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These NCAA stars are ready to lead WNBA’s next generation

Cameron Brink, Deja Kelly and Hailey Van Lith sit courtside at the WNBA All-Star Game in July. (Annie Schutz/Just Women’s Sports)

LAS VEGAS — Cameron Brink, Deja Kelly and Hailey Van Lith sat courtside for the WNBA All-Star Game last month, looking directly at their preferred futures.

The three are heading into their senior years — Brink at Stanford, Kelly at North Carolina and Van Lith at LSU. And like the players on the court, their WNBA dreams are so close, they can almost touch them.

“God willing, this is a dream of mine,” Brink said. “So, I think seeing all this is such a good reminder of how much hard work it takes to get there. And what the players sacrifice to be in this league. I think it’s just a really humbling experience, and I’m just really happy to be here.”

Anyone who watches the WNBA or dreams of playing in the league is familiar with the difficulties of making a roster. There’s a lot of talent coming out of college basketball — Brink, Kelly and Van Lith included — but a limited number of spots.

This season, 15 of 36 draftees made opening day rosters, 15 remained on rosters from the 2022 draft, and just eight players drafted in 2021 were rostered to start the season.

For the three seniors, this upcoming season is crucial to raising their draft stock. The next two WNBA drafts could feature the deepest classes the league has ever seen.

As undersized guards, Kelly (5-8) and Van Lith (5-7) are both focusing on extending their range. Kelly shot 28% from beyond the arc last season, while Van Lith made 29% of her attempts. They’ve been effective getting to the rim off the bounce in college, but they know 3-point shooting is vital to success in the WNBA.

“I’m working on a number of things,” Kelly said. “But I think just being as consistent as possible, just playing within my game. That and really extending my range as well. I think as a guard and my size, it’s something I have to have.”

Brink also wants to improve her outside shooting as a skill that can set the 6-4 forward apart from other bigs. She looks to players like Breanna Stewart and A’ja Wilson for inspiration on how to capitalize on versatility while remaining dominant inside.

Versatility has become increasingly important in the WNBA in the last few years, as traditional, back-to-the-basket posts and guards who can’t create for themselves are becoming less effective. Posts have to have range, and guards need to be able to score in isolation.

Van Lith and Brink are coming off a successful stint in 3×3 basketball, where they claimed gold at the FIBA World Cup in June and Brink was named tournament MVP. The nature of 3×3, they say, promotes versatility.

“I think 3×3 is such a dynamic game, and it’s so volatile,” Brink said. “You have to be able to defend every position, be able to shoot, be confident in your shot. You have to be able to handle the ball and clear the ball in between possessions.”

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Brink, Kelly and Van Lith pose with reigning WNBA MVP A'ja Wilson during All-Star weekend. (Annie Schutz/Just Women's Sports)

With only three players on the court at a time, Van Lith even spent time in the paint, playing with her back to the basket. It’s an unexpected skill set that she hopes to show off next season at LSU, after transferring from Louisville to play for the defending NCAA champions.

“I have a post bag, and it is deep,” Van Lith said with a smile. “Just wait until I get to LSU, because it is coming out.”

Changes in women’s basketball are happening off the court, too. Brink, Kelly and Van Lith have witnessed the rapidly evolving landscape firsthand, coming into college during the COVID-19 pandemic and now being some of the first players to benefit from NIL.

The opportunity to accept sponsorships and marketing opportunities has allowed college players to build and monetize their personal brands, bringing more attention to themselves and the game. Players like Aliyah Boston, who is enjoying a successful rookie season, is proof that talent can get players to the next level, but personality and visibility can bring fans from college to the WNBA. Boston already has a strong following from South Carolina, and those fans have continued their support for the Fever post, voting her as an All-Star starter this season.

“NIL plays a huge role in that growth process, just because fans get to see what we are doing for NIL, and it makes them want to watch us play basketball even more,” Kelly said. “NIL hit my sophomore year, and a lot of people wanted to see our team and see what we were about. Once they saw we were actually good, it made them want to come back.”

