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The Los Angeles Sparks Have Mastered Clutch Time

@CGRAY209

Clinching a playoff spot Sunday, Los Angeles extended its winning streak to nine games. And while the Sparks lost on Monday to Minnesota, the nine-game winning streak was enough to cement their status as championship contenders.

At times, the Sparks have looked dominant. During others, the team has looked mortal. That is, until the last five minutes.

Against an 11th-ranked Atlanta Dream, Los Angeles went down to the wire. If not for some clutch play from Candace Parker, Chelsea Gray, and Britney Sykes, Los Angeles easily could have had its streak snapped. But they didn’t, and it never really felt like the outcome was in doubt. Not only because those players are all elite veterans, or that on paper the Sparks were the better team, or even that their five-time NBA champion head coach Derek Fisher was himself known for his clutch factor. Simply, Los Angeles has dominated clutch time all season.

The WNBA defines clutch time as the last five minutes with the point differential within five. In those games, Los Angeles is 6-2, which is tied with Minnesota for best in the league.

Gray, the Point Gawd, is known for being at her best in clutch moments throughout her career. This season, her usage rate has jumped from 24.5% to 29.9% in clutch time. She is also perfect on three attempts from behind the arc and the team’s leading scorer in clutch time.

The last four games of the streak all required clutch heroics for the Sparks to pull out victories.

First, Parker had to score as time expired to answer a Courtney Williams jumper that put the Dream ahead by two with 3.7 seconds in the teams’ first meeting on August 21st. Then in overtime, Los Angeles outscored Atlanta 12-4 to sneak out with the win. Gray accounted for 10 of those points, including 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions. That close call, though, was just the beginning.

In the next game against Dallas, Sykes made a jumper with 4:30 on the clock to give the Sparks their first lead since late in the second quarter. A 25-15 fourth quarter allowed Los Angeles to escape with an 84-81 win.

The story was remarkably similar against Connecticut, who had a fourth quarter lead but were outscored 21-13 in the final period and lost by four. Gray gave her team its first second half lead with a 3-pointer at 5:01, then doubled down on the next trip down the court. The Sun only made one field goal in the last two minutes as the Sparks put on the clamps.

On Sunday, in a rematch with the Dream, Los Angeles pulled away at the end. Chennedy Carter, in her second game back from an ankle injury that caused her to miss five games, scored 26 on 11-of-19, with 10 points coming in the fourth quarter. Still, Los Angeles bottled up the Atlanta offense when it counted the most. With 5:31 to go, Monique Billings tied the game at 72. Besides a lone Carter layup, the Sparks held the Dream scoreless until 1:01, and opened up an 80-74 lead.

As a team, the Sparks lead the league in points, field goals made, and steals in clutch time. Opponents are turning the ball over more than against any other team, and Los Angeles is coughing the ball up at the second lowest rate in the league. Los Angeles is also second in blocks, field goal percentage, 3-pointers made, and 3-point percentage. The numbers all back up the eye test — in clutch time, no one is better than the Sparks.

At the individual level, Gray and Parker are fifth and sixth on scoring average in clutch time, at 3.4 and 3.0 points per clutch time, respectively. Parker is shooting 9-of-13 from the field in clutch time and Gray is at 10-of-18.

Fisher has also refined his clutch time lineup. In Los Angeles’ 29 clutch minutes this season, which is third highest in the league, Parker has played in all 29 and Gray has played in 28. More importantly, the shots are being fed to those two. Of the team’s 52 clutch-time shots, 31 have been taken by either Parker or Gray. And of the 26 made shots, 19 have come from one of the two.

When Nneka Ogwumike is healthy, she provides a third option that solidifies the clutch rotation. While her shot rate is down — she has shot just four times in the clutch, making two — Los Angeles will need her to be ready down the wire in the playoffs.

The first time, or even the first few times, a Sparks win in clutch time could have been a fluke. But now, after watching Los Angeles win four straight in the final minutes, it seems pretty clear: the Sparks are clutch, and they’re ready for the playoffs.

Sofia Huerta signs contract extension with Seattle through 2027

(Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports)

Former Oregon soccer players detail instances of verbal abuse from former USWNT assistant

(Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard via Imagn Content Services)

Members of the Oregon women’s soccer team are saying they received harsh treatment and even verbal abuse from head coach and former USWNT assistant Graeme Abel. 

During the 2023 season, the team had zero wins, and upon its conclusion a total of 12 of the team’s 29 players departed the team. Former players told The Oregonian that Abel would verbally attack them, threaten to kick them off the team and at times would even throw objects.

"When I’d make a mistake at practice, it felt like he made it a job to embarrass you to the point where you just wanted to walk off the field,” one player said. “He’d stop the practice – and I know it’s college soccer, it’s very competitive — but he’d stop practice and just keep going nonstop on this one thing."

