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Isobel Cup Playoffs: A postseason primer for each PHF team

(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

The Isobel Cup Playoffs begin Friday, with all six Premier Hockey Federation teams colliding in Tampa. Just Women’s Sports has a primer on every team in the lead-up to the postseason.

The Connecticut Whale and Toronto Six each earned a first round bye after finishing atop the league standings in the regular season. The rest of the weekend’s schedule and matchups can be found here.

No. 1 Connecticut Whale

Connecticut will be looking for its first PHF title. The team is the only one among the league’s original four to have not won the Isobel Cup. After finishing atop the standings for the first time, they certainly have the talent to do so this season.

Kennedy Marchment has been on a tear for the Whale in her first PHF season. The forward ended the regular season as the league leader in points (33), assists (20) and points per game (1.7). She also tied for second in goals with 13 through 20 games played.

Marchment was named the PHF Player of the Month for March after notching four goals and 10 assists through six games. In the final game of the season, she set a single game record for the Whale with four assists in a 5-0 victory over Toronto. Her performance helped the Whale secure the top seed in the playoffs.

The road to No. 1 wasn’t easy for the Whale, as the team dropped three out of its first five games. But they only lost two more games through the rest of the season, including an 11-game winning streak.

“It took us a little bit [of time] to find our stride,” Marchment said. “We’re still getting better each and every game. We had a bit of a rough start but we finished strong, we finished at the top, and we’re not done yet.”

Taylor Girard and Amanda Conway bolster the Whale offense, which helped the team finish the season with a plus-30 goal differential. While Connecticut still has a lot to prove in the playoffs, it is one of the most complete teams in the league.

No. 2 Toronto Six

One year after losing in the semifinals to the eventual champion Boston Pride, the Six are right back near the top of the league.

In her first full PHF season, Toronto’s Mikyla Grant-Mentis was hot on Marchment’s heels, finishing second behind Marchment in points, assists and points per game. As the reigning league MVP and Newcomer of the Year, she led the league in game-winning goals, notching six on the season, and finished with 30 points.

Elaine Chuli has been outstanding in net for the Six, holding a 1.82 goals against average and a .930 save percentage. She also leads the league in wins, having held down the net in all 16 of the Six’s victories.

While the Six didn’t lose often during the season (just four times), each time they did they rebounded with a win. After a 5-0 defeat to the Whale to end the season, look for Toronto to bounce back in the PHF semifinals and make a run for the final.

“We had a great start and a couple of bumps in the road,” Six coach Mark Joslin said. “But we rebounded every time we lost a game and I’m happy with our response every time. If the trend continues, we’re gonna be golden this weekend in Tampa.”

No. 3 Boston Pride

The Pride certainly didn’t end the season the way they wanted, dropping five games in a row en route to the third seed in the playoffs. They’ll be facing off against No. 6 seed Buffalo, the team that beat them in the final two games of the regular season.

“I don’t think there’s many teams that have gone into overtime five games in a row and lost, but I think our team has the right mindset going into Friday,” said coach Paul Mara, noting that the team has known for a while that Buffalo would likely end up being their first round opponent.

“We’ve been preparing for them for a long time,” he added.

There’s hope for the Pride in the fact that their last five games were lost in overtime and on the road. The neutral site in Tampa could help them snap the streak.

“Playoffs is always the start of a new season,” captain Jillian Dempsey said. “So it’s a fresh start for us. We’re really excited to go in with a do-or-die situation, backs against the wall and really find out what we’re made out of.

“We feel we’ve been building that mental toughness all season, but especially this past month. We’re battle tested so it’s going to be a great opportunity on Friday.”

The defending champion Pride do boast the season’s best goaltender in Katie Burt, who led the league in goals against average (1.41) and save percentage (.958). They also have a lot of depth and an aggressive zone defense.

Their experience in the postseason – with two Isobel Cup wins, the most of any team in the league – could help them make a run.

No. 4 Metropolitan Riveters

The Riveters had an up-and-down season, finishing with just seven wins and a minus-11 goal differential. They split the regular season series against their preliminary round opponent Minnesota 2-2.

Metropolitan captain Madison Packer is capable of leading her team to victory, including a 3-2 overtime win in early March against Boston. Kendall Cornine, Theresa Knutson and Emily Janiga all managed double-digit points totals this season.