Of course, not every NIL deal transfers from college to the professional ranks. Branding remains important at the next level, and several players have found ways to benefit despite not going to college during the NIL era.

Wilson, the two-time WNBA MVP, has deals with Starry and Ruffles. Stewart, another of the league’s most well-known players, has a signature shoe with PUMA.

Coinciding with more eyes on the league, fashion has become a big part of WNBA culture. Skylar Diggins-Smith launched an entire clothing collection with PUMA last season, and tunnel pregame tunnel outfits have dominated WNBA Instagram accounts for the last few seasons.

The differing styles among players are one of the many ways they express and market themselves. It’s also something that’s trickling down to the college level.

“I love it,” Van Lith said. “There is no pressure to put a label on it. They can dress masculine one day, and the next day they can show up in a dress. There’s so much range.”

Player fashion, Van Lith says, is bigger than just what brands they are wearing. Like the changing versatility on the court, it represents exactly what the WNBA is about.

“The league is just a great example of diversity in so many ways,” she says. “Fashion is definitely one of those.”

Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.

Caitlin Clark dunks on Michael Che in surprise SNL appearance

(Julia Hansen/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK)

Caitlin Clark made a surprise appearance on “Saturday Night Live” over the weekend, which quickly went viral.

The Iowa star showed up on the show’s Weekend Update segment to playfully call out Michael Che’s history of making jabs at women’s sports.

It started when Che joked that Iowa should replace Clark’s retired No. 22 “with an apron.” 

When Clark entered, Che said that he was a fan. But Clark wasn’t convinced – especially not when co-host Colin Jost brought the receipts of Che’s jabs.

“Really, Michael? Because I heard that little apron joke you did,” she said, before making him read some jokes of her own in retaliation. Clark finished her segment by shouting out the WNBA greats that came before her. She then got in one final dig – bringing Che a signed apron as a souvenir. 

When Che promised to give it to his girlfriend, Clark delivered her last playful dig of the night.

“You don’t have a girlfriend, Michael,” she said.

Afterward, SNL castmember Bowen Yang told People that the 22-year-old and teammates Gabbie Marshall, Kate Martin and Jada Gyamfi – who joined her at Studio 8H – “were so cool.”

“She's so charming and witty,” Yang said. “They were just the most stunning, noble people.

“Athletes just have this air about them. They know they're amazing. I mean, these are people who have numeric attachments and values to their performance. That's something that comedians never have.”

Portland Thorns, in uncharted territory, start NWSL season winless

Portland has started the season winless through four games for the first time. (Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports)

The Portland Thorns continue to struggle to start the NWSL season, falling 2-0 to the North Carolina Courage over the weekend to remain winless through their first four games. 

It’s uncharted territory for Portland, who has never started the NWSL regular season without a win in four games before.

Following the loss, defender Becky Sauerbrunn voiced her frustrations with the start. 

“It’s hard to find a lot of encouraging things, but what I find encouraging is that people are frustrated,” she said. “People are pissed off that we’re not doing well. We care, and I think that’s really important.” 

She also added that while the team will reflect individually, “there’s going to be no finger pointing.”

“We’re going to look at ourselves and figure out what we should have done, or I should have done better,” she said. “There is a list of things that I could have done better, and I’m going to make sure I know every single thing and watch this game back.”

The Thorns currently sit at the bottom of the league table with just one point, having allowed 10 goals – tied for the worst in the league. They’ve yet to lead in a match. And as questions grow, attention turns to head coach Mike Norris. 

Norris is in his second year as head coach of the club after leading the team to a second-place finish in the regular season last year. When asked about the possibility of pressure growing after the unprecedented start, Norris said that the pressure has been there “from day one.”

