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Unfinished Business: College Hoops Coda

ERIN CHANG/ISI PHOTOS

For one team, and especially one player, 2020 was about unfinished business. Of course, with the abrupt cancellation of March Madness, 2020 left unfinished business for everyone.

But first, that player and that team.

Sabrina Ionescu’s past year was movie material. It started with bringing Oregon to its first Final Four, where they lost to eventual champion Baylor. Then came the surprise announcement that she would play her senior season, putting a WNBA career on hold for one last chance to win a title. Ionescu called it “unfinished business.”

Oregon came into the preseason ranked first overall. They beat Team USA, faltered during a neutral site game against then-No. 8 Louisville, and dropped their first Pac-12 road game against Arizona State. Then, the unthinkable happened. A helicopter crash in LA claimed the lives of Kobe Bryant (a mentor to Ionescu), his daughter and seven others. Somehow, someway, Ionescu managed to play that night, and, when basketball mattered least, she led her team to a season sweep of rival Oregon State.

A month later, Ionescu became the only Division I player to ever record 2,000-points, 1,000 assists, and 1,000 rebounds in a career, only hours after speaking at the Kobe Bryant Memorial in Los Angeles. She played through the flu after flying from LA to Stanford, all while beating the Cardinal on their home court and notching her 26th (and final) career triple double, by far the most in collegiate history.

Storming through the Pac-12 tournament, Ionescu and Oregon confronted Stanford again in the championship, and a year after a heartbreaking loss, doubled down on their regular season conference title, throttling the Cardinal 89-56. Awaiting Oregon on the selection Monday that never came was another No. 1 seed and another opportunity for a Portland regional. Waiting forever, in New Orleans is the stage where Ionescu was supposed to be crowned, where she would finish her business, where the season she dedicated to Bryant was supposed to reach its pinnacle.

At least that’s the ending Hollywood would have written. Now, we’ll never know.

This week, Ionescu was voted the unanimous AP player of the year. She was also a first-team All-American for the third straight year. Ionescu was joined by Ruthy Hebard on the first team and Satou Sabally on the second team. Both their stories deserve a pause.

Hebard finished second on Oregon’s career points list, first in career field goals made, and first in the conference’s all-time field goal percentage. Sabally, just a junior but forever linked to her contemporaries, announced she would forego her senior season to enter the WNBA draft after back-to-back All-American campaigns.

Ionescu will be drafted first into the WNBA (even if it’s not the scheduled April 17 date). Hebard and Sabally will follow in the picks soon after.

But what about the Gamecocks?

Across the country, there’s a team that doesn’t think Oregon was destined for that Hollywood ending anyway.

South Carolina, after all, ended the season ranked atop the AP poll, with 26 first place votes to Oregon’s four. They were the real deal. According to FiveThirtyEight’s model, South Carolina was the only team besides Oregon that was more likely to reach the championship game than not. The two teams combined for a 63-3 record this season, and the Gamecocks had one fewer loss.

Their seniors, Tyasha Harris and Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, were denied the opportunity to end their college career the same way it started — with a national championship. Their outstanding freshmen, Aliyah Boston, Zia Cooke and Brea Beal, will not have the chance to start their own path in a similar fashion.

And this would have been a meeting for the ages.

The first time the Final Four was hosted in New Orleans, the championship game itself went to overtime for the first time in its history. Fans across the country might have been in for an equally thrilling ending had Oregon’s big three and South Carolina’s standout trio of freshmen collided in the Big Easy.

Then again, they don’t call it March Madness for nothing, and it’s likely the games we can’t even imagine that are ultimately the biggest loss, the tournament matchups between Cinderellas and powerhouses that define this time of the year. The chaotic poetry of March Madness is unlike anything else precisely because it can’t be predicted.

History on pause: who’s grateful, who’s not

Notre Dame, which was likely going to miss the tournament, is able to maintain its 24-year streak. UConn, which had reached the Final Four every year since 2008, had its run snapped. (Or was it?)

Baylor was seeking to become the fourth program to ever win back-to-back titles, joining UConn, Tennessee, and USC. Now the Lady Bears will need to wait a year for another opportunity. Only this time, Baylor will be without Lauren Cox, who injured her knee during the championship last year but played the entire 2019-20 season and was named the Big 12 Player of the Year as well as a first-team All-American.

