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Shakira Austin’s stock rising: What I learned from the SEC tournament

Ole Miss’ Shakira Austin impressed WNBA coaches with her performances at the SEC tournament. (Matthew Maxey/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

NASHVILLE — From competitive early rounds to a thrilling finish in the championship game Sunday, the SEC women’s basketball tournament delivered.

Here are my main takeaways from four days spent watching some of the best in the sport before the NCAA Tournament begins.

Kentucky shocked us all

Every program in the country strives to do what the Wildcats have accomplished these last few weeks, playing their best basketball at the right time. Kentucky bounced back from an underwhelming campaign to end the regular season and conference postseason on a 10-game win streak and stun No. 1 South Carolina for the program’s first SEC tournament championship in 40 years. The only people who believed they could win the SEC Tournament were the Wildcats themselves.

Rhyne Howard certainly did not need to prove her greatness in Nashville, but to lead her team to a championship against all odds is next-level heroics. The 6-foot-2 senior guard earned tournament MVP honors after averaging 22 points in Kentucky’s four games, including a 32-point performance against LSU and a near triple-double against Tennessee.

The projected top WNBA draft pick has faced immense pressure these last two years. Howard not only brought a championship back to Kentucky, she also did it against the team that’s been ranked No. 1 in the country all season long and in front of nearly every WNBA franchise there to watch her. Regardless of where she goes in the draft, Howard’s impact on the game of basketball will span far beyond her collegiate career.

South Carolina’s “big” lineup is unbelievable

South Carolina took the loss Sunday, but Dawn Staley’s lineup of three to four post players will be difficult for any opponent to game-plan for in the NCAA Tournament.

When the 6-foot-4 Aliyah Boston and the 6-7 Kamilla Cardoso throw high-low passes to one another from the free-throw line, their length is nearly impossible to defend. And when you add 6-4 Laeticia Amihere and 6-2 Victaria Saxton to the mix, South Carolina has one of the biggest rotations in the country.

On the other end of the floor, Kentucky struggled to find looks at the basket against the pair, especially in the second quarter when they managed just three points. When you’re facing a lineup of that size, it’s easy to get in your own head and second guess your decision-making. The Gamecocks will be betting on that as they make a run at the national championship later this month.

Shakira Austin shows off pro-ready skills

Austin was named First Team All-SEC for the second consecutive season and solidified herself as one of the greatest players to ever wear an Ole Miss uniform. The senior center averaged 15.4 points, 8.9 rebounds and 1.9 blocks to lead Ole Miss to a 23-7 finish, its best record since 2006-07. Austin also elevated her play in the SEC tournament, averaging 21.5 points and 9.5 rebounds to lift Ole Miss to the semifinals.

Her 27-point, 13-rebound double-double against Florida in the quarterfinals in front of 10 WNBA teams was the highlight of the tournament. Austin is an automatic lottery pick in the upcoming WNBA draft and deserves to be in the conversation for No. 1 because of her pro-ready frame, athleticism and ceiling. For as good as she currently is, she will only get better as a pro. When you watch her 6-5 frame elevate over opponents, snag a rebound with power and proceed to advance the ball down the court, you realize her sheer potential might surpass any other prospect in this draft class.

The relentlessness of Florida

Florida has been one of the best stories of the college basketball season. This was a dormant program that overcame an early-season scandal and the transfer of their leading scorer earlier in the season and to earn five top-25 wins and a 21-10 finish. Kelly Rae Finley rightfully had the interim tag removed from her title last week, signing a five-year contract as head coach and solidifying her position as the leader of this program.

WNBA draft prospect Kiki Smith had a phenomenal season, averaging 14.6 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game before going down with a season-ending knee injury in Florida’s one-point win over Vanderbilt in the second round. When Smith hit the floor, the Florida team circled together and held hands in support of their leader. After the win, Finley’s eyes swelled with emotion as her players ran to the training room to be with Smith.

The following day, Smith joined her team on the bench in a different role, clipboard in hand as the Gators fell to Ole Miss, 70-60, and now await their NCAA Tournament fate. As outsiders, it’s difficult to understand everything this team has gone through in the last eight months. If they get a bid to the NCAA Tournament, their first since 2015-16, they’ll do so with a level of collective resolve that will be hard to count out.

Keep an eye on Vanderbilt

First-year head coach Shea Ralph took over a Commodores program that won just nine conference games in the last four seasons and led them to a 14-18 record, their best finish since 2015-16.

Vanderbilt has shown flashes of promise throughout the season, but none more clearly than in the last two weeks when the Commodores beat Florida on Feb. 24 and Texas A&M in the first round of the SEC tournament, 85-69. Vanderbilt was one point away from advancing to the SEC tournament semifinals, falling to Florida 53-52 last Thursday.

While the Commodores’ season could continue in the WNIT, the SEC has gotten the message: Watch out for Vanderbilt next year. Senior guard Jordyn Cambridge is expected to return following a strong season, and All-SEC Freshman honorees Iyana Moore (12.2 points per game) and Sacha Washington (seven) earned valuable experience. With top-100 recruits Ryanne Allen and Amauri Williams entering the mix next fall, Ralph’s team is on the rise.

Missouri’s rocky SEC finish

Aijha Blackwell did not play in three games in the final two weeks of the season, including losses to Kentucky and Georgia. The 6-foot guard leads Missouri in scoring and averaged 31 minutes per game this season, but she played just 11 minutes in Missouri’s 61-52 overtime loss to Arkansas in the first round of the SEC tournament. She remained on the bench in overtime as the Tigers fought to keep their NCAA Tournament hopes alive. A win would have nearly solidified an at-large bid, and yet head coach Robin Pingeton kept Blackwell sidelined.

No matter what was going on behind the scenes, Missouri will now have to wait patiently until Selection Sunday to find out if their 18-12 overall record, 7-9 SEC record, and 70-69 win over No. 1 South Carolina back on Dec. 30 will be enough to send them to the tournament.

Rachel Galligan is a basketball analyst at Just Women’s Sports. A former professional basketball player and collegiate coach, she also contributes to Winsidr. Follow Rachel on Twitter @RachGall.

Caitlin Clark stuns 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 and shouting out the WNBA greats that came before her. She then got in one final dig – bringing him a signed apron as a souvenir. 

When Che promised to give it to his girlfriend, Clark delivered her best line 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 start NWSL season winless, in uncharted territory

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 season, falling 2-0 to the North Carolina Courage and remaining winless through its 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, answers need to be had from 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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