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A’ja Wilson and the Aces have a secret weapon in the WNBA Finals

A’ja Wilson and Chelsea Gray practice the day before the Aces meet the Sun in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals. (Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)

When A’ja Wison found out she had played 161 minutes of basketball over four games, she laughed.

During Las Vegas’ 3-1 semifinals series win over the Storm, Wilson was on the court for all but four minutes, including an overtime contest in which she never subbed out. While Wilson was processing the numbers, teammate Chelsea Gray took over the press conference.

“She’s in the best shape of her life,” Gray said, turning to look at Wilson after a series-ending win over the Storm on Tuesday night.

She has to be, and Wilson isn’t the only one.

Becky Hammon always had a clear picture of what the Las Vegas Aces would look like with her at the helm.

She wanted a team that could get up and down the court for 40 minutes. A team that could outrun its opponents and play with the same intensity in the first quarter as it did in overtime.

“She said right off the bat that we are going to be a team that plays fast-paced basketball,” Aces physical therapist and strength coach Erin Connor said. “We are great at basketball, but we are also going to beat other teams because we’re in better shape and we are faster.”

Las Vegas has the added wrinkle of playing that high-intensity style with limited personnel. Starters Kelsey Plum, Wilson, Jackie Young and Gray all play 30 minutes or more per game, and typically only one or two players come off the bench for limited minutes.

Going into the postseason, the Aces’ lack of depth was regarded as the team’s biggest weakness. And now, as they get ready to take on the Connecticut Sun in the Finals starting with Game 1 on Sunday, that small rotation remains the biggest question mark.

For the public that is.

The Aces don’t view it as a weakness.

“It creates a lot of chemistry within that first unit,” Dearica Hamby said. “I think there is a special bond between our team, and it shows when we play.”

The Aces thrive on the court because of the work they do off of it. But it’s not all about running sprints and lifting weights. The biggest key to keeping the Aces in shape is their dedication to recovery.

“It’s all about sleep, hydration and what they are eating,” physical therapist and athletic trainer Michelle Anumba said.

Each recovery plan follows those same basic principles, but Anumba and Connor personalize 12 separate plans for each individual.

Some players prefer to do their recovery at home or in the hotel on road trips. Others like to get everything done at the arena. Those treatments can range from ice wrapped around a sore limb, to cold tubs and epsom salt baths, to compression boots and massages.

And while dedication to recovery is a necessary component of any athlete’s regime, the players don’t always like it.

“If A’ja is extremely sore, she will do a cold tub,” Anumba said. “And it’s always entertaining to see her get in. She’s always screaming. It’s a love/hate relationship with the cold tub.”

High-usage players like Wilson can go straight to the massages and ice after a game, but players who don’t see as much court time have a different routine.

“We want to make sure those athletes are keeping up the same intensity of cardio, whether they played 40 minutes or 10 minutes,” Connor said. “They will do a workout that is aimed at mimicking the cardiac workload of a game so they can stay in the same performance shape.”

Kiah Stokes knows exactly what it’s like to be one of those lower-usage players. During the regular season, her minutes fluctuated. Sometimes she played 20 or more, but often her minutes hovered around 10, and there were multiple contests where she didn’t play at all.

But when Hamby was sidelined with a right knee bone contusion in early August, Stokes was thrust into a starting role.

Hammon plays a small rotation, but she also expects every player on the roster to be ready at all times.

“In practice, we do a great job of making the starters better and vice versa,” Stokes said. “Everyone has a role, even if they aren’t necessarily playing in games. Everyone is contributing to the team.”

In the series against Connecticut, Hammon will have access to both Stokes and Hamby. Though Hamby admits she isn’t 100 percent and wasn’t even expected to return this season, she’s willing to play whatever role her coach asks of her.

“It’s been frustrating for me,” the All-Star forward said. “Because I feel guilt that I can’t contribute the way I was contributing in the first half of the season.

“I’m still locked in and prepared to play whatever is needed.”

If it was up to Hamby, she probably wouldn’t have spent any time on the bench in street clothes this season. But that’s part of Anumba and Connor’s jobs, making sure no one plays until they are ready.

An injured player’s recovery process is all about baby steps. They start in the training room, then the weight room, and then begin transitioning back to the court.

“For her, she had a lot of milestones to meet,” Anumba said. “Her knee range of motion, to getting her swelling down, to walking back to normal.”

Hamby’s minutes will likely continue to be limited during the Finals, while Stokes will remain in the starter’s role.

As for the rest of the starters, playing 40 minutes is nothing. Especially when there’s a WNBA championship on the line.

“Everyone is ready,” Stokes said. “When your name is called, then you’re ready to play.”

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

Esme Morgan Signs With Washington Spirit

Esme Morgan of England inspects the pitch prior to the UEFA Women's EURO 2025 qualifying match between England and France
The England national will join the Spirit in DC on July 15th. (Naomi Baker - The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

English defender Esme Morgan has signed with the Washington Spirit, the club announced Thursday. 

Morgan had been with WSL side Manchester City since 2017, with one year remaining on her contract. She’ll now make a move to the NWSL, with City receiving a fee for the move. 

"I wanted to join the Spirit because they have the ambition and tools to be the best team in the NWSL, and trying to achieve that will be a great but enjoyable challenge," Morgan said in a club statement.

"On an individual level too, the opportunity to work under Jonatan [Giráldez], one of the world's best coaches, is really exciting and I look forward to learning from him and pushing myself to become the best player I can be, hopefully helping the team to success."

According to ESPN, Morgan’s lack of playing time under City manager Gareth Taylor played a key role in her decision to leave the league championship runners-up. She’ll join the Spirit in Washington, DC on July 15th, but won’t be able to begin play until August. 

