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Becky Hammon challenges Aces: Become ‘great’ defensive team

(Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

The confetti had barely settled from the Las Vegas Aces’ 2022 WNBA championship. Yet Becky Hammon already was evaluating ways in which her team could improve.

Sure, the Aces had just hoisted the trophy. But a new season was brewing, bringing with it new challenges and, more importantly for the Las Vegas coach, new opportunities to get better.

When she thinks of that 2022 squad, one weakness stands out: defense.

“Being an average defensive team wasn’t good enough,” Hammon said. “So I’ve challenged them. These women are not average at anything they put their hands in. So why would we settle for anything less than great defense every night?”

This season is different. The Aces hold a 13-1 record heading into Thursday’s superteam clash with the New York Liberty. They started the year with a seven-game winning streak, which included close calls against the Dream (87-92), the Fever (84-80) and the Sun (90-84) – but in each instance, the Aces held off their opponents, and in every case, it was because of their defense.

“A goal of ours is to stay top three of the league defensively,” A’ja Wilson said. “That’s where we need to aim, and we’re trying our best to do that.”

The Aces finally dropped a game on June 8, a 94-77 loss to the Connecticut Sun. Of that game, Hammon said the Sun “kicked our ass,” on both ends of the floor. Las Vegas gave up its highest point total of the season, allowing the Sun to shoot 57.1% from 3-point range. A career-high 41 points from DeWanna Bonner didn’t help.

But after the dismal performance, the Aces bounced back with six consecutive wins, many of them fueled by – you guessed it – defense. The streak included a 96-63 win against the Seattle Storm and a 93-62 win against the Minnesota Lynx in back-to-back games, their lowest point totals allowed this season.

In 2022, the Aces gave up 84.1 points per game, which ranked ninth in the 12-team league. This season, that number is down to 77.4, good for second-best in the WNBA. It wasn’t a major offseason overhaul that led to the improvement but rather a combination of key signings and a change in mindset.

Candace Parker was, of course, the Aces’ most high-profile signing during the offseason, and the 16-year veteran provided an instant defensive upgrade. At 6-4, she makes for a scary defensive combination with Wilson inside, but she also can match up with guards on the perimeter.

While the 2020 Defensive Player of the Year may be nearing the end of her career, she’s still a skilled defender, and her 1.5 steals per game so far this season is her highest mark since 2017.

Alysha Clark also joined Las Vegas in the offseason, and while not as high-profile as Parker, she also is another experienced player with a strong defensive skill set. A two-time All-WNBA Defensive team selection, Clark allows the Aces to play a smaller lineup, either to combat guard-heavy opponents or to bring pressure in the backcourt that speeds up the game.

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Offseason addition Alysha Clark helps the Aces flex their defensive muscles. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

And 6-3 center Kiah Stokes is making an impact off the bench, playing more minutes – up from 15.3 to 18.5 – and averaging a career-high 1.5 blocks per game. Wilson, last season’s DPOY, points to Stokes as the player that holds the Aces’ defense together.

“Kiah’s the anchor to our defense,” Wilson told the Hartford Courant on June 7. “A lot of people say that it’s me, but I pass that to Kiah 100%. She is just always at the right place at the right time and I trust her, like guards trust us and then I trust Kiah when she’s behind me. So she literally holds it down.”

The offseason additions and Stokes’ increased role takes care of the X’s and O’s of the team’s defensive attack, but a large part of Las Vegas’ improvement comes from approach.

The 40-game WNBA schedule comes with quick turnarounds, and teams often play with just one day between games. The Aces take advantage of their limited practice, devoting even the smallest windows of time to defensive drills.

“Even though we don’t have a ton of time, we’ll just do a quick drill to make sure people are talking and active, and being as physical as we can be,” Sydney Colson said.

The team’s mindset has changed too, with defensive assignments becoming more of a priority. Everyone has turned up the intensity, and Hammon says that early in the season when Kelsey Plum wasn’t shooting well, it was the guard’s defense that kept her in games.

The team is bigger and stronger thanks to additions in the offseason, but if everyone isn’t contributing on defense, then there are breakdowns.

The goal for the Aces? Zero breakdowns.

“Sometimes things change game by game,” Colson said. “But it’s also the MO that we have. We want to be more physical, we want to compete on every possession.”

Kansas City, Orlando Raise the NWSL Bar With Weekend Wins

NWSL Orlando Pride forward Barbra Banda in action during a NWSL match against Seattle Reign
Banda registered a brace on Sunday, bringing her NWSL total to 10 goals in just 10 games. (Nicholas Faulkner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Pride star Barbra Banda continued on her historic NWSL trajectory this weekend, scoring twice in Orlando’s 6-0 win over Utah on Friday. 

She’s the first NWSL player to register 10 goals in their first 10 league appearances. It was also her fourth brace this season, and marked her first goals in two games after her first multi-game scoring drought.

"For me when I have an opportunity and a chance, I have to take it wisely," Banda said in her postgame remarks. "When I get a chance, I have to put the ball in the back of the net. If any game I didn’t score, I just have to go to my drawing board and work hard so that in the next game so I can find a goal."

Meanwhile, Kansas City also kept up their winning ways, beating Portland 4-1 behind a brace from midfielder Lo'eau Labonta on Sunday.

Later that day, the Washington Spirit, who sit just a point behind KC in third place, topped fourth-place Gotham FC in a decisive 2-0 victory.