Still, the Riveters have an uphill battle ahead of them if they want to lift the Isobel Cup.

No. 5 Minnesota Whitecaps

Minnesota lost a lot of depth from last season, which has resulted in some growing pains. But the Whitecaps do have some bright spots, including captain Allie Thunstrom, who is one of the fastest skaters in the league. She also scored a league-high 18 goals on the season.

The captain is joined by Jonna Curtis, who tied for the third-most points on the season with 24. Curtis also notched 15 assists and averaged 1.2 goals per game, making her a threat in any game.

Thunstrom said Tuesday that over the course of the season the team has grown together and grown resilient, something that could help the Whitecaps on Friday against the Riveters.

“Everybody on our team feels really confident in who we have in our locker room and who we have out on the ice,” she said. “There’s a lot of belief in each other.”

No. 6 Buffalo Beauts

Despite a minus-29 goal differential, don’t count the Beauts out in Friday’s matchup with Boston. They took a 3-2 overtime victory over the Pride to end the regular season.

Offensive defenders Dominique Kremer and Anjelica Diffendal each have the ability to find the back of the net and are followed closely behind by Autumn MacDougall and Kennedy Ganser. Captain Taylor Accursi is another threat to opposing teams, having scored three times on the season and recorded eight assists.

Consistency has been an issue this season, but Buffalo has gone up against the league’s best and given them a run for their money. The Beauts have the potential to play spoiler as the postseason gets underway.

Phoenix Mercury Unveils $100 Million Practice Facility

phoenix mercury practice facility's diana taurasi courts
The 58,000-square-foot facility includes two indoor practice courts with built-in courtside technology. (Phoenix Mercury)

As part of the 2024 WNBA All-Star Weekend festivities, the Phoenix Mercury officially opened the doors to their new state-of-the-art practice facility on Thursday.

Along with a host of player-driven amenities, the 58,000-square-foot, $100 million property showcases two full-sized basketball courts named after veteran Mercury star Diana Taurasi, complete with a one-of-a-kind Taurasi-inspired logo.

Phoenix mercury players celebrating at the new team training center's diana taurasi courts during wnba all-star weekend
The Mercury hosted a grand opening for their new practice facility during WNBA All-Star Weekend. (Phoenix Mercury)

The Diana Taurasi courts pay tribute to the three-time WNBA champion, six-time Olympian, 11-time WNBA All-Star, and the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer.

"Phoenix is the best basketball city in the world and continues to elevate the standard in women’s professional sports," said Mercury owner Mat Ishbia in a team release. "This practice facility is about hard work, passion, and greatness, all attributes that Diana Taurasi exemplifies, and we are honored to name our basketball courts after the greatest women’s basketball player of all time."

phoenix mercury weight room
From training to recovery, each aspect of the Mercury's new facility is geared toward player conditioning. (Phoenix Mercury)

With 24-hour access for players and staff, the practice courts feature built-in technologies capable of providing real-time performance analytics. The facility also includes a strength and cardio training area, indoor and outdoor turf training areas, a functional movement area, and a team meeting room with theater-style seating.

Amenities specific to athlete recovery are also on hand, including a dedicated physician and testing room, recovery room, hydrotherapy room with hot and cold plunge pools, freestanding underwater treadmill, and two massage rooms. The locker room is home to vanity stations, a sauna, a steam room, and a wellness room.

phoenix mercury players lounge
In addition to recovery and training areas, the facility also showcases a stocked player lounge. (Phoenix Mercury)

An area for players to relax and refuel, the onsite player lounge and kitchen is stocked with private chef, snack bar, pantry, and smoothie bar.

"This practice facility sets the standard for what it means to invest in women’s sports," said Phoenix Mercury and Phoenix Suns CEO Josh Bartelstein. "From performance to recovery to team culture, we are providing our players with the space and amenities they need to be and feel their best."

phoenix mercury training facility
The new training center is a part the Player 15 Group's downtown Phoenix campus. (Phoenix Mercury)

The Mercury's practice facility is located inside the Player 15 Group's team member campus, headquarters to owner Mat Ishbia’s sports, entertainment, real estate, and investment company. the Player 15 Group's team member campus. Debuting this past April, the grounds also house business facilities for the Phoenix Mercury, Phoenix Suns, Valley Suns, and arena operations.