In total, the Oregonian spoke with 14 former players – including 12 who agreed to be interviewed in depth. All said that they experienced verbal abuse. Six of the players were among those who transferred following the season. 

One instance of Abel’s tirades included him throwing a water bottle that narrowly missed players’ heads. 

“He kicked all of our staff out of the locker room, kicked a trash can, threw a white board, sat on the trash can and started screaming,” one player recounted. “He wanted us to tell him what we thought went wrong in the game. Me and another player spoke up, and he said, ‘You’re just (expletive) wrong.’ And that if we didn’t want to be in this program, we could all quit, and he’d sign our release paperwork tomorrow.”

While Abel was not made available for an interview, he did say in a statement that “at no point have I used threatening statements or financial repercussions as a part of coaching.”

Instances of emotional distress stemming from Abel’s alleged harsh treatment date back to 2021 – his first full year leading the team following an abbreviated 2020 campaign.

Other former players contacted by The Oregonian detailed positive overall experiences, and described his style as “normal coaching.”

Others, like USWNT players Becky Sauerbrunn and Lindsey Horan, did not respond to requests for comment, although Sauerbrunn wrote in 2019 that she had a “great relationship” with Abel. 

Still, multiple players interviewed had similar stories, with one saying that girls would be “crying in the locker room” after practice because of what he would tell players. Attempts to speak with the administration about his behavior, players say, was “discouraging.”

“His office is like the scariest place,” one player said. “You’d have to sit there while he’d belittle you and say all these nasty things, and gaslight you into believing you’re not good enough. ... Our team fell apart because of the environment he created. We were just trying to get through the day. There was no way we could focus on soccer.”

Multiple players said they experienced suicidal ideation while playing at Oregon. In part of his statement, Abel wrote that “at no time do we put our student-athletes in any danger.”

Abel is currently in his fifth and final year of his contract at Oregon.

Gotham FC unveil Championship rings ahead of banner reveal

Gotham FC players celebrate Lynn Williams' goal in the first half of the 2023 NWSL Championship. (Ray Acevedo/USA TODAY Sports)

Gotham FC has unveiled their 2023 NWSL championship rings — and safe to say, they deliver.

The reveal has led to a little bit of trash talk ahead of the team’s matchup with Kansas City this weekend, as both teams have NFL owners. While the Current are co-owned by Patrick and Brittany Mahomes, former Giants quarterback Eli Manning is a co-owner of Gotham. 

On Wednesday, Manning took to Sportscenter to give Mahomes a bit of a hard time.

“He may have one more Super Bowl ring than me, but he does not have a NWSL championship ring like I do,” Manning joked.

“Come Sunday night at Red Bull Arena, April 14th, we’re dropping the banner on Kansas City. We got the ring ceremony, the players get their rings and their championship afterwards. This is it, I’ve got something to talk a little trash to him about because I can’t do it about football anymore, I gotta find something else.”

The appearance came after Manning posted to social media, inviting Mahomes to “come see [the championship ring] up close this Sunday.”

Mahomes responded in kind, writing that “we’ll see y’all Sunday!”

Gotham takes on current league-leaders Kansas City on Sunday at 6pm ET. The game is available on NWSL+.

Oregon State hit by transfer portal again as Raegan Beers departs

ALBANY, NEW YORK - MARCH 31: Raegan Beers #15 of the Oregon State Beavers shoots a free throw during the first half against the South Carolina Gamecocks in the Elite 8 round of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament at MVP Arena on March 31, 2024 in Albany, New York. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Oregon State leading scorer and rebounder Raegan Beers announced on Thursday that she is entering the transfer portal. 

"Thank you for all of your endless love and support these past two years," she posted on social media. "I will never forget my time at OSU and I am thankful for the opportunity I had to meet and play with incredible people. My journey as a Beav was a special one and I am grateful for my teammates, coaches, fans, and friends who have changed my life throughout my time here."

A sophomore forward, Beers is a two-time All-Pac-12 selection who averaged 17.5 points per game last season while shooting 66.4 percent from the field. She also added 10.3 rebounds en route to earning third-team All-American honors from the AP. 

She’s the fourth Oregon State starter – and seventh player overall – to hit the portal this offseason. She joins Talia von Oelhoggen and Timea Gardiner in the transfer portal, as well as starting freshman Donovyn Hunter. 

Beers and Gardiner were both top-10 recruits in ESPN rankings coming out of high school. 

With the dissolution of the Pac-12, the program will join the WCC next season and no longer be a part of the Power 5.

Conference realignment is hitting the team hard, with coach Scott Rueck saying during the tournament that he knew it could seriously affect his team moving forward. 

"That's reality," Rueck said. "I can't control that, other than just keep doing what I'm doing. I think the opportunity within that for a leader provides a discipline that you'd better be on your A-game all the time. You'd better take care of people, and you'd better provide a great experience. That's the approach going forward and what happens, happens. We'll find a way."

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