Spirit president Mark Krikorian called Morgan an "exceptional talent" and added that the club is "thrilled" to add her to the roster.

"I think she’s pretty talented," Giraldez told reporters on Friday. "A young player with a great future, but with experience already in a great league and with the national team. She’s been surrounded by great players and also great coaches, so she can give us experience."

Ledecky Goes for 4 at Olympic Swimming Trials

Swimmer katie ledecky swimming at Toyota US Open
Decorated swimmer Katie Ledecky is aiming to make her fourth-straight Olympic squad. (Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)

The US Olympic Swimming Trials begin this weekend, running from June 15th through June 23rd in Indianapolis, with Katie Ledecky eyeing her fourth-straight Summer Games.

While traditionally held in Omaha, Indiana's Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the NFL's Indianapolis Colts, has been fitted with a 50-meter pool to host the meet that will determine the 2024 Paris Olympics roster.

All eyes will be on seven-time Olympic gold medalist Katie Ledecky, who will be competing in the 200-meter, 400-meter, 800-meter, and 1500-meter freestyle — all events in which she’s been an Olympic champion. 

Rival Ariarne Titmus had her trials last week, breaking the world record in the 200-meter freestyle. Ledecky’s 200 is intended to qualify her for the Olympic relay. Meanwhile stateside, Katie Grimes stands to be a challenger in the 1500-meter freestyle has already qualified for the Paris Olympics in the 10km open water event.

Other competitors of note include 47-year-old Gabrielle Rose, who stands to become the oldest US Swimming Olympic qualifier in the 100-meter and 200-meter breaststroke.

Additionally, Kate Douglass — an NCAA and World Champion — is a favorite to make her first Olympic team in the 200-meter IM and 200-meter breaststroke. Simone Manuel, an Olympic champion in the 100-meter freestyle, is also looking to make her third-straight Olympics.

Where to watch: The Trials will be streaming all week on Peacock, with later qualifying heats airing live on USA Network and event finals airing in primetime on NBC.

Orlando and Kansas City Shoot for 13 in NWSL Weekend Action

NWSL's T. Chawinga #6 of the Kansas City Current passes the ball during the first half of their game against the Utah Royals FC
The Kansas City Current hopes to extend its NWSL unbeaten streak to 13 with a win over Chicago. (Chris Gardner/Getty Images)

The 13th match weekend is fast approaching in the NWSL, with two season-long unbeaten streaks on the line.

League-leaders Kansas City and Orlando will attempt to survive the weekend with their unbeaten runs intact, as the Current host Chicago on Friday and the Pride travel to North Carolina for Saturday's match.

But while Kansas City and Orlando have been the gold standard this year, they're still a number of wins away from tying Washington's record for longest unbeaten streak in a single NWSL season. In 2021, the Spirit went 20 games without a loss en route to the club's first NWSL championship.

Both Gotham and Louisville are carrying momentum into their matchup on Saturday. Louisville is unbeaten in three games, and they’re looking to finally leapfrog Chicago and claim sixth place in the league standings. Gotham, on a seven-game unbeaten run, is into fifth place.

Portland and Seattle will face off in the Cascadia Clash this weekend, with Golden Boot contender Sophia Smith absent, as the decorated forward was shown a red card last weekend for time-wasting on the bench.

The Reign could use a win against their long-time rivals, as a difficult start has 13th-place Seattle registering only two wins amid nine losses so far this season.

Elsewhere in the league, 2024 expansion teams Bay FC and Utah meet for the first time this weekend, as both look to rise from the bottom half of the standings. And Washington will ride a four-game winning streak into Saturday's game against a San Diego side that's earned two hard-fought draws in recent weeks.

Watch more: "Sophia Smith is INNOCENT!" on The Late Sub with Claire Watkins

WNBA All-Star Voting Starts on June 13th

Phoenix Mercury mascot Scorch waving a 2024 WNBA All-Star flag at a 2023 home game.
Phoenix Mercury will host the 20th-annual All-Star Game on July 20th, 2024. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Voting for the 2024 AT&T WNBA All-Star Game opened at 2 PM ET today and runs through June 29th.

All active WNBA players are eligible to make the All-Star Game, set for July 20th in Phoenix. Unlike previous formats that featured two voted-in All-Star squads, this year’s contest pits a single All-Star team against the already-decided Olympic-bound USA Women’s National Team.

Fans can submit a daily ballot nominating up to 10 athletes via WNBA.com or the WNBA App.

Fan-submitted ballots account for 50% of vote, with the other 50% split equally between current WNBA players and members of the media. The top 10 athletes will automatically make the All-Star Game, with league coaches then voting from a pool of the next 36 to complete Team WNBA’s 12-player roster. The final lineup will be announced on July 2nd.

This year's All-Star Game format presents an opportunity for fans to vote for players they might consider Olympic snubs. Indiana rookie Caitlin Clark and Dallas’s Arike Ogunbawole seem like shoo-ins given the discussion surrounding their Olympic omissions, while Connecticut stars Brionna Jones and DeWanna Bonner are also expected to snag All-Star nods.

And after a career-high 20-point, 10-rebound double-double in last night’s 83-75 loss to the Sun, Chicago rookie Angel Reese could also secure a spot.

Regardless, it won't necessarily be smooth sailing for Team USA, as history has tended to favor the underdog. 

The first USA vs. All-Stars matchup took place in 2021, with the league’s squad humbling the Tokyo Olympians 93-85. With 26 points, Ogunbawole was named All-Star Game MVP after barely missing the Olympic cut. Could she and Clark turn the tables on Team USA this year?

Watch more: "Were Caitlin Clark and Arike Ogunbowale snubbed?" by Expert Adjacent

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