Skills Challenge, 3-Point Contest Open 2024 WNBA All-Star Weekend

Team WNBA on the court at 2024 WNBA All-Star Weekend
The WNBA All-Star Game court will be buzzing with action on Friday night. (Alex Slitz/Getty Images)

While the 2024 All-Star Game doesn't tip off until Saturday, this year's WNBA Skills Challenge and STARRY 3-Point Contest promise to light up Phoenix's Footprint Center on Friday.

The evening's programming will allow fans to watch as towering center Brittney Griner shows off her speed and mobility before putting 2024's most statistically excellent three-point shooters to the test.

In addition to the two annual events, the night will also showcase the first-ever WNBA All-Star 3×3 Exhibition, with the Olympic-bound 3×3 National Team taking on USA Basketball's 3×3 U23 National Team.

To make things even more interesting, Aflac has promised to supplement the Skills Competition and 3-Point Contest's prize pool with a $55,000 bonus for each winner.

Team USA's Brittney Griner poses in her Paris Olympics uniform.
Mercury center Brittney Griner will test her speed at the All-Star Skills Challenge. (Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images)

Skills Challenge highlights league's best

Perhaps the least straightforward event in Friday's series, the Skills Challenge — in which five players will compete in a timed obstacle course testing their dribbling, passing, speed, and shooting abilities —should come down to the wire. Each contestant will attempt to complete the course as quickly as possible, with the two fastest first-round players advancing to a head-to-head final.

Ten-time WNBA All-Star Griner (Phoenix) headlines the Skills Challenge roster, accompanied by Mercury teammate Sophie Cunningham as well as Allisha Gray (Atlanta), 2019 WNBA All-Star MVP Erica Wheeler (Indiana), and newly acquired Connecticut guard Marina Mabrey.

Mabrey will be competing in both the Skills Challenge and 3-Point Contest, taking the court for the first time since her requested trade from Chicago sent her the Sun.

Team WNBA's Jonquel Jones lines up a shot at Friday's All-Star practice.
Liberty ace Jonquel Jones leads Friday's stacked 3-Point Contest lineup. (Alex Slitz/Getty Images)

Top shooters put their skills on display

Despite Sabrina Ionescu and Caitlin Clark reportedly declining to participate, some of the WNBA's best shooters will be on display in tonight's STARRY 3-Point Contest. Shooters will tally up points from five set shooting locations around the arc plus two additional "Starry Range" deep shots worth three points each.

2021 WNBA MVP Jonquel Jones (New York) will enter a battle of the bigs with Washington's Stefanie Dolson, who sits second in the league in three-point field goal percentage this season with 48.5%.

But Jones and Dolson will face stiff competition from Kayla McBride (Minnesota), who leads the league in three-pointers made, as well as the aforementioned Gray and Mabrey.

Team USA 3x3 players Cierra Burdick, Hailey Van Lith, Rhyne Howard, and Dearica Hamby
Team USA's Cierra Burdick, Hailey Van Lith, Rhyne Howard, and Dearica Hamby will take on their U-23 counterparts in Friday's new 3×3 Exhibition. (Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images)

WNBA All-Star Weekend adds 3×3 Exhibition to the mix

Tonight’s debut 3×3 Exhibition will serve as a warmup for Team USA's Rhyne Howard (Atlanta), former WNBA player Cierra Burdick, college star Hailey Van Lith (TCU), and Dearica Hamby (Los Angeles), who came on to replace Sparks teammate Cameron Brink after her season-ending ACL tear.

The Olympians' U-23 opposition is also gearing up for a major event, with collegiate squad members Christina Dalce (Maryland), Morgan Maly (Creighton), Cotie McMahon (Ohio State), Lucy Olsen (Iowa), Mikaylah Williams (LSU), and Serah Williams (Wisconsin) set to play in the 2024 FIBA 3x3 Nations League tournament in Mexico City starting July 22nd.

Where to watch the WNBA Skills Challenge and 3-Point Contest

All three events will air on ESPN starting at 9 PM ET on Friday, July 19th.

Olympians Face Fan Favorites at 2024 WNBA All-Star Game

Team WNBA rookie Angel Reese at 2024 WNBA All-Star Game team practice in Phoenix, Arizona
Team WNBA is gearing up to take on a stacked Team USA roster on Saturday. (Alex Slitz/Getty Images)

WNBA All-Star Weekend has arrived, with orange carpet fits, courtside looks, and fierce competition adding up to one epic weekend in Phoenix, Arizona, all punctuated by the 2024 All-Star Game.