Conferences will also have to wait a year to make their case. The top heavy Pac-12 was fitted to have five teams seeded in the top sixteen. The Big Ten was supposed to send more teams to the NCAA tournament than any other league. And Charlie Creme’s bracketology for ESPN had seven teams from mid-major conferences earning single-digit seeds.

UConn and Stanford, two of the sport’s preeminent programs, each had a special moment on the line. UConn could have sent its senior class off with its first national title, saving the group from becoming the first since the 2004 recruiting class to leave Gampel Pavilion without a ring.

Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer could have matched the legendary Pat Summitt’s career wins mark of 1,098 with an upset to reach the Final Four. Instead, VanDerveer (and UConn’s Geno Auriemma, who is three wins behind VanDerveer) will likely achieve the feat in an early season game next year with much less on the table.

Both coaches, however, will have another shot. The graduating seniors, on the other hand, will not.

March sadness, indeed.

USWNT to face Costa Rica in final Olympic send-off

uswnt sophia smith and tierna davidson celebrate at shebeilves cup 2024
The USWNT will play their final pre-Olympic friendly against Costa Rica on July 16th. (Photo by Greg Bartram/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

U.S. Soccer announced Tuesday that the USWNT will play their last home game on July 16th in the lead-up to the 2024 Summer Olympic Games in Paris.

The 2024 Send-Off Match against Costa Rica will take place at Washington, DC’s Audi Field — home to both the Washington Spirit and DC United — at 7:30 p.m. ET on Tuesday, July 16th. The friendly rounds out a four-game Olympic run-up campaign under incoming head coach Emma Hayes’ side, with the last two set to feature the finalized 2024 U.S. Olympic Women’s Soccer Team roster.

Hayes will appear on the USWNT sideline for the first time this June, helming the team as they embark on a two-game series against Korea Republic hosted by Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colorado on June 1st followed by Allianz Stadium in St. Paul, Minnesota on June 4th. 

The team is then scheduled to meet a talented Mexico squad on July 13th at Gotham FC’s Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey, where the Olympic-bound lineup will attempt to rewrite February’s shocking 2-0 loss to El Tri Femenil in the group stages of this year’s Concacaf W Gold Cup. And while clear roster favorites have emerged from both of this year’s Gold Cup and SheBelives Cup rosters, a spate of recent and recurring injuries means making it to the Olympics is still largely anyone’s game.

Broadcast and streaming channels for the USWNT's final July 16th friendly at Audi Field include TNT, truTV, Universo, Max, and Peacock.

Caitlin Clark’s WNBA start to serve as 2024 Olympic tryout

Clark of the Indiana Fever poses for a photo with Lin Dunn and Christie Sides during her introductory press conference on April 17, 2024
The talented Fever rookie is still in the running for a ticket to this summer's Paris Olympics. (Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images)

The USA Basketball Women's National Team is still considering Caitlin Clark for a spot on the Paris Olympics squad, says selection committee chair Jennifer Rizzotti. 

On Monday, Rizzotti told the AP that the committee will be evaluating the college phenom’s Olympic prospects by keeping a close eye on her first few weeks of WNBA play with Indiana.

The move is somewhat unconventional. While Clark was invited to participate in the 14-player national team training camp held earlier this month — the last camp before Team USA’s roster drops — she was unable to attend due to it coinciding with Iowa’s trip to the NCAA Women’s Final Four.

Judging by the immense talent spread throughout the league in what might be their most hyped season to date, competition for a piece of the Olympic pie could be fiercer than ever before.

"You always want to introduce new players into the pool whether it's for now or the future," said Rizzotti. "We stick to our principles of talent, obviously, positional fit, loyalty and experience. It's got to be a combination of an entire body of work. It's still not going to be fair to some people."

Of course, Clark isn’t the first rookie the committee has made exceptions for. Coming off an exceptional college season that saw her averaging 19.4 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 4 assists per game for UConn, Breanna Stewart was tapped to represent the U.S. at the 2016 Olympics in Brazil less than two weeks after being drafted No. 1 overall by the Seattle Storm. Eight years prior, fellow No. 1 pick Candace Parker punched her ticket to the 2008 Games in Beijing just two weeks after making her first appearance for the L.A. Sparks.

