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Why the Liberty are pulling ahead in WNBA championship odds

Courtney Vandersloot, Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones have continued to step up for the Liberty in the second half of the season. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

The New York Liberty have flipped the script.

When the teams met in June for the first time this season, a lopsided Aces win gave Las Vegas a leg up in the 2023 WNBA championship conversation. Then, it was New York’s turn to deliver a blow, winning their second matchup on Aug. 6 by a wide margin.

And on Tuesday night, the Liberty took a 2-1 lead in the season series with an 82-63 victory in the Commissioner’s Cup championship game. They hoisted the trophy, pocketed bonuses, secured money for Callen-Lorde (the charity of the team’s choosing) and brought a new school of thought to the table. While the Commissioner’s Cup championship doesn’t count toward the regular season standings, it matters in the grand scheme of how these teams match up.

And in that bigger picture, the pieces of the superteam are finally meshing, and cracks are beginning to appear within the Aces. In the ongoing battle of the WNBA superteams, New York is ahead.

The Liberty are now the favorites to win the WNBA championship.

Both teams have stars. Both teams have former WNBA players and title winners at the helm. And after some workshopping from New York to start the season, both teams have offenses that flow.

But both teams don’t have a bench, and that’s where the issues are arising for Las Vegas.

There were similar concerns about Las Vegas last season, but they didn’t end up materializing as the Aces went on to win their first WNBA championship. Head coach Becky Hammon knew the bench could be an issue going forward, so she signed veteran forward Alysha Clark to add depth alongside Kiah Stokes and Riquna Williams in a three-person bench unit.

Those numbers quickly dwindled as an injury to free-agent acquisition Candace Parker moved Stokes into the starting lineup. Williams missed the beginning of the season with a back injury and will likely not return to the Aces after being arrested for domestic violence last month. That leaves Clark as the sole rotation player coming off the bench.

While she has been consistent as a sixth player for Las Vegas, averaging 6.8 points per game and shooting 43% from beyond the arc, having just one player established on the bench is a concern going forward. Clark also missed a game with a sore back last week, which brings up a worrisome question for the Aces: What happens if someone else gets hurt?

Las Vegas would have to turn to Cayla George or Kierstan Bell, who have played limited minutes and mostly in garbage time. Against New York on Tuesday, Hammon chose not to play George until the final two minutes, and Bell struggled in her 11 minutes of action.

Nearly every issue the Aces had in that game stemmed from the short bench, while New York’s non-starters provided a major lift.

Las Vegas was clearly tired during the game, as evidenced by a 33% shooting performance that included just 19% shooting from beyond the arc. The Aces also grabbed just four rebounds in the second half and were outperformed 49-28 on the glass.

With Parker in the starting lineup, Stokes is able to provide a rebounding lift off the bench, but without Parker, she’s tasked with a much bigger load. Stokes grabbed 10 boards on Tuesday for more than a third of the Aces’ total production.

Parker’s absence also affects A’ja Wilson. Last season’s MVP is averaging 21.2 points and 9.6 rebounds per contest, but in her last two games against New York, those numbers decreased to 9.0 and 6.0. Stokes is not a scoring threat, averaging 2.5 points per game this season. That means New York — or other teams for that matter — can send multiple defenders at Wilson without worrying about leaving Stokes.

The guards are suffering from the short bench, too. Gray played 37 minutes against New York, Jackie Young played 35, and Kelsey Plum was in for 33 minutes. Not only does the small rotation make for tired legs, it also limits options. When New York found mismatches, like Betnijah Laney in the post, Las Vegas had to weather the storm with their smaller guards since there were no options for help off the bench.

Meanwhile, New York has perhaps the strongest bench in the WNBA, and it showed on Tuesday. In just 14 minutes of action, Marine Johannès erupted for 17 points, a game-high for both teams, and helped stretch the floor by knocking down five 3-pointers.

Kayla Thornton was also key in the win. The forward played 16 minutes, finishing with eight points, four rebounds and two assists.

The Liberty didn’t need anyone else to secure the win, but coach Sandy Brondello has even more options. Center Stefanie Dolson is still getting acclimated after an injury, but the nine-year WNBA player brings veteran experience to the Liberty bench after having a starting role in her previous nine seasons with the Mystics, Sky and Liberty. They also have Nyara Sabally, an athletic forward in her first season out of Oregon, guard Jocelyn Willoughby, and 6-foot-10 Han Xu back in the fold after playing in China.

In the battle of the superteams, only one has a super bench. That puts New York ahead as the season winds down and head toward the playoffs.