Here's everything you need to know ahead of Saturday's tip-off.

Alyssa Thomas high-fives her Team USA teammates at 2024 WNBA All-Star Weekend
Alyssa Thomas and the rest of Team USA will face Team WNBA on Saturday. (Catalina Fragoso/NBAE via Getty Images)

Olympians and All-Stars take the court

The much discussed Team USA vs. Team WNBA format will take centerstage on Saturday, as Olympic preparation meets a few snubs and some surprising teammates.

The US has limited opportunities to build chemistry within their squad of top American talent, and will need to take their rotations seriously despite the game's friendly nature.

For Team WNBA, the All-Star Game could provide vets like Arike Ogunbowale and star rookies Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese the opportunity to publicly show how they match up against this year's Olympic roster, with thoughts toward the future.

Team WNBA's Angel Reese lines up a shot while fellow rookie Caitlin Clark looks on.
Saturday's showdown marks the first time rookies Angel Reese and Caitlin Clark will be teammates. (Alex Slitz/Getty Images)

Star rookies link up for the first time

Saturday's showdown will also mark the first time Clark and Reese have ever suited up for the same team, taking the court for Team WNBA in the highly anticipated team-up of two former college rivals.

"She's probably going to lead the game in rebounds," Clark quipped when asked about playing alongside Reese.

"This is not going to be the [last] time, I know we'll be All-Stars again," Reese said about playing with Clark on last week's NBA Today. "Hopefully in 2028 we'll be Olympians together, too."

Team WNBA head coach Cheryl Miller at practice before Saturday's WNBA All-Star Game
Hall of Famer Cheryl Miller will lead Team WNBA at Saturday's All-Star Game. (Alex Slitz/Getty Images)

WNBA All-Star Game coaches face starting lineup decisions

Fans are keeping watch on Team USA's starting five, though recent injuries to Breanna Stewart and Napheesa Collier could affect head coach Cheryl Reeve's ability to immediately field the best group.

Meanwhile, WNBA legend Cheryl Miller — who coached the Phoenix Mercury from 1997-2000 — will serve as Team WNBA's boss for the night. Overall Top 10 All-Star vote-getters Clark, Ogunbowale, Aliyah Boston, and Dearica Hamby are expected to start the game for Team WNBA, alongside an additional player of Miller's discretion.

Olympians Collier and Stewart, plus A'ja Wilson, Kahleah Copper, Jackie Young, and Sabrina Ionescu also landed in the Top 10 of votes submitted by fans, media, and fellow players.

Where to watch the WNBA All-Star Game

The 2024 WNBA All-Star Game will tip off at 8:30 PM ET on Saturday, July 20th, on ESPN.

First-Time Olympian Kahleah Copper Is Seizing the Moment

Phoenix Mercury star Kahleah Copper playing in a WNBA game against the LA Sparks
Kahleah Copper's first season with the Mercury has been a banner one so far. (Katharine Lotze/Getty Images)

Phoenix Mercury guard Kahleah Copper has been working toward this year's WNBA All-Star Weekend for a long time.

2024 won't be Copper's first trip to the All-Star Game — in fact, she's been an All-Star for four consecutive seasons. This weekend also won't be Copper's greatest individual achievement to date. Afterall, it's tough to beat winning Finals MVP as part of the 2021 WNBA Champion Chicago Sky. And this year isn't even Copper's first time playing the All-Star Game in her home arena; that was in Chicago in 2022.

But this will be Copper's first All-Star Weekend as an Olympian, a title she's been striving for since the moment the Tokyo Games ended in August 2021. Back then, the 29-year-old had been one of Team USA's final roster cuts prior to the Olympics. And from that day forward, she made it her mission to channel  her disappointment into becoming an indispensable part of the 2024 Paris Olympic squad

"I wouldn't change my process for anything," she told Just Women's Sports earlier this week as she prepared to join the national team at training camp in Phoenix. "I'm super grateful for it, it has definitely prepared me. It's a testament to my work ethic, and me just really being persistent about what it is that I want."

