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With the ‘Fab Four’ freshmen, South Carolina basketball is in good hands

South Carolina’s freshman class: No. 23 Bree Hall, No. 20 Sania Feagin, No. 44 Saniya Rivers and No. 25 Raven Johnson. (South Carolina Athletics)

When Bree Hall’s parents dropped her off at college, they didn’t cry. Neither did she. Everyone knew she was in good hands, and South Carolina had felt like home long before she stepped on campus.

“There was just so much confidence in where I was, there was nothing to cry about,” Hall says.

Hall was walking into a situation that would make any basketball player jealous. First, there’s the history of the Gamecocks women’s basketball program: a national title in 2017 and three Final Fours in the past seven years. Then there’s the present: a team with talented, experienced players like Aliyah Boston, Zia Cooke and Destanni Henderson, poised for a run at the national championship. And the future: at least seven more years of head coach Dawn Staley, whose value is priced at $22.4 million, but even that might be an undersell.

And if all of that isn’t enough to put a young hooper’s mind at ease, Hall and South Carolina’s three other freshmen can turn to a group chat affectionately named “The Fab Four.”

Staley eventually gave the moniker to South Carolina’s freshmen class, made up of Hall, Raven Johnson, Saniya Rivers and Sania Feagin. The nickname is a perfect description for the top-ranked recruiting class in women’s basketball this season, but when they started talking via text, the Fab Four wasn’t even the Fab Four yet. They were four high school seniors trying to weigh their options and pick the correct team and school.

Staley encouraged the players to talk even before they signed with the Gamecocks. The recruiting process can be an intimidating one. And unless a recruit has parents or siblings who went through the same thing, it can be isolating.

So Staley had a message for the recruits she hoped would one day become Gamecocks: Talk to each other, and help each other find the right fit, even if it’s not South Carolina.

“We all looked at our offers together and started doing pros and cons lists,” Rivers says.

Eventually, one school came out on top, and it was the same for all four of them.

“Next thing you know, we all committed at about the same time,” Rivers says.

When they did, the nickname came about, and Rivers, Feagin, Hall and Johnson renamed their group chat to reflect their newfound South Carolina identity.

Together they are Staley’s Fab Four, but separately, they are four individuals whose twists and turns led them down the same path.

Raven Johnson

There are two key pieces to Raven Johnson’s personality. The country’s No. 2-rated freshman (and No. 1 point guard) describes herself as a girly-girl who is also fiercely competitive. The first piece made her think she would hate basketball, and the second made her fall in love with the game.

“I was like, basketball is a boy’s sport. It’s too rough,” she says with a laugh. “But my grandpa told me, ‘You’re just not gonna do no cheerleading.’ ”

Raven’s grandfather took her and her twin brother, Richard, to the gym, where they played one-on-one. In that moment, Johnson’s competitive streak took over. She realized that she wanted to win, but not at just anything: She wanted to win at basketball.

“I was like, ‘Yeah, basketball is the sport for me,’ ” she says.

This year, however, Johnson will be playing cheerleader for her team after sustaining a season-ending knee injury against South Dakota on Friday.

But Gamecock fans might want to keep an eye on the sidelines to see what kind of street clothes Johnson is sporting. Because before she was one of the Fab Four, Johnson had another nickname, and it’s one she still uses: Hollywood.

During one of her first AAU practices as a tween, Johnson walked into the gym fresh off of a shopping spree at Justice.

“I was wearing glittery shoes — I think they were Chuck Taylors — glittery pants and a matching jacket to go with it. I just thought I was cute,” says the Atlanta native. “They took one look at me and said, ‘Yeah, your nickname is gonna be Hollywood.’ ”

She’s not wearing Justice anymore, but Johnson still embodies her nickname, so much so that she even has it in her Twitter handle. Hollywood likes anything beauty-related, she says. Lately she’s upgraded from Justice to Fashion Nova and takes pride in mixing up her look.

“I can go from wearing a dress to sweats and a cute little crop top,” she says. “I can wear pretty much anything as long as my hair is done and my face looks cute.”

Saniya Rivers

One of the first Christmas gifts Saniya Rivers remembers getting was a Fisher Price basketball hoop. The sport, she says, is in her blood. Her older sister Nanna Rivers played at North Carolina State, her dad played for a few years at Elon and her mom was a standout at UNC- Wilmington.

Rivers grew up in Wilmington, the town where Michael Jordan famously didn’t make his varsity team. So Rivers has been attached to basketball since the beginning, and it to her.

The No. 4 freshmen in the country received her first scholarship offer — from South Carolina — when she was in eighth grade.

Rivers was playing AAU for a team that coaches didn’t really have their eyes on, but she was tearing it up. On the last day of the tournament, Rivers was playing in the championship game and recognized Staley sitting in the front row.

“We ended up losing, but I got a phone call later that night with the offer, so that was big,” Rivers says.

For Rivers, South Carolina is step one in a plan she’s had since about the time she received that first offer. She has a love-hate relationship with her hometown. She’s received great support from people, but she’s also dealt with others trying to bring her down.

“All I’ve ever wanted growing up was to make it out and go to college and make it to the pro leagues,” Rivers says. “I want to give back to my city when I make it.”

Sania Feagin

For Sania Feagin, the choice to go to South Carolina wasn’t something she needed to think about; it was something she just knew was right.