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

Athing Mu Falls at Trials, Will Not Defend 800-Meter Olympic Title

Athing Mu competes in the women's 800 meter final on Day Four of the 2024 US Olympic Team Track & Field Trials
Mu won the 800-meter final at the Tokyo Olympics, crossing the line in 1:55.21 to break the American record. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Reigning Olympic Track & Field champion Athing Mu will not have the opportunity to defend her 800-meter title in Paris after falling during the event's US Track & Field Trials final on Monday. 

About 200 meters into the race, Mu uncharacteristically got tangled up in the middle of the track and lost her footing. Coming to her defense, her coach Bobby Kersee said that she had been spiked, suffered track burns, and hurt her ankle. The 22-year-old filed an appeal that saw USA Track and Field officials sorting through replays, but it was later denied. 

As a result, Mu did not qualify to run the 800-meter at the 2024 Summer Games, as the US has a standing rule that only the top three Trials finishers make the official Olympic-bound roster. 

At her first-ever Olympics in 2021, Mu took home the gold at the 800-meter final, crossing the line in 1:55.21 to break the American record.

"I’ve coached it, I’ve preached it, I’ve watched it," Kersee told The Associated Press after Mu's appeal was rejected. "And here’s another indication that regardless of how good we are, we can leave some better athletes home than other countries have. It’s part of our American way."

Mu finished more than 22 seconds behind eventual winner Nia Akins, but could still make the Olympic team as part of the US relay pool. Mu was a key part of the Team USA's 4x400-meter gold medal win three years ago in Tokyo.

Dearica Hamby Tapped to Replace Cameron Brink on 3×3 Olympic Team

Dearica Hamby playing for Team USA in 2023
Dearica Hamby is no stranger to Team USA's 3×3 lineup. (Lance King/Getty Images)

Dearica Hamby has been named to USA Basketball's official 3×3 Olympic roster, replacing an injured Cameron Brink.

The Los Angeles Sparks forward has extensive experience with the 3×3 team, including taking home both a gold medal and MVP honors at the 2023 FIBA AmeriCup

Brink originally made the roster in early June, but suffered a season-ending ACL injury during Los Angeles’s June 18th loss to Connecticut. 

"It is an honor to announce Dearica Hamby's addition to the USA 3×3 women's national team and we look forward to getting to work as a squad very soon," USA Basketball 3×3 national team director Jay Demings said in a statement. "USA Basketball continues to keep Cameron Brink in our thoughts as she focuses on her recovery."

Hamby will join 2023 FIBA 3×3 World Cup champions Hailey Van Lith (TCU), CIerra Burdick, and Rhyne Howard (Atlanta Dream) in Paris.

San Diego Wave Parts Ways With Head Coach Casey Stoney

ex-wave fc head coach casey stoney in 2023
Casey Stoney joined Wave FC in 2022 from the WSL's Manchester United. (Ira L. Black - Corbis/Getty Images)

San Diego Wave FC announced on Monday that the organization has parted ways with head coach Casey Stoney. 

The announcement comes amid a seven-game winless streak for the Wave. Stoney joined San Diego from WSL side Manchester United a few months before their inaugural season, winning the 2022 NWSL Coach of the Year Award that same year. She went on to lead the expansion team to two trophies in three years. 

Just this past January, the club agreed to a multi-year contract extension that kept Stoney with the club through 2027, with a mutual option for 2028. 

Despite their prior success, San Diego currently sits ninth in the NWSL standings, one point out of playoff contention. Their last win came on May 8th, having most recently played to a scoreless draw against Houston over the weekend to cap off a three-game road trip. 

"We are immensely grateful to Casey for her commitment to our club and the positive impact she has had both on and off the pitch,” Wave president and former USWNT manager Jill Ellis said in an official team statement. "Over the past seasons, Casey has guided us to significant milestones, and her contributions have been instrumental in laying a strong foundation on which to build.

"The decision to part ways was very hard and not made in haste, but given the ambition of this club, and where we are in our season, we felt a change was necessary at this time."

The staffing change comes a little less than two weeks after the Wave brought on former Kansas City Current general manager Camille Ashton. Ashton resigned from her position with Kansas City in May of this year.

On Tuesday, Ellis commented that Stoney is "self aware" and called her a "complete professional."

"I don’t think you have to have a conversation when it comes to know where they are, she knew,” she said. “I think Casey knew results matter. Casey’s ambitious. And was she happy with where we were? Of course not.

"I think a coach also understands that sometimes this is the nature of the beast of coaching. It’s tough and hard at times."

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.

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