 midweek win over San Diego on Wednesday, in a rematch of the 2024 Challenge Cup. Gotham's unbeaten streak dates all the way back to April, as rising availability and sharpened form have honed this year's superteam into a contender.

Bottom line? As the NWSL season passes the halfway mark, some matches might begin to feel more like playoff previews than mere regular season battles.

Chelsea Gray Returns From Injury in Aces Win Over Seattle

las vegas aces chelsea gray and kelsey plum celebrate a win over the seattle storm
Gray has been sidelined with a foot injury since the 2023 WNBA Finals. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Chelsea Gray made her return to the basketball court on Wednesday, helping the Aces to a 94-83 win over the Seattle Storm. 

The lauded point guard missed the first 12 games of the season, having been injured in last year’s WNBA Finals. The left foot injury caused her to miss Game 4 of the championship series, and she’s continued to rehab it through the beginning of the 2024 season. 

Her return on Wednesday was capitalized by the fact that she needed just 20 seconds to make an impact and record her first assist. While she finished with just one point, she had seven assists, four rebounds, and two blocks to go alongside it in 15:30 minutes. Gray's contributions on the night brought her career assist record up to 1,500.

"I probably went through every emotion leading up to today," Gray said after the game. "I was a little anxious all day. It's been a long time since I've been out on that court. But the fans were amazing from the time I came out to warm up to the time I checked in the game. It was a rush and a feeling I missed a lot."

It’s been a roller coaster of a season so far for Las Vegas, who have lost five of their last seven games. Gray, who averaged 15.3 points, 7.3 assists, and 4.0 rebounds in 2023, has proven herself a much-needed addition to the team’s lineup.

"Felt like my heart," Aces coach Becky Hammon said when asked how she felt hearing the crowd erupt for Gray's return. "She's the leader of our team. I thought she did a wonderful job too."

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