A proud product of North Philadelphia, Copper has always been big on manifesting, speaking her intentions confidently into the universe and never shying away from  ambitions no matter how far-fetched they sounded.

"It's important to set goals, manifest those things, talk about it," she said. "Because the more you speak it, you speak it into existence." 

She also displays those goals on her refrigerator at home, forcing herself to keep them front of mind every day. The day she was named to the Olympic roster, ESPN’s Holly Rowe posted one of these visual reminders to social media: A 2021 photo showing Copper wearing a Team USA t-shirt over her Chicago Sky warmups, smiling at the camera while holding up the homemade gold medal slung around her neck.

"Kahleah Copper put out [the] photo on the left in Aug. 2021 and manifested that she WOULD be an Olympian," Rowe’s caption read. "Today she made team USA. Dreams to reality." 

Kahleah Copper of the USA Basketball Women's National Team poses for a portrait during Training Camp in Phoenix
The 2024 Paris Games will mark Copper's Olympic debut. (Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images)

Copper turns her focus to Team USA

With one dream realized, Copper is aware that the job isn't finished, as USA women's basketball is aiming to win a historic eighth-straight Olympic gold medal in Paris this summer. That path doesn't technically begin with All-Star Weekend — where Team USA will take on Team WNBA in a crucial tune-up game — but the trial run could make a difference when the team touches down in Europe next week.

"It's serious, because other countries, they spend a lot of time together, so their chemistry is great," Copper said of her Olympic competition. "We don't get that, we don't have that much time together. Just putting all the great players together is not enough. It's gonna take a lot more than that."

With a laugh, Copper acknowledged that Team USA’s task at hand could lightly dampen the occasionally raucous All-Star festivities ("Balance!" was an oft-repeated word). But it's a cost she and her national team colleagues are more than willing to pay if it helps them come out on top in Paris. 

Of course, Copper — along with club teammates Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner — will be enjoying home-court advantage when the All-Star Game tips off inside Phoenix’s Footprint Center on Saturday, a factor that might put them slightly more at ease. 

WNBA players kahleah copper and candace parker celebrating winning the 2021 championship with the chicago sky
Copper won a WNBA Championship in 2021 alongside one of her idols, Candace Parker. (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

A "damn near perfect" new WNBA team

Copper made the move to the Mercury just this season after establishing herself as a respected star in Chicago. What she joined was a work in progress, one of a number of key 2024 signings under first-time head coach Nate Tibbetts. Having played for the Sky since 2017, Copper wasn’t exactly sure what to expect of the transition. But any positive manifestations she put out about her new team seemed to have done the trick.

"I said I would never go to the West Coast, I could never go that far from home," she said. "But I didn't know that this organization was what it was: Super professional, really taking care of everything. It's damn near perfect."

Copper herself has been damn near perfect, shooting 45% from the field while leading sixth-place Phoenix to a 13-12 record on the season. She’s also averaging a career-high 23.2 points per game, second highest in the league behind soon-to-be six-time WNBA All-Star A’ja Wilson’s 27.2 points per game. It’s not lost on Copper that she’s playing in front of packed houses, with the Mercury accounting for some of the W’s biggest crowds throughout its 28-year run. 

"Here in Phoenix, our fans are amazing," Copper said. "They show up every single night."

Phoenix Mercury player Kahleah Copper poses on the court before the 2023 WNBA All-Star Game
Copper will play in her fourth consecutive All-Star Game on Saturday. (Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)

Copper's All-Star home-court advantage

All-Star Weekend presents Copper even more opportunities to connect with her new city, including by making an appearance at American Express's interactive fan experience at WNBA Live 2024. As part of the activation, Copper recorded a few short stories about growing up a basketball fan, describing the posters of Candace Parker, Seimone Augustus, and Ivory Latta she had as a child, and how she dreamed of joining her idols as a professional basketball player. 

The Rutgers grad said she was excited about connecting with Phoenix fans on their level, rooting herself in a shared love of the sport even as she moves from watching the WNBA on TV to becoming one of its brightest stars. The message is clear: If you want something bad enough, and you work for it hard enough, just about anything is possible.

But for all of Copper's personal manifestations, she's never lost sight of the most important thing: winning. And she won't stop grinding until she's posing for the cameras in Paris, holding up a real Olympic gold medal.

"When winning comes, the other stuff will come," she said. "The individual sh*t will come."

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