“I put my trust to the Lord, and he guided me to where he felt was best for me,” she says.

Feagin grew up with faith and family as the cornerstones of her life. And through the two, basketball came naturally. When she was a young kid, her parents — who both competed collegiately — would play in various rec leagues, and when they finished, Feagin would run onto the court to get as many shots up as she could before they packed up and went home.

“I was ball-happy,” she says of her first days playing. “I would get it and just take off. I wanted to score.”

And basketball didn’t go away when they left the gym. Some of Feagin’s favorite memories are of playing in her driveway with her entire family — parents, siblings and even cousins. They’d play knockout, war, or adults vs. kids matchups. And even with a family full of collegiate athletes, they knew when to turn the competition off.

“Those games were always just fun,” Feagin says. “It was never doing nothing too much. We just had a good time.”

When she’s with her family, Feagin keeps things relatively low-key. Outside of basketball, one of her preferred hobbies is babysitting her 1-year-old nephew.

“When I was taking care of him before I came to school, he was so small and he would cry all the time,” she says. “He couldn’t even crawl. Now he barely even cries. He’s running around. He’s a handful.”

Bree Hall

When she was 6, Hall remembers playing sports with the kids in her neighborhood. It didn’t matter what the game was, because she loved them all. But when she picked up a basketball, parents and local coaches noticed. Hall was just having fun, but to those adults, she had a future in the game.

So as she grew, her dad, Bryan, started taking her to the gym to run drills. Unlike her fellow freshmen, who grew up with basketball players for parents, Bryan was just a helping hand and cheerleader for his daughter, the No. 14-ranked freshman this season.

“He was absolutely not a basketball player,” Bree says with a laugh. “He was that guy at the Y or the nearby gym that you would call, like, your local LeBron, but he never even played in high school.”

South Carolina first piqued the Ohio native’s interest when she was a sophomore in high school. Her AAU teammate, Zia Cooke, had committed to the Gamecocks, so Hall visited the school.

“I watched them play against UConn and they ended up winning,” Hall says. “And [Henderson’s] family was there, and they sat me down and gave me some good advice about the recruiting process and about how this was probably the place for me.”

The future of South Carolina

Once the Fab Four officially committed to South Carolina, the fun started.

They texted about serious things, like the COVID-19 pandemic that had marked all of their high school careers, but mostly the chat remained light-hearted.

“Before we had that group chat, we didn’t really know each other,” Hall says. “But before we got to campus, we were all so excited, talking about what colors we were going to have in our rooms and where we could get our nails and hair done.”

Hall, Feagin and Rivers live together, while Johnson lives with sophomore Kamilla Cardoso, her former AAU teammate who, as a transfer from Syracuse, is also new to the team.

Last year, the four freshmen watched as South Carolina made its way to the Final Four and lost a nail-biter to Stanford. They all agreed that watching the Gamecocks was surreal, and found themselves switching back and forth between cheering on their future teammates and trying to analyze where they might fit in on the court.

When they got to campus, fitting in with their teammates socially was a breeze. The Gamecocks like to listen to music together, have movie nights and occasionally break into ultra-competitive rounds of UNO.

“It’s not just on the court,” Rivers says. “Cards get thrown. It gets ridiculous.”

But transitioning from high school and even AAU ball to college basketball proves to be a lot more difficult than fitting in with a new group of friends.

But you don’t go to South Carolina expecting to easily slide into playing time.

“I’m going to be honest, high school and college are two different types of ball games,” says Johnson, who won four straight state championships at Westlake High School. “You have one or two players on the team who are really, really good, but in college the pace is different. You got more players, the whole team is good.”

Many skills players could pull off in high school suddenly don’t work in college. Rivers, for example, said she’s in the process of changing her shot because she noticed it getting blocked too much during preseason practices.

Until Johnson went down with a knee injury, she, Rivers, Feagin and Hall — four five-star recruits who had their pick of programs — were all fighting for a sliver of game action.

Because even before signing the best class in the country, South Carolina was already stacked. The Gamecocks not only returned their starting five, but also their sixth and seventh players off the bench. And they added the 6-7 Cardoso, one of the most sought-after transfers in the offseason.

So yeah, this is a whole different ball game, but it’s one the freshman class is ready for. They all know what coming to a program like South Carolina means. It’s not about instant college stardom, but the opportunity to play for a legendary coach and to compete with some of the country’s best players.

“I enjoy it because nothing is going to come easy,” Feagin says. “I know I’m going to have to work hard. Like for me, going against Aliyah [Boston] in practice every day is going to push me. Because she is bigger, stronger and more experienced than me. So that is going to make me a better me.”

Before long, Feagin will play the role of Boston for a new recruit. So will Rivers, Johnson and Hall. For now, they’re a group of talented freshmen. But soon, South Carolina basketball will belong to the Fab Four.

Eden Laase is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports. She previously ran her own high school sports website in Michigan after covering college hockey and interning at Sports Illustrated. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.

Caitlin Clark dunks on Michael Che 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. Clark finished her segment by shouting out the WNBA greats that came before her. She then got in one final dig – bringing Che a signed apron as a souvenir. 

When Che promised to give it to his girlfriend, Clark delivered her last playful dig 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, in uncharted territory, start NWSL season winless

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 NWSL season, falling 2-0 to the North Carolina Courage over the weekend to remain winless through their 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, attention turns to 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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