“I cannot be driven by my day-to-day and the longer vision of the pressure of the job,” he said. “We’ve got a belief in how we want to play, how we operate. We’ve got to stick with the process of that. While we do it, we have to review and see what is working, what’s not working.

“I’ll be showing up for the team and being there for what they need from me as we approach getting back together as a group next week.”

Maria Sanchez reportedly requests trade from Houston Dash

Mar 23, 2024; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Dash forward Maria Sanchez (7) warms up before the match between Racing Louisville and Houston Dash at Shell Energy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Maria Sanchez, who signed one of the biggest deals in NWSL history just four months ago, has reportedly requested a trade from the Houston Dash. 

ESPN was the first to report the news, which was confirmed by multiple sources.

In a statement to ESPN, the team said: “​​Maria Sanchez is under contract, a choice she made in free agency at the end of 2023." 

In December, Sanchez signed a new three-year contract with the Dash worth $1.5 million including bonuses and an option year. At the time, it was the largest contract in NWSL history – something that was eclipsed by multiple contracts in the following months. 

The winger was a restricted free agent in the offseason, meaning that Houston could match any offer from another team and retain her rights. Should the team trade Sanchez, her contract would remain as it has been signed with the league. That limits the number of teams that could take on her contract. 

In three starts with the Dash this season, Sanchez has zero goals and an assist. The Dash are 1-2-1 through four games and have allowed a league-worst 10 goals.

The team hired a new coach, Fran Alonso, in December. Earlier this year, former goalkeeper coach Matt Lampson was fired for violating the league’s Coach Code of Conduct and Anti-Fraternization policy. 

Both the NWSL trade window and transfer window close at midnight ET on Friday.

Canada beats U.S. Hockey 6-5 in thrilling World Championship win

UTICA, NEW YORK - APRIL 14: Team Canada raises the Championship Trophy after winning The Gold by defeating The United States in OT during the 2024 IIHF Women's World Championship Gold Medal game at Adirondack Bank Center on April 14, 2024 in Utica, New York. (Photo by Troy Parla/Getty Images)

Canada got its revenge on Sunday, winning the 2024 IIHF Women’s World Championship and taking down the U.S. in a 6-5 overtime classic.

Marie-Philip Poulin, a longtime star for Canada, got her first two goals of the tournament, while Danielle Serdachny had the game-winner. 

"I hate to say you're not trying to rely on it, expect it, but I know I've grown to expect it," Canada coach Troy Ryan said of Philip-Poulin. "Tonight was just a whole other level. I could see in her eyes every time we called her name that she was ready to go. It's just special."

The win came after Canada lost 1-0 to the U.S. in the group stage of the tournament. On Sunday, the two teams met for the 22nd time in 23 tournaments in the gold medal game – and the action between the two teams delivered. 

Among those scoring for the U.S. were Megan Keller, Alex Carpenter, Hilary Knight, Laila Edwards and Caroline Harvey. Julia Gosling, Emily Clark and Erin Ambrose had the other three goals for Canada, giving them their 13th World title after falling to the U.S. in last year’s title game in Toronto. 

This year’s game was held in New York, and it was the second-highest scoring final between the two teams. The U.S. won a world championship 7-5 in 2015. 

"Oh man, that feels good to win it on U.S. soil," Canada goalie Ann-Renee Desbiens said after the game. "We owed it to them and owed it to ourselves to win that one."

Canada also denied Knight a record 10th World Championship win, although she did become the most decorated player in women’s world championship history with 14 medals. After the game, Poulin gave Knight a hug on the ice. 

"We just said 'that was unbelievable,'" Poulin said.

U.S. coach John Wroblewski echoed the sentiment that it was an outstanding game after being asked about ending the game on a power-play after leaving too many players on the ice. 

"Instead of talking about the isolated events of tonight's game, I think that normally that's an interesting storyline,” he said. “But I think the entity of an amazing 6-5 game is an amazing hockey game that took place."

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