And after drawing with Seattle, eighth-place Louisville has 16 points on the season — representing a growing gap between the league’s top and bottom teams. Bringing up the bottom of the ladder, both Seattle and Utah have yet to surpass 10 points this year.

Sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson Punches Ticket at US Olympic Track & Field Trials

Sha'Carri Richardson poses with her gold medal after winning the women's 100 meter final at the 2024 U.S. Olympic Team Track & Field Trials
Sha'Carri Richardson punched her ticket to Paris on Saturday by winning the 100-meter dash at the US Track & Field Trails. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Sha’Carri Richardson has punched her ticket to the Paris Olympics after finishing first in 100-meter final at the US Olympic Track & Field Trials over the weekend. 

Her time — 10.71 — sets a record as the fastest time in the world this year. After finishing, she dropped to one knee and bent her head to savor the moment.

"Definitely still confidence, still my exciting normal self, but more so overwhelmed with just emotions of joy," Richardson said of her post-race celebration. "I know that the hard work I've put into, not just physically on the track but as well as mentally and emotionally to grow into the mature young lady that I am today and that I'm going to grow into was a full-fledged surreal moment for me to actually embrace and be able to show to the world and on the track."

It was a statement-making turn in a comeback story that saw Richardson disqualified from the Tokyo Olympics due to testing positive for THC after that year's Olympic Trials.

"Everything I've been through is everything I have been through to be in this moment right now," Richardson said. "There's nothing I've been through that hasn't designed me to sit right here in front of you to answer this question."

Now, Richardson is expected to bring home some hardware from Paris, having grown into one of the greatest sprinters in the world. She won the 100-meter and 4x100-meter relay events at the World Championships last summer. And before this year's Olympic Trials conclude, she’ll look to also qualify for the 200-meter event. 

"In the past three years, I've grown a better understanding of myself, a deeper respect and appreciation for my gift that I have in the sport, as well as my responsibility to the people that believe in and support me," Richardson said. "I feel like all of those components have helped me grow and will continue to help me grow into the young lady that I have been divined and by God been blessed to be."

Rookie Angel Reese Shines in Sky’s Tight Win Over Fever

WNBA star Angel Reese of the Chicago Sky shoots a free throw during the game against the Indiana Fever
Angel Reese posted a career-high 25 points and 16 rebounds in the Sky's comeback win over Indiana. (Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

The New York Liberty are now the top team in the WNBA, leading the league with a franchise-best 15-3 start to the season. 

Breanna Stewart leads the team in points (19.9), while Jonquel Jones leads in rebounds (8.7), and Sabrina Ionescu in assists (6.4). On Sunday, Ionescu had her fifth career game with 25+ points and 10+ assists.

Meanwhile, Connecticut stumbled over the weekend, suffering back-to-back losses for the first time this season. They’re now tied for second in the league with a 13-3 record. 

Las Vegas's win over Connecticut began a two-win run for the reigning league champs, who look to regain their rhythm with the return of starting point guard Chelsea Gray. The team also became the first team in WNBA history to sell out all of its regular season home games. 

"I do think that the growth is just the beginning," Aces chief operating and chief financial officer Matt Delsen when asked about the surging ticket sales. "And I think that, you know, the viewership can and is going to continue to grow because these athletes are the best in the world at what they do."

On Sunday, the Chicago Sky got the tight 88-87 win over Indiana while Angel Reese posted a career-high 25 points and 16 rebounds in the win. Caitlin Clark was also impressive despite the loss, scoring 17 points and a franchise-record 13 assists, as well as six rebounds and four steals. 

"This is what I do: I come out and perform," Reese said after the game. "I do what it takes to win every single day."

A number of celebrities were spotted enjoying the matchup inside Wintrust Arena, including Chance the Rapper, Jason Sudeikis, Sheryl Swoopes, and Knicks star Jalen Brunson. 

"It's good for the game, good for women's basketball, but also good for women's sports," Reese said of the buzzy crowd. "You see NBA players, rappers, legends that played in the league for a great long time come out and show support. You know everybody's watching right now.

"I think this is one of the most important times right now, and we just continue to keep putting on. I think both teams tonight did an amazing job putting on a show. It was fun. I had a great time, I'm sure the other team had a great time. I'm just happy we won tonight."

Amy Yang Wins First Major Title at KPMG Women’s PGA Championship

2024 KPMG Women's PGA Championship winner Amy Yang poses with the trophy
Amy Yang won the 2024 KPMG Women's PGA Championship on Sunday, marking her first LPGA major win. (Darren Carroll/PGA of America via Getty Images)

Amy Yang won her first LPGA tour event on Sunday, taking home the title at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship

At 34 years old, Yang is the oldest major winner in the LPGA since 2018 when Angela Stanford won the Evian Championship at age 40.

"At one point I thought, 'Will I ever win a major championship before I retire?'" Yang said after securing the victory. "And I finally did it and it's just amazing. Golf is really just like a fight against myself. I think I proved myself that I can compete and I can do this."

The South Korea national ended the tournament with an even-par 72 to finish at seven-under 281. At one point, she was at 10 under and held a seven-shot lead that no challenger was able to overcome. 

It was also Yang’s 75th major start, the most before a player’s first major win since Stanford won hers in her 76th major start.

"It's been incredible all this week — everyone was rooting for me," Yang said. "I want to go sign some autographs for them."

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