In the lead-up to Paris’ Opening Ceremony on July 26th, USA Basketball Women’s National Team is scheduled to play a pair of exhibition games. They'll first go up against the WNBA's finest at the July 20th WNBA All-Star Game in Phoenix before facing Germany in London on July 23rd.

While an official roster announcement date hasn’t yet been issued, players won’t find out if they’ve made this year’s Olympic cut until at least June 1st.

WNBA teams make history with 2024 season ticket sell-outs

Arike Ogunbowale on the wnba court for the dallas wings
The Dallas Wings are now the third team to sell out their entire season ticket allotment in WNBA history. (Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images)

For the first time in history, three different WNBA teams have completely sold out of season ticket plans well before the league's May 14th kick-off.

Call it the Caitlin Clark effect, attribute it to this year’s tenacious rookie class, or look to the skyrocketing visibility of veteran players across the board. But no matter the cause, facts are facts: Tickets to the 2024 WNBA season are selling like never before. 

On Monday, the Dallas Wings became the third team to sell out of season ticket memberships in the league’s 27-year history. The announcement from Arlington came shortly after the Atlanta Dream issued their own season ticket sell-out statement, also on Monday, and almost seven weeks after the back-to-back WNBA Champion Las Vegas Aces made headlines by becoming the first-ever WNBA team to sell out their season ticket allotment.   

According to the Wings, season ticket memberships will fill nearly 40% of the 6,251 seats inside their home arena, College Park Center. The club also said that their overall ticket revenue has ballooned to the tune of 220% this year, spanning not just season tickets but also a 1,200% increase in single ticket sales. There’s currently a waitlist to become a Dallas season ticket holder, a status that comes with extra incentives like playoff presale access and discounts on additional single-game tickets. 

In Atlanta, season tickets aren't the only thing flying off the shelves. The Dream also announced that they broke their own record for single-game ticket sales during a recent limited presale campaign. Sunday was reportedly their most lucrative day, with five different games totally selling out Gateway Center Arena. Individual tickets for all upcoming matchups will hit the market this Thursday at 8 a.m., while a waitlist for season ticket memberships will open up next Tuesday at 10 a.m.

"Excitement around women's sports, particularly basketball, is at an all-time high and nowhere is that felt more than here in Atlanta," Dream president and COO Morgan Shaw Parker said in the team’s statement. "We’ve continued a record-setting growth trajectory over the past three years under new ownership — both on and off the court — and 2024 is shaping up to be our best season yet."

As of Tuesday, season ticket sales revenue for Caitlin Clark’s hotly anticipated Indiana Fever debut haven’t yet been announced by the club. But if these numbers are any indication — not to mention the explosive demand for Fever away games felt by teams around the country — it won’t be long before we see some scale-tipping figures coming out of Indianapolis.

Nelly Korda ties LPGA record with fifth-straight tournament win

Nelly Korda of the United States celebrates with the trophy after winning The Chevron Championship
Nelly Korda poses with her trophy after acing her fifth-straight tour title at The Chevron Championship on Sunday. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

25-year-old American pro golfer Nelly Korda secured her spot in LPGA history on Sunday, notching her fifth-straight title at this weekend's Chevron Championship in The Woodlands, Texas.

Ranked No. 1 in the world by Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings, Korda joins Nancy Lopez (1978) and Annika Sörenstam (2005) as just the third LPGA player to rack up five consecutive tour wins. She is also the third No. 1-ranked player to capture The Chevron Championship victory since the rankings debuted in 2006, accompanied by Lorena Ochoa and Lydia Ko.

The Florida native shot three-under 69 in Sunday's final, besting Sweden's Maja Stark despite Stark's valiant come-from-behind attempt in the 18th. Korda finished with a four-day total of 13-under 275, celebrating her two-stroke win by cannonballing into Poppie's Pond, much to the crowd's delight. She left The Club at Carlton Woods with $1.2 million from an overall purse of $7.9 million.

It wasn't long ago that the two-time major champion's current winning streak seemed unimaginable. After maintaining her No. 1 position for 29 weeks, Korda underwent surgery to remove a blood clot from her left arm in 2022. She returned to the course not long after, but failed to win a single tournament in 2023 before seeing a surge in form during the first four months of 2024. As of today, she hasn't lost a tournament since January.

Korda will attempt a record sixth-straight win at next week's JM Eagle LA Championship at Wilshire Country Club in Los Angeles, where she'll vie for a cut of the $3.75